The Idaho stop is the common name for a law that allows cyclists to treat a stop sign as a yield sign, and a red light as a stop sign. It first became law in Idaho in 1982, but has not been adopted elsewhere.
A limited form of the law called ‘Stop as Yield,’ that deals only with stop signs, has expanded to parts of Colorado and been considered in several other states. Advocates argue that current law criminalizes normal cycling behavior, and that the Idaho stop makes cycling easier and safer and places the focus where it should be: on yielding the right-of-way. Lawmakers in many states and cities have attempted to pass similar laws.
Many states have laws allowing cyclists (and motorcyclists) to stop at and then proceed through a red light if the light doesn’t change due to the inability of the embedded sensors in the ground to detect them. Such laws often require that the cyclist stop, confirm that there is no oncoming traffic, and proceed after waiting a certain amount of time or cycles of the light.
The original Idaho yield law was introduced as Idaho HB 541 during a comprehensive revision of Idaho Traffic laws in 1982. At that time, minor traffic offenses were criminal offenses and there was a desire to downgrade many of these to ‘civil public offenses’ to free up docket time. Carl Bianchi, then the Administrative Director of the Courts in Idaho, saw an opportunity to attach a modernization of the bicycle law onto the larger revision of the traffic code.
He drafted a new bicycle code that would more closely conform with the Uniform Vehicle Code, and included new provisions allowing cyclists to take the lane, or to merge left, when appropriate. Addressing the concerns of the state’s magistrates, who were concerned that ‘technical violations’ of traffic control device laws by cyclists were cluttering the court, the draft also contained a provision that allowed cyclists to treat a stop sign as a yield sign—the so-called ‘rolling stop law.’ The new bicycle law passed in 1982, despite objections among some cyclists and law enforcement officers.
In 2006, the law was modified to specify that cyclists must stop on red lights and yield before proceeding straight through the intersection, and before turning left at an intersection. This had been the original intent, but Idaho law enforcement officials wanted it specified. The law originally passed with an education provision, but that was removed in 1988 because ‘youthful riders quickly adapted to the new system and had more respect for a law that legalized actual riding behavior.’
The term ‘Idaho Stop’ came into use as a result of the California effort in 2008. Prior to that, it was called ‘Idaho Style’ or ‘Roll-and-go.’ ‘Idaho Stop’ was first used by the bicycle blogger Richard Masoner in June 2008 coverage of the San Francisco proposal, but in reference to the ‘Idaho Stop Law.’ In August of the same year, the term – now in quotes – first showed up in print in a ‘Christian Science Monitor’ article by Ben Arnoldy who referred to the ‘so-called ‘Idaho stop’ rule.’ Soon after the term was commonly being used as a noun, not a modifier.
Advocates for Idaho stop laws argue that they improve safety. Two studies have shown that it is measurably safer. One study reported that it resulted in 14% fewer crashes and another that Idaho has less severe crashes. Similarly, tests of a modified form of the Idaho Stop in Paris ‘found that allowing the cyclists to move more freely cut down the chances of collisions with cars, including accidents involving the car’s blind spot.’ And, less definitively, a study of rolling stops in Seattle determined that ‘these results support the theoretical assertion that bicyclists are capable of making safe decisions regarding rolling stop,’ while a 2013 survey of stop as yield in Colorado localities where it is legal reported no increase in crashes.
Another study done in Chicago showed that compliance with stop signs and stop lights by cyclists was low when cross-traffic was not present, but that most were still performing an Idaho Stop; and therefore ‘enforcing existing rules at these intersections would seem arbitrary and capacious(sic).’ Some supporters maintain that changing the legal duties of cyclists provides direction to law enforcement to focus attention where it belongs—on unsafe cyclists (and motorists). Additionally, some claim that, because bicycle laws should be designed to allow cyclists to travel swiftly and easily, the Idaho stop provision allows for the conservation of energy.
Opponents of the law maintain that a uniform, unambiguous set of laws that apply to all road users is easier for children to understand and allowing cyclists to behave by a separate set of rules than drivers makes them less predictable and thus, less safe. Jack Gillette, former president of the Boise Bicycle Commuters Association, argued that bicyclists should not have greater freedoms than drivers. ‘Bicyclists want the same rights as drivers, and maybe they should have the same duties,’ he said. San Francisco Mayor Edwin M. Lee argued that the law ‘directly endangers pedestrians and cyclists’ in his veto of a similar law in his city.
In 2012, a decree in Paris allowed cyclists in that city to turn right or, if there is no street to the right, proceed straight ahead on red, under the condition that they ‘exercise caution’ and yield to pedestrians, after road safety experts deemed the measure would cut road accidents. During the summer of 2015, Paris law was modified to allow cyclists to treat certain stop lights as yield signs as allowed by signage. The change only applied to right turns or going straight at a T-junction.