Proposed state law would let bicyclists roll past stop signs

Cyclists in California would be allowed to pedal past stop signs without stopping under legislation proposed by two lawmakers who say it would make the roads safer.

Assemblymen Jay Obernolte, R-Big Bear Lake (San Bernardino County), and Phil Ting, D-San Francisco, introduced a measure on Friday that would allow bicyclists to treat stop signs as merely yield signs, letting them proceed with caution if conditions are safe.

In effect, it would legalize the so-called “California roll,” although just for bicyclists.

“It’s pretty compelling that the data supports this kind of change in the law,” said Obernolte, an avid bicyclist. “Their loss of momentum causes them to spend a substantially longer amount of time in the intersection.”

The longer it takes for a bicyclist to pass through an intersection, the greater likelihood that they’ll get hit by an oncoming vehicle, he said, although some cyclists expressed concern the law could lead to uncertainty about stop sign rules which could be dangerous to cyclists, particularly in cities.

The two-tiered approach to the rules of the road — one for cyclists and one for cars — is unlikely to ease growing tensions over sharing California’s roadways.

In recent years, bike advocates have won victories such as laws requiring drivers to yield a 3-foot radius of maneuvering room to cyclists. Motorists, meanwhile, have expressed frustration that some cyclists pick and choose which laws to follow.

Idaho, the only state in which bicyclists are allowed to roll through stop signs, saw a decline in bike-related injuries after its law was enacted, according to a 2010 study by Jason Meggs, then a researcher at the UC Berkeley School of Public Health.

Meggs also compared Boise, Idaho, against Sacramento and Bakersfield, cities he considered similar, and found that Boise had 30 percent fewer collisions in which bicyclists were injured.

Obernolte and Ting’s bill is based on the Idaho law, passed in 1982.

Under the proposed California law, bicyclists would still have to stop at red lights, which Obernolte said might motivate them to take less-traveled side roads rather than main roads with traffic signals. That could lessen congestion and boost safety, he said.

Obernolte emphasized that bicyclists would only be allowed to go through a stop sign if it was safe, something they would have to assess as they approach the intersection.

“It’s intentionally vague because it’s left up to the discretion of the bicyclist” he said.

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The legislation would break the “same road, same rights, same rules” philosophy endorsed by many bicyclists, which requires people on two wheels to follow the same traffic laws as people driving on four.

This exception might be warranted, said Andy Henshaw, executive director of the San Diego County Bicycle Coalition.

“It’s hard to argue against good data like that. And sometimes in this case, it doesn’t always work to have the same roads, same rules, to apply to both cars and bikes,” he said.

There might be a temporary period of increased risk as people on bikes and motorists get used to a new rule, but it might eventually help alleviate traffic tie-ups, said bicycle courier Chris Venkus.

“I think that a lot of traffic gets held up because bicyclists are trying to follow the same laws that cars are going through,” he said. “The numbers are increasing; there are more and more bicyclists out there. It would be very wise to start looking at different bicycle laws.”

Others who make their living on bicycles think otherwise. Mo Karimi, owner of San Diego Bike Shop, said he thinks the bill is a bad idea because it will create uncertainty between motorists and bicyclists, particularly in more developed areas.

“It’s a bad idea, a safety hazard,” he said. “In city areas, that’s going to be a problem. Everybody already knows the rules.”

It would be better if police officers enforced the current law in situations in which bicyclists ride dangerously rather than amending the current statute, he said.

Joel West, an Oceanside (San Diego County) resident who has worked in his community on transportation issues, said the bill is a bad idea that will encourage bad habits.

If enacted, he predicts that instead of cautiously riding through stop signs, bicyclists will completely ignore them because the law gives them the discretion to determine what’s safe.

“Before, I was slowing down enough so it kind of looked like I was taking it seriously,” he said. “But if I get to decide what is a reasonable speed, I am going to go through faster than ever before.”

Youngsters on bikes will be particularly at risk, he said. They haven’t developed the physical skill or the personal judgment to determine how much of a risk oncoming or opposing traffic poses, he said.

Source: Joshua Stewart, SFGate.com

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