This front page article may have been a bit provocative.
What stop sign?
Do cyclists need to stop at a stop sign?
(PHOTO: RICHARD LAUTENS/TORONTO STAR
A cyclist cruises through a stop sign on Beverley Street. In Idaho, the law allows cyclists to treat stop signs like yield signs. )
We watched 159 cyclists approach a busy intersection. Only 21 came to a full stop
It drives motorists crazy, but some cyclists believe it's safer to ignore stop signs
Aug 02, 2009 04:30 AM
"Life," Albert Einstein once said, "is like riding a bicycle. To keep your balance, you must keep moving." You don't need to be a genius to know that riders of bicycles in this city keep their balance in no end of illegal ways.
They keep moving steadily, for instance, through the four stop signs that decorate the intersection of Beverley and Baldwin Sts. On any given morning you can watch the streams of pedal-powered commuters approaching that four-way stop, most of them rolling downhill to the downtown core, almost all of them treating the four-letter word on the red octagon like an impolite suggestion.
Some of them, like the gent in the dirty jeans with the liquor-store bag dangling from the handlebars, blithely blow through the intersection as though it does not exist, no matter the steady stream of motor traffic flowing alongside that treats the stop signs with more respect.
Most of them, like the woman in the Hollywood-large sunglasses perched atop the of-the-moment army-green folding bike, pause from pedalling to survey the flow while coasting, resuming their rhythm when it's safe to proceed.
Only a very few actually, fully, stop. To obey the Highway Traffic Act to its letter, after all, would be to contravene other statutes.
"There's an unwritten law, the law of preservation of momentum, that all cyclists follow," said Yvonne Bambrick, the executive director of the Toronto Cyclists Union.
The rolling stop – or, in some cycling circles, the Idaho Stop – is as popular as it is illegal, and there are those who will tell you it's also perfectly safe. Bambrick, among other cycling supporters and bloggers, is advocating its legalization, citing common sense and a compelling precedent.
Cyclists in Idaho have been legally permitted to treat stop signs as yield signs since 1982. And though the Idaho law was brought in by legislators to help relieve the pressure on a crowded traffic-court system, cycling-savvy proponents of its further spread argue it would make cycling more efficient, more appealing and ultimately more popular. In places bent on curbing car usage, it's a compelling argument.
Writing new traffic laws for a community of cyclists notorious for shirking the ones already on the books, of course, is also an inflammatory argument. Before fed-up motorists clog the rant-radio phone lines in opposition, Bambrick begs a moment to explain.
"(The Idaho Stop) is not just blowing a stop sign," said Bambrick. "It's slowing down enough so that you could come to a stop if you needed to. You slow down, you look right, you look left, you look right again, you look ahead ... I really think it's something worth pursuing. It's been proven effective in Idaho for some 20 years. If they can do it down there, why can't we give it a try in Toronto?"
Indeed, rolling-stop advocates will tell you that Idaho's bicycle accidents decreased some 14 per cent in the year after the stop-sign law was enacted. Cyclists bent on preserving momentum are also intensely interested in preserving flesh and blood, after all, and because they're not shielded by the barriers of hood and windshield and door they are more aware of their surroundings than motorists. The argument has been made that a cyclist devoting energy to clear-eyed and open-eared awareness – rather than to the vagaries of gearing down and/or slowing down – puts safety top of mind.
Mind you, whether or not Idaho's example is relevant to Ontario – and any change to traffic law would be a provincial matter – is debatable. In 1982, the population of Boise, Idaho's biggest city, was about 100,000. Today, Boise's population is about double that, which means it's the size of Saskatoon, which means it is home to less than one-third of Scarborough's populace. In other words, if a bike rolls through a stop sign at an otherwise-deserted intersection, what's the harm?
In busier urban centres, meanwhile, other bike advocates worry that legalizing the rolling stop would lead to wider disregard of the signs on already chaotic streets.
"If you loosen up the rules too much, people will just barrel right through the stop sign and they'll get killed that way," said Brian Maclean, president of the Toronto Bicycling Network, a club for recreational cyclists. Said Charles Akben-Marchand, past president of Citizens for Safe Cycling, an Ottawa-based bike safety organization: "It could be something better left to the discretion of the enforcers, rather than the legislators. In Ottawa, it's against the law to ride a bike on the sidewalk, but I've talked to police officers who say they won't give a ticket to anyone under 12."
Still, enforcement of the letter of stop-sign law persists, at least in Toronto. June saw the Toronto police run its "Safe Cycling: Share the Responsibility" campaign, a one-week blitz that saw 669 cyclists ticketed for ignoring stop signs, an offence that comes with a $110 fine.
"Encouraging more bicycling as opposed to car use is a good thing," said Jim Baross, 62, a cycling safety advocate in California, where there have been low-level rumblings about adopting the Idaho stop. "But ... on a public roadway, everybody gets along more safely and more efficiently if we all follow the same rules."