The Chainlink

Opinion: Reframing the Idaho Stop Proposal

By Peter Szabo, Photography by Ronit Bezalel

As a person who follows local news on social media, I’ve seen many angry responses to the DePaul “Idaho stop in Chicago” suggestion. These responses, however, seem heavily influenced by existing animosities and the presentation of the issue in the Chicago Tribune’s article, “Should bicyclists always halt at stop signs and wait at lights? Study says no.” The article’s headline and opening paragraphs imply DePaul’s suggestion is simply to let bikers blow through controlled intersections, disregarding stop signs and lights. Not until later does the reader learn “the Idaho stop is about yielding and slowing down, not about blowing through a stop sign without paying attention,” as Jim Merrell from the Active Transportation Alliance points out.


Both sides of the argument want to achieve the same goal: safer streets through adherence to common sense traffic laws. If we are to have a productive discussion about traffic safety and roadway laws, it is important to understand the proposal. We must examine the reasons for the Idaho stop law and open ourselves to the opposing viewpoint. Currently, there are two distinct problems with the discussion: othering[i]-based animosity and a clear misunderstanding of what is being proposed. Writing this, I aim to focus on these problems and steer the discussion in a more beneficial and insightful direction.


The most crucial component of the Idaho stop proposal is that it would not change existing intersection right-of-way. If a driver and a biker are approaching a four-way stop intersection, the individual who arrives at the line first has the right-of-way. If a cyclist arrives at the intersection first under the Idaho stop law, the driver stops and the cyclist continues through the intersection after slowing but not stopping. By only slowing and not completely stopping, the cyclist will pass through the intersection sooner. If the driver arrives at the stop sign first, the bicyclist waits for the driver to clear the intersection before passing through. At red lights, a cyclist would only be permitted to cross on red if there were no traffic approaching or passing through the green light. The Idaho stop maintains the existing right of way for all road users (pedestrians, drivers, and cyclists) and makes these two allowances for cyclists, aimed at improving traffic flow and safety. Impeding another road user’s right of way would still be a citable offense.


Selfishness is human nature; it is not transmitted through contact with a steering wheel or handlebars. People who break laws selfishly and endanger or inconvenience others in doing so should be cited accordingly. Saying that all drivers are dangerous or that all cyclists are reckless is shortsighted, incorrect, and counter-productive. Cyclists and motorists naturally see their differences framed by the vehicles they operate. Operating a car can embolden selfish behavior due to feeling comfortably isolated in a nest of climate control, door locks, and airbags. Operation of a bicycle on city streets can also encourage selfish behavior, because it conflates adrenalin rushes, self-sufficiency, and feeling small, overlooked, and vulnerable compared to cars and trucks. Automobiles are often dangerous and deadly, and our traffic laws are designed to minimize crashes and injury. Motorists and cyclists naturally self-segregate by their mode, but when comments from each group are examined and otheringi is cancelled out, the crux of many complaints is clear: selfishness, or people who ignore the right of way of others. Both drivers and cyclists break traffic laws despite understanding their purpose. Updating the law to improve the flow of traffic has the potential to diminish selfishness on the roads.


When stoplights were added to cities, traffic law education and enforcement was increased to ensure the new laws were being understood and followed. If the Idaho stop were implemented in Chicago, similar increased enforcement should be expected and those selfish and dangerous road users should be cited and fined. Most importantly, the goals of governing our shared roadway system should be efficiency and safety and, as we learn more about how the system works, the rules should adapt to better meet those goals. Please open your eyes to the viewpoints of others and seek understanding. Please operate your vehicle safely, whether it is a bike or a car, and remember that the core principle of our traffic laws is a predictable and efficient system of affording the right of way.

[i] Othering is described by Merriam Webster as being “rooted in sociology: to other a certain culture or individual is to treat that culture as fundamentally different from another class of individuals, often by emphasizing its apartness in traits that differ from one's own.”

Peter Szabo is a transportation and recreation cyclist who got his start repairing and building bikes for the Iowa City Bike Library. He now works in a Chicago-area bike shop and volunteers for his local Bicycle & Pedestrian Advisory Commission to improve active transportation opportunities in his community. He is a Chainlink Ambassador and will contribute articles in the form of product reviews, event coverage, bike-based travel writing, and more. Follow him on Instagram: @on_two & @bike_there


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Comment by bradford powell on December 18, 2016 at 1:11pm                   


         The above url references a 2014 article I just reread to help refresh and remind us all (pedestrians - motorists)what the   original rationale and concerns were for Altering the laws to allow Motorized vehicles to take a Right turn on Red. 

During the oil and energy crises of the 1970s, the U.S. federal government encouraged jurisdictions to allow right turns on red as a fuel saving measure. The Federal Highway Administration estimated that right turns on red would save between 1 and 4.6 seconds for each driver at a red light.

While turning right on red does in fact save fuel for car drivers, the Massachusetts DOT points out that “[t]he best way to reduce fuel use is to drive less.” With 65% of trips under a mile in the U.S. made by car, improving the experience of being a pedestrian or biker, as well as improving actual safety, could result in significant fuel savings by encouraging people to walk and bike more.

Like Peter Szabo , I believe all road users should be concerned with balancing efficiency with safety.               "According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, “[t]he majority of (motorists involved in) these RTOR crashes involved a driver looking left for a gap in traffic and striking a pedestrian or bicyclist coming from the driver’s right.” 

Comment by bradford powell on December 18, 2016 at 12:41pm

I just got thru reading an article about a young woman on a moped getting killed in Boston by a Duckboat.   Duckboat's are these large amphibious vehicles that do not afford the driver adequate peripheral vision as they maneuver on city streets.  The increased  lethal statistics attributable to vehicles like duck boats and large delivery vehicles on innercity streets  in Boston are prob similar to what is occurring in Chicago.   Rev Al , please check into the Chicago's  lethal stats toward vulnerable road users (including pedestrians/cyclists/moped users and I believe  you will find adequate information to change your attention and priorities.

Comment by Rev Al on December 17, 2016 at 10:35am

"The number one reason bicyclists get hit by cars is because the cars do not see them." I believe this is false. The number one reason bicyclists get hit is because they do not see the cars, or at least properly judge closing speed.

Comment by Sam B. on December 15, 2016 at 8:51pm

It's not your responsibility to maintain the flow of traffic; as a vehicle, your responsibility is to obey the law, like cars and trucks. Drivers behave the way you describe because 24 out of 25 bicyclists are blowing the stop sign (as per the linked Tribune article). If 24 out of 25 bicyclists obeyed the law and behaved like cars do, there'd be less of that. If they're waving you through and giving you the right of way, that's wonderful. I do the eye contact thing, too. It's great that I know drivers see me and are waving me through; that ensures my safety through the intersection. Blowing a stop sign risks my safety. What makes drivers wary of bicyclists is that they're unpredictable; no one knows whether they're gonna blow through the stop sign or the light. If 24 out of 25 bicyclists were predictable, there'd be less accidents.

Comment by Jason Greenberg on December 15, 2016 at 7:53pm

AND do I need to clarify that this is especially appropriate for negotiating traffic flow at Stop Sign intersections (where most cars fail to come to a complete stop also).

For traffic lights my experience shows me to stop when traffic is present; but if the intersection is entirely empty I will not stop but continue safely through. When there are cars present then normal right of way rules as defined by law are in effect. So again, this law would only make the change that a cyclist can travel through an intersection on a red light WHEN ITS EMPTY OF TRAFFIC.

Comment by Jason Greenberg on December 15, 2016 at 7:33pm

Sam- I can't agree with you. Complete stops are defined in the laws, but in practice even motorists don't follow the law and rarely come to a COMPLETE STOP if the intersection is empty. Here is my almost daily experience as I ride to work and back (17 miles mostly on Ravenswood from Logan Square to Rogers Park which is slow side street traffic): I find that over 85% of the time that I come to a stop sign intersection with cars; if I come to a stop all the other cars at the intersection stop too and wave me to go first- even when they have the right of way. I think its an impulse of generosity and safety ("I'll let the smaller biker go ahead"); its also an indicator of confusion that drivers don't know how to act when in the presence of a biker.  While a nice gesture; its actually infuriating and frustrating because it slows all traffic to an utter standstill (after you, no please after you....) Because this happened to me consistently ALL THE TIME, I now don't stop and continue through the intersection to keep the traffic flow from stopping entirely. There is nothing dangerous about it: I'm not "blowing through" the intersection; I slow down, make eye contact to see what the driver in the car intends and then I don't stop but proceed through the intersection (unless I read that the car is "going forward" into the intersection).  The car drivers appreciate that I'm not holding them up and I'm not slowing down traffic. I would never do this by ignoring the cars; its only when we connect with eye contact that we gain mutual understanding of our rhythm and flow of naturally passing through the intersection. This actually ensures that we are more engaged and alert to each others presence and intentions. This is what the Idaho Stop recognizes and supports; that we need to be actively aware and communicating at intersections.

note: On streets that are major arteries (with faster/heavier traffic) I approach intersections with a very different sense of order and intention to stop completely for safety (and so do the motorists BTW). These are often intersections with traffic lights instead of stop signs; and we all know the risks and rules of interaction are different in these circumstances. But for quiet streets with light traffic intersections; there is nothing very risky about a slow approach and continuation through when circumstances favor that.  Time we start biking/driving smarter and more aware....!

Comment by Sam B. on December 15, 2016 at 6:31pm

Nope. Bicyclists should not be exempted from an entirely reasonable demand that they come to a complete stop at intersections and red lights before proceeding in accordance with the law. The number one reason bicyclists get hit by cars is because the cars do not see them. A bicyclist who ignores a stop sign or a red light increases their chance of getting hit by the car that didn't see them. Not only that, bicyclists who ignore stop signs and red lights increase the risk they pose to pedestrians crossing the street (again, who the bicyclist may or may not see). This isn't about aggression or "othering" ; it's about staying within the limits of a driver's and a pedestrian's reasonable perception. So how about this: when 99% of bicyclists prove themselves capable of following the existing law, we can talk about changing it.

Comment by Craig Williams on December 15, 2016 at 1:58pm

Very thoughtful summary.  I've been riding this way for most of my life.  I stop at signs when there is confusion, doubt or danger.  When there is no traffic or it would confuse the issue by stopping for traffic which would be delayed by strict adherence to the law.  I slow/stop for all lights. 

Comment by prof.gfr on December 15, 2016 at 1:54pm

Great description and analysis. Thanks!

Comment by pszabo on December 15, 2016 at 12:49pm

Thanks, Dave! 

Comment by David Simmons on December 15, 2016 at 12:25pm

Great job summarizing the "Idaho Stop", Peter! I appreciate your calm, matter-of-fact approach.


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