What Happens In Idaho Shouldn’t Stay in Idaho

We Westerners are an independent bunch.  We like to shuck conventional wisdom aside and do things our own way, and we don’t necessarily care about what they think about it elsewhere.  Take the Idaho Stop, for example.  Way back in 1982, some folks in the Gem State decided that it would be easier to encourage people to bike if they could come up with a way to make it almost as quick to get somewhere by bike as by car.  Thus, the Idaho Stop was born.


For those of you who don’t know what the Idaho Stop is, well, it’s pretty simple.   When you’re on a bike, you get to legally treat stop lights as stop signs and stop signs as yields. The funny thing is that the Idaho Stop is about going, not stopping.  I think we should call it the Ida-Go.

So what’s the deal with this truly independent and innovative traffic law?  Let’s start with stop lights.  Those of us who cycle a lot know that those loop inductors that are designed to recognize the presence of a vehicle and thereby change the light don’t always work with bicycles even when we line up exactly as we’re supposed to.  Instead of forcing us to wait for a motorist to show up, the Idaho Stop says we can proceed as long as we come to a complete stop and make sure the way forward is clear.  With stop signs, the idea is just to keep us moving.  Repeated starting and stopping on a bike wastes energy.  It does in a car, too, but in a completely different way.

Bicycles, Rolling Stops, and the Idaho Stop from Spencer Boomhower on Vimeo.

The Idaho Stop is not an invitation to ride recklessly or barrel through intersections without looking.  Try it and don’t be surprised if you get a ticket, or worse.  No, it only works if (as with other traffic laws) there’s a good faith effort to comply with the spirit as well as the letter of the law.

In spite of this, some motorists feel “cheated” by the Idaho Stop.  Of course, some motorists feel cheated by just about everything that doesn’t give them exclusive domain to run off the road whatever or whoever happens to be ahead of them.  They think the Idaho Stop amounts to special treatment for cyclists.  They only think this because they haven’t been on a bicycle since childhood.  If they had to get out and pedal among their peers, they’d see it differently.  It has not been adopted elsewhere.

That may be about to change.  A study released by DePaul University recommends that Illinois communities adopt the Idaho Stop.    The idea is simple.  The Idaho Stop keeps cyclists safer by allowing them to get ahead of right turning traffic.  It also makes cycling more competitive with driving a car, time-wise.  These steps should encourage more people to opt for a bike instead of a car.  If so, that’s a win for everyone…motorists and cyclists alike.


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