Bicycles, stop signs, and scofflaw motorists

March 13, 2023

An all-way stop sign at an intersection of residential city streets.

What do you do at an all-way stop? Three things:

  1. Let any pedestrians who are crossing the street go first.
  2. Let any traffic that got to the intersection before you, and that is crossing your path, go first.
  3. Come to a complete stop, regardless of whether there are pedestrians and cross traffic.

On a bicycle or scooter, #1 and #2 still make sense, but #3 doesn’t.

Walking, the most fundamental, slowest form of transport, deserves priority. And when you have a large number of people moving through a space—even if they’re all on bikes, as with a busy intersection of two trails—taking turns makes sense.

But coming to a complete stop is far less justifiable when you’re not in a car. The car driver has far less visibility around them, has less ability to hear people approaching the intersection, and does more damage if they hit somebody because their 5,390 pound car1, going as little as 3 miles per hour, has three times the momentum of a 200 pound bike+rider going 25 miles per hour.

And in particular, a bicycle rider who comes to a complete stop will be going much slower when they do enter the intersection, making it harder to avoid collision when a driver goes out of turn or fails to stop. A complete stop can actually put you more at risk.

That’s probably why states that adopted “bicycle stop as yield” laws, aka “Idaho stop” or “safety stop,” saw improvements in safety.

Unfortunately, in California car dominance has powerful allies, and our state has failed to pass such a common-sense law. Assembly Member Tasha Boerner Horvath’s AB 73 currently aims to move in that direction. It’s her third attempt to fix this bad law, with each iteration having been more limited in scope than the last.

Mayors and governors block progress

In 2016, San Francisco’s Mayor Ed Lee vetoed a bicycle stop-as-yield ordinance after it passed the Board of Supervisors 6-5, championed by Supervisor John Avalos. The votes in favor included then-Supervisor, now-Mayor London Breed. It might be worth trying again, since Governor Gavin Newsom has stymied efforts at the state level.

In 2021, Newsom vetoed AB 122, a bicycle stop-as-yield law introduced by Boerner Horvath with support from SF’s Phil Ting and Scott Wiener. Newsom’s veto message called the bill “especially concerning for children, who may not know how to judge vehicle speeds or exercise the necessary caution to yield to traffic when appropriate.”

While no data supported this emotional appeal to children, Boerner Horvath obliged the governor and made the 2022 version of her bill, AB 1713, apply only to bike riders 18 and over. It again passed the Assembly, but was never called to a vote in the Senate because the author received word Newsom planned to veto it again—confirming that his reference to children had been empty concern-trolling.

The series of vetoes shows how much elite resistance there is, even today, to reforming the laws that made the car king of our streets. Stop signs, after all, had no place in the pre-car streets of American cities, where people walking, bicycling, and riding horses freely mingled and the pace of traffic was much less. Like traffic signals, stop signs were introduced as part of the automobile industry’s highly successful effort to redefine streets as places where only cars belonged—not people on foot, who were “jaywalking,” a newly invented crime, and were blamed for their own deaths if they stood in the way of cars2.

So we plod along and try again to move the legal regime of car culture, like a parked SUV that we must combine our strength to push out of the bike lane.

The third iteration of Boerner Horvath’s bill, AB 73, states intent to enact a “stop-as-yield pilot program.” Perhaps that means certain cities would legalize bicycle stop as yield, collect data, and report back on how it’s working before taking the change statewide. You could be forgiven for thinking this an asinine, redundant exercise considering that the change was already found by NHTSA to improve safety in nine states where it was implemented, including Washington, Oregon, North Dakota, and Arkansas. But pilots and studies are often the price of progress when an executive like Newsom resists change. California Bicycle Coalition has already indicated support for AB 73 along with a slate of exciting, ambitious bills that will perhaps themselves be vetoed and then watered down into pilot programs in the future.3

Motorists and the law

Meanwhile, motorists roll stop signs every day. The “California roll” is bad enough, but increasingly, walking and biking around San Francisco, I see drivers blow stop signs entirely. It might have caused a tragedy in my neighborhood last year.

People who knew Abraham Joshua, a popular teacher at Mission Preparatory School, recently remembered him on the one-year anniversary of his death, placing flowers on a street pole at 22nd and Harrison streets. That’s where, on the morning of March 2, 2022, he was riding a scooter to school when a truck driver hit and killed him. He would be 24.

After the collision, the truck driver blamed Joshua, known as Abe to his students, for running a stop sign at the four-way stop intersection. I talked to witnesses of the crash scene, and they weren’t buying it. Based on how far Abe’s body was found from the intersection, the truck had significant speed. It’s almost certainly the truck driver who ran the stop sign, thinking that this would be a great way to make up some time and not expecting cross traffic early in the morning.

Among motorists, there’s a popular myth that bicyclists are always breaking the law. In reality, drivers break the law more often, and in particular, as NHTSA writes in its fact sheet, drivers are “mostly noncompliant with the law on yielding to bicyclists’ right-of-way.” And drivers who break the law pose much greater dangers to those around them than cyclists who do. Just look at Abe’s crash: who was around to tell their side of the story, and who wasn’t?

Changing law and culture

With this in mind, I’m loath to police the behavior of other people who ride bikes. After all, it was motor vehicle drivers who killed 34 people in San Francisco last year. Bicycle and scooter riders killed zero people.

But while it’s not deadly, it’s still frustrating when people on bikes don’t observe the yielding aspect of stop sign behavior—especially when cutting off pedestrians or bicycle cross traffic. It represents bringing the me-first, ultra-individualistic attitude of driving, over to bicycling.

Sustainability requires those of us living in rich countries not just to switch to electric cars, which have their own damaging environmental costs at scale, but to phase out the mass driving of personal cars in favor of bicycles, scooters, and public transport whenever we can.

That switch gives us a chance to rethink how we move through space. Instead of traveling as fast as possible at all costs, we can take it easy and cooperate more with each other. As we seek to change laws that bolster car dependency, let’s also change the culture to one where we ride friendly and take turns.

  1. In the case of a Tesla X, whose “self-driving” mode was designed to deliberately perform rolling stops until ordered to stop that by NHTSA. 

  2. The industry’s fight to reconfigure the streets for cars is well summarized in, for example, Paris Marx: Road to Nowhere: What Silicon Valley Gets Wrong about the Future of Transportation, Verso Books, 2022, ch. 1. 

  3. I’m being snarky toward our state’s tepid legislative culture, not toward CalBike, who do great work within the system we have. 

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