confronting the stop sign myth

this bicyclist rode through a stop sign, past a right-turning car, rude and dangerous
this bicyclist rode past a right-turning car on the right side, without letting the car driver go first

I often see or hear the statement “bicyclists run stop signs all the time.” The person making the statement is not just making an observation, but trying to justify some attitude or action on their part, such as “bicyclists shouldn’t be on the road,” “bicyclists should be on the sidewalk,” “bicyclists should be thrown in jail,” “it is OK to intimidate or run over bicyclists,” or “we should not be spending any of our transportation money on bicycle facilities.”

I think that it is time for all of us to confront that statement and end its use. Yes, it is true that some to many bicyclists run stop signs. It is also true some to many motor vehicle drivers run stop signs. To refer back to my earlier posts on stop signs, stop signs are installed largely to reduce vehicle speeds and to get drivers to take turns at intersections. Bicyclists are rarely exceeding the speed limit, so that function is not served by the stop sign, nor by a bicyclist stopping. In the case of taking turns, the issue is taking turns, not the act of stopping. If a bicyclist does not stop at a stop sign, but no other vehicles are present which should go first, then the function of the stop sign to get people to take turns is intact, it has not been violated.

On the other hand, it is true that some to many bicyclists don’t take turns at intersections. They go when it is not their turn, not waiting for others who were there first (at a four-way stop), not waiting for vehicles to clear the intersection first (at a two-way stop), and not yielding to pedestrians who are in marked or unmarked crosswalks. This is an issue. It is irritating to other drivers, including other bicyclists. Personally, it pisses me off when I’m riding. For pedestrians, it is not only irritating, but it is dangerous. True, pedestrians are very very rarely killed by bicyclists, and rarely injured by bicyclists, but every time a pedestrian feels unsafe crossing a roadway, particularly when using a marked or unmarked crosswalk, we all lose livability, and become the type of place none of us want to live. This is something to be angry about. When I’m being a pedestrian, this really pisses me off, and it pisses me off to see it happen to others, and I see it often.

But, the issue here is not the stop sign, but the failure to take turns, or to yield.

If someone complains that bicyclists don’t take turns at intersections, or don’t yield to pedestrians, I have to agree. It is a problem and it is a problem that we in the bicycling community need to work to solve. I teach bicyclist education, and address the issue there with as many people as I can. When I’m riding or walking, I sometimes say things to the perpetrator. The problem with saying something is that it is difficult to come across in a positive way rather than as just another person yelling at them like motor vehicle drivers do. I’ve thought of standing out at intersections with a sign that says “take turns” or “yield to pedestrians,” and flashing it at bicyclists. But I haven’t done it yet.

That said, I think we all need to confront the use of “bicyclists don’t stop at stop signs” as a justification for anything. We should correct the person, pointing out that the issue, if there is one, is that the bicyclists are not taking turns with other vehicles, or yielding to pedestrians. The problem is not that the bicyclist has not stopped at a stop sign. The statement shows up everywhere, on the TV, in print media, in blog comments, in public meetings, on the street, yelled out of a car window. But wherever it is heard, it should be confronted.

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