I’ll be the first to admit that I ride right through 4 stop signs in on my morning commute across I-90 (sometimes I slow down…sometimes I don’t). In the afternoon, I blow through so many stop signs on the Burke-Gilman trail that I can’t even count them. When this topic comes up, I usually hasten to add that I always stop at stop lights, as if that redeems my blatantly illegal stop sign flaunting.
I know the law; RCW 46.61.190 states quite clearly,
(2) Except when directed to proceed by a duly authorized flagger, or a police officer, or a firefighter vested by law with authority to direct, control, or regulate traffic, every driver of a vehicle approaching a stop sign shall stop at a clearly marked stop lineSince bicyclists are drivers of vehicles (RCW 46.04.670), this law clearly applies to us. Yet if you’re like me, you have probably rolled through your share of stop signs, too. And odds are, like me, you don’t feel particularly guilty about those illegal non-stops, either -- even if the behavior outrages motorists a little bit.
Why is stopping, or not stopping, at a stop sign such a big deal? There has been plenty of discussion about why (here, here, and here [PDF], for starters). As fellow bicyclists, you probably already have an answer ready, and I bet your answer runs along these lines: It all comes down to momentum, an issue that doesn’t even register on the radar of motorists or even most pedestrians. Bicyclists crave momentum, hoard it, and release it only under duress. Stopping at stop signs, particularly at completely empty intersections at the bottom of big hills, kills our momentum and makes us work hard to get going again. This rubs us the wrong way, particularly at empty intersections.
However, few topics divide cyclists more quickly than what to do around stop signs. That means there's an entire contingent of vehicular cyclists who say that the law is clear: Bicyclists should "drive" their pedal-powered vehicles the same as they would a motor vehicle, including coming to a full and complete stop* when traffic control devices mandate it. Additionally, there are other concerns around riding through stop signs: It makes cyclists unpredictable and thus more prone to collisions with other vehicles; it infuriates motorists and increases ill-will between motorists and cyclists (see, for example, here, here, and here); it makes the cyclist more likely to hit pedestrians in crosswalks; the reasons and concerns go on.
This brings us to the question of what we should do about this issue. The law clearly doesn’t reflect reality, and many cyclists would argue that the law shouldn’t apply to us for various reasons. Alternatives such as the Idaho stop have received plenty of discussion, but our strict stop-at-stop-signs law remains on the books. Should the Bicycle Alliance pursue an Idaho stop law (the BTA's 2009 effort to implement such a law in Oregon failed), or some other alternative? Should bicyclists more strictly adhere to the law if only to forestall motorists’ eternal complaining about “those law-breaking bicyclists,” since our casual attitude toward stopping always comes out as the first piece of evidence against us?
I know this discussion has only scratched the surface of the issues surrounding stop signs. I’m interested to hear your thoughts on the topic. Do you stop every time? Should you have to?
* We won’t even get into whether you have to put your foot down or if a track stand counts as a complete stop.
Stop sign image courtesy of FreeFoto.com.