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I wish I had a dollar for every time I've heard a complaint about cyclists not stopping at stop signs. I'd have enough money to buy at least one new bicycle, maybe two or three. And now one Montana lawmaker would like to make this normal behavior legal, just as it has been for 27 years in Idaho.

Bill Would Allow Bicyclists to Legally Roll Through Stop Signs

I wish I had a dollar for every time I’ve heard a complaint about cyclists not stopping at stop signs. I’d have enough money to buy at least one new bicycle, maybe two or three.

And now one Montana lawmaker would like to make this normal behavior legal, just as it has been for 27 years in Idaho.

Robin Hamilton (D-Missoula) has sponsored HB 68, which is currently under consideration by the Montana Legislature, to be like Idaho and allow cyclists to treat stop signs like yield signs. Here is the exact language in the bill:

“A person operating a bicycle approaching a stop sign shall slow down and, if required for safety, stop before entering the intersection. After slowing to a reasonable speed or stopping, the person shall yield the right-of-way to any vehicle in the intersection or approaching another highway close enough to constitute an immediate hazard. After slowing to a reasonable speed and yielding the right-of-way, a person operating a bicycle may proceed through he intersection without stopping.”

I suspect this idea might give some motorists and police officers–at least those who don’t ride their bicycles–heartburn or worse. Before giving in to a knee-jerk reaction, consider this.

Commuting on a bicycle isn’t easy, which is why most people don’t do it, of course. Yet, for many reasons such as promoting preventive health care, saving fossil fuels, and addressing municipal parking and traffic issues, we should encourage bicycle commuting.

Residential neighborhoods, where city officials usually designate “bicycle routes,” are often awash with stops signs. The idea is to keep bicycles off high-traffic thoroughfares, which may or may not be a good idea, but the plethora of stop signs means cyclists must continually unclip and put a foot down instead of keeping some of their hard-earned momentum–or technically violate the law by not coming to a full stop.

When I ride around town, I’m constantly on Red Alert, and I have no doubt that most other experienced cyclists always put safety first. Cyclists do not ride through stop signs without making absolutely sure it’s safe. Most cyclists risk getting traffic violations by slowing to a “reasonable speed,” checking for oncoming traffic and not seeing any, roll through the intersection. Seeing traffic, they make a dead stop and yield to the motorist or cyclist. This common and technically illegal behavior is usually restricted to residential intersections, not intersections with main streets with heavy traffic or stoplights. All cyclists must make complete stops when entering high-traffic streets and at all stoplights.

(Actually, it would be interesting to have a speed gun on cyclists at these residential intersections.. I suspect the speed would approach zero in some cases even though the cyclist doesn’t put a foot on the pavement. If anybody knows of any such research, please put a link in the comment section.)

In Helena, where I ride, stop signs on residential routes make cycling so difficult that I usually take the high-traffic, through streets across town. Experienced cyclists take through streets for the same reason motorists take through streets. Cyclists not only get to their destination in half the time, but to me, it seems safer and easier–but exactly what traffic managers don’t want to see me doing. HB 68 would partly address this dilemma, and city traffic planners should be up on Capital Hill supporting it.

The concept of the bill is “counter intuitive” to police officers, Hamilton admitted in a NewWest.Net phone interview, “but it only makes customary cycling behavior legal. We’ve had a laboratory next door called Idaho for many years, and the law hasn’t caused any increase in accidents or fines.”

Hamilton told me about a conversation he had with the Missoula Police Chief who was concerned about the bill. He asked the chief to call his peers in Idaho cities, which he did, and then came back to Hamilton and agreed “it hasn’t been an issue” in the Gem State.

Nor would it be in Montana and other states.

I only wish police officers and lawmakers would have a little confidence that adult, experienced cyclists always put safety first because when on the roads they know who is the windshield and who is the bug.

I called Idaho’s bicycle and pedestrian coordinator Mark McNeese about Idaho’s law and he confirmed what Hamilton said. Idaho has had this law on the books since 1982, and according to McNeese, it has never been controversial nor have there been any attempts to change or overturn it. It has not caused any increase in bicycle-related accidents, nor does Idaho have a higher rate of bicycle accidents than other states.

Other states like California and Virgina are studying Idaho’s law, as are cities like Minneapolis and Portland, McNeese said, but “Nobody else has been able to get it passed, and I don’t know why.”

Idaho has recently gone a step farther, McNeese noted, by passing a companion law that allows cyclists to stop at a red light and then proceed through it if there’s no oncoming traffic.

I talked to Hamilton yesterday and asked him about the prospects for his bill, and he said, ” I think it’s going to die. The cycling community didn’t show up at the hearing to support it.”

Huh? Here we have a conscientious lawmaker trying to make a progressive move for bicycle commuters and not even one shows up to support the bill. How bad is that?

Fortunately, there’s still time to make a difference. Run to your computer and dash off an email to members of the House Transportation Committee, especially to your local rep if he or she is on that committee. You can find a list of representatives here; all their email addresses here; and a complete text of HB 68 here.

If you don’t have a local rep and don’t want to take the time to send to all committee members, at least send one to committee chair Jon Sonju (R-Kalispell). Here’s his email address: sonjumt@yahoo.com

If cyclists don’t show up to support such efforts to improve outdated state laws related to cycling, do we deserve help?

Footnote: Incidentally, HB 68 makes another progressive move for cyclists. It removes the requirement that cyclists must signal a turn or a stop “…if the hand is needed in the control or operation of the bicycle.” Such statutes requiring signals were written back when bicycles had coaster brakes, which haven’t been used on adult bicycles for decades, and the current law requiring signals encourages cyclists to make hazardous moves. When coming into an intersection, cyclists must keep both hands on the handlebars and brakes and can’t signal–a fact that receives little sympathy from non-bicycle-riding motorists, I might add.

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