3 Reasons Why Andy Kerr’s “Safety Stop” Bike Bill Makes Sense

Photo: David Sachs
Photo: David Sachs

State Senator Andy Kerr of Lakewood has introduced a bill [PDF] that would legalize two things people on bikes often do to stay safe: Carefully roll through stop signs, and travel through red traffic signals, after stopping, when there’s no cross-traffic.

To many people who don’t bike, this bill may seem like a bad idea. Why shouldn’t drivers and bicyclists follow the same traffic laws? But there are good reasons the law should acknowledge the huge differences between enclosed, multi-ton cars and light, unencumbered bicycles. Below is a breakdown of why the “safety stop” law, as Kerr calls it, makes a lot of sense.

You can sign up to speak at the Senate Transportation Committee hearing at the Capitol (Tuesday, February 7, at 1:30 p.m., room 352), or write the committee members.

1. It’s safer, according to years of data.

Idaho was the first state to adopt a similar law more than 30 years ago. Multiple studies indicate that intersections are safer because of it. One found a nearly 15 percent drop in the rate of bike injuries after legislators adopted the “Idaho stop.”

State Senator Andy Kerr
State Senator Andy Kerr

One explanation for the effect is that when bike riders can get a head start at intersections, they become more visible to the drivers behind them. That helps avoid collisions in which the driver turns across the path of a cyclist in the car’s blind spot.

Bike riders also have a better vantage point than drivers to assess proceeding through stop signs and signals because “their unenclosed and exposed position in the road allows them to see, hear, smell, and sense vibrations and assess the safety of an intersection,” according to a 2014 white paper by the Mayor’s Bicycle Advisory Committee (MBAC).

Plus people on bikes are more stable while moving forward than when stationary. “A cyclist who comes to a complete stop, has a foot on their ground, and is trying to get going again, you’ll see them wobble and swerve a little bit and they’re probably looking down at their pedals,” said Dan Grunig, executive director of Bicycle Colorado. “Whereas when they’re rolling and continuing their momentum, their eyes are up, they’re looking around, they’re paying attention to what’s going on at intersections.”

Bicycle Colorado and BikeDenver both support Kerr’s bill.

2. The “safety stop” has a long track record.

Summit County, the towns of Dillon and Breckenridge, the City of Aspen, and the entire state of Idaho have all passed a version of Kerr’s proposal. The sky did not fall.

MBAC members interviewed officials from those jurisdictions and found that the “safety stop” rule just made common sense, because it “align[s] the city traffic code with actual behavior”:

A primary basis for the [Summit County] change was recognition of the fact that most cyclists do not stop at traffic control stop indicators, making enforcement a problem. The ordinance recites that: “fundamental differences between non-motorized and motorized vehicles as authorized modes of transportation sharing public roadway may sometimes warrant the adoption of traffic regulations that reasonably accommodate such differences…”

By focusing education and enforcement efforts on dangerous riding practices — the cases in which cyclists do not yield to cars, pedestrians, and other bicycles with the right of way — the City would be better able to influence that behavior, cultivate an attitude that respects all traffic regulations, and conserve its law enforcement resources.

3. This is not about “bikes versus cars.”

Laws already acknowledge that the same traffic signal can mean different things in different contexts. For example, drivers can turn right on red when no one’s around but not when another driver is approaching the intersection on a cross street, or when pedestrians are present in the crosswalk. Under the law, drivers have discretion to proceed through a red only when the coast is clear.

Likewise, under the safety stop law, cyclists would only be allowed to proceed when no one else has the right of way.

“Enforcement can’t be everywhere so we rely on people to follow the rules, and most of the time folks default to common sense,” Grunig said. “A bicyclist still has to stop if there is anybody else at the intersection [under the potential law]. It does not change the right of way rules. You still need to yield to everyone else and come to a complete stop if there’s others at the intersection.”

In 2014, Denver PD was “concerned that bicycling’s legitimacy is based upon bicycles being treated exactly the same as motorists, and obeying all of the same rules,” according to the MBAC report. But “MBAC’s interviews with officials from other jurisdictions did not reveal this to be a problem.”

  • ecycled

    Excellent post David. Thank you.

  • David B

    As a bike commuter, I’m more than a little wary of this. The League of American Cyclists is too:

    For one thing, I’m not sure that studies or safety records for Boise, let along small mountain towns are going to be a useful predictive model for Denver.
    I’d also be terrified if we decided to “align” traffic laws with the behavior of drivers–why is that a reasonable justification for cyclists?

    Of all the possible pro-cyclist legislation that could be enacted in Colorado, this would be much lower on my list than many of the other items that Streets Blog has suggested and championed.

    • Ryan Keeney

      I would say the critical difference here is that more responsibility should be on motorists because they are controlling a multi-ton vehicle that can and does often kill, whereas bicyclists are not threatening the life of anybody.

      Furthermore coming to a full complete stop at every single stop sign on a bicycle is simply not practical. It is a lot easier to press a brake and gas pedal in a car than it is to get a stationary bike going again. If vigorously enforced the current law would dissuade many from cycling. As it is currently rarely enforced, a disrespect for traffic laws among bicyclists in general is fostered.

      Lastly there is no possible harm to switching from ‘stop’ to ‘yield’. If a bicyclist fails to yield, they are at fault in an accident. Why should it be mandatory to always stop even when there is no vehicular conflict?

      Edit: Also there appears to be momentum behind this bill in the statehouse. My own state representative has said he will also vote for this bill. Why not get behind it?

      • David B

        I think “no possible harm” is a stretch–especially since you posit a bike accident in the next sentence, which is likely to involve harm. Coming to a full stop gives you the time to assess the intersection, and make sure you’re not going to crash into a pedestrian you didn’t see before, or a silent hybrid car that you didn’t hear. You’re approaching the intersection with the intent of stopping, not of rolling through it and trying to make a last-second decision about whether you can make it or not. It’s not just the cyclist’s safety in question. A bike can easily injure a pedestrian, and if a driver swerves to avoid you, they could seriously injure themselves or others. Is it worth that risk just so we can coast through an intersection?

        And I’m going to argue that coming to a complete stop on a bike is absolutely practical–and good exercise. I have 30 full stops on my commute, and I come to a complete stop for every single one of them. If you doubt me, I keep a rolling month’s worth of helmet cam footage–pick any day and spot check me. I’ve been riding into downtown year-round since ’97, and stopping for every stop sign and red light the entire time. In that time, you better believe I’ve seen plenty of bikes blow past me at a stop. I can only think of a handful that I didn’t subsequently pass again within a few blocks–so don’t think you’re saving any time, you’re just not getting a good workout. Seriously, there’s almost no effort involved in getting back up to cruising speed (at least there isn’t if your muscles are used to it). Isn’t this partly why we ride, rather than sitting our fat butt in a car/bus seat? Even if it’s not why you ride, that’s not a compelling argument on its own; safety is.

        I see a lot of arguments in favor of this that revolve around convenience for cyclists. I’m not against that, certainly, but we have laws to keep people safe, not to keep them from being inconvenienced.

        • Ryan Keeney

          It seems to me that you must be extremely physically fit. For me, coming to a full stop represents significant effort. I am usually pretty tired at the end of any given bike ride I take. I don’t ride to have a huge workout, I ride to be generally healthier by not sitting inactively in a car and enjoy the outdoors. Stopping also does constitute lost time on my own terms when not comparing it to a super-fit individual like yourself who can easily pass most other cyclists.

          Furthermore, I do not just blow through stop signs. I always slow sufficiently to be able to look both ways and judge that the traffic is clear.

          I would also like to know why you don’t think the data from Boise is applicable to Denver. Sure Denver is bigger, but I don’t see why that matters regarding this issue. .

          • David B

            I know it’s all relative, but I know people who are extremely fit, and I’m a limp noodle compared to them. For reference, my average speed is 12-13mph over my whole commute. But even so, I can reach downtown faster by bike–while strictly observing traffic laws–than I can in a car, when I’m forced to drive by circumstance.

            It’s easy to pass red light hoppers without riding crazy fast because I ride with the light timing instead of against it, which puts me at cruising speed, riding the wave of green lights, and I catch up to the people who’ve been slow-yielding red lights while they’re still trying to get back up to speed. At least downtown and surrounding areas, the light timing is very predictable, and designed for steady flow–trying to “get ahead” of that system just doesn’t work very well, which I guess would be another concern I have for one of the alleged safety benefits to this law. My observation is that if you ride with the green lights, you’re traveling at the same speed as surrounding traffic, rather than being overtaken by it as I frequently see with the red-light hoppers.

            Stop signs are a different question; you probably do save time slow-yielding at them. But my concern with making a safety decision while moving still applies. I’m not comfortable doing it even in my quiet neighborhood after 20 years of commuting (rather, especially after 20 years of seeing near misses when I’m being as careful as I can).

            Regarding data from Boise–I haven’t driven in Idaho in a couple of years, but the last time I drove there, I found the drivers much more consistent than in Colorado. We’ve had a huge influx from other states, so we have fast, aggressive coastal-state drivers weaving around slow, timid farm-state drivers. Then you have pot tourists on foot mixed in with office workers (downtown, at least) who aggressively jaywalk/cross against red lights.

            I am curious if home-rule cities can override this or not, if it does pass. I’m also curious what the plans are for education & communication about the new law if it does pass–there doesn’t appear to be any provision for that in the bill itself. It seems like that should be a serious consideration.

          • Ryan Keeney

            I guess at the heart of the matter is that this law gives cyclists more freedom and more responsibility. If this passes, you can still choose to always stop. You don’t have to modify your behavior. But I would bet that a large majority of cyclists yield through stop signs and would like the law to reflect that.

  • mattlogan

    I will be calling my state senator, Vicki Marble, shortly, to discuss her policy of collective punishment for all bicyclists for the poor behavior of one.