Four Tips for Bicyclists at Stop Signs

LR_Spokesman_2_damaged_goods_02_Shawn_Allen.jpg
Shawn Allen / Flickr
Bicycle + car = OW! This cyclist wasn't at fault, but the crash did happen at a stop sign.
Welcome to The Spokesman, our weekly bicycle column written by French Clements, a San Francisco resident and distance cyclist who considers it pretty routine to ride his bike to Marin County or San Jose and back. He belongs to a club, the SF Randonneurs, and is active in numerous aspects of the cycling community. For those of you wondering, the title of this column is a slightly tongue-in-cheek merging of bicycling and blogging terms, not a claim that Clements speaks for anyone but himself.
--Keith Bowers

When riding a bike in this hilly, congested, distractingly scenic, and carefree burg of San Francisco, breaking the law is a little too easy -- especially at stop signs. On Tuesday I wrote about some principles of good communication at intersections. ("S.F. Cyclists: If We Don't Communicate Well With Others, We Don't Deserve Respect.") Now, from a practical perspective, here are some points to aid our role (ha, roll) when navigating intersections with stop signs:

1. Slowing Down Is Great.
As the saying goes, where's the fire? Conservation of energy is great and all, but so is conservation of your life. Boo-yah! That said, the law -- roughly, "stop at that sign, or we'll, um, you know..." -- is broken about 134,000 times a day here. It's effectively unenforceable. Fixed-gear riders and folks in cleated shoes are especially vulnerable to ticketing. That said, more ticketing is not a viable solution. But a solution exists.


Let's find some traction on a citywide campaign to adopt what's known as "the Idaho stop" in a way that works for San Francisco. This Idaho law, on the books since 1982, allows cyclists to treat stop signs as yield signs. (The animated video above was created by a man in Oregon, whose legislature is considering adopting a similar law.) In fact, the Idaho law has been so effective that now, even at stop lights, Idaho bicyclists can proceed following a foot-down full stop, conditions permitting.

People would argue that our city's vicious topography and political climate make an Idaho-stop campaign not worth the trouble, and Captain Obvious will point out that even Idaho's largest city is not as big as San Francisco. Nonetheless, adopting or adapting the Idaho stop would find thousands of otherwise lawful riders honoring a more tenable agreement, one that finally synchronizes cyclists' expectations with those of motorists. Meanwhile, those reckless honchos who still prefer self-marginalization -- by rolling rampant through crossings without hesitation -- would dwindle to an enforceable number.

2. Use Your Very Best Signals.
For a long time, I was sheepish about using my hands to signal, but then I got some high-visibility neon gloves. Then, lights! (Did you know a light is required by law?) Today, I am a beacon of rectitude. Signaling feels like something Ron Swanson from Parks and Recreation would support. If my hands are occupied, I nod or tilt my head at drivers, indicating either, "Thanks for the courtesy, I'm rolling now," or "You're good to go." Lately, I've been pointing straight ahead to indicate when I'm headed that direction, which by its very oddity often halts a driver's advance.

You see, when we've rolled a stop sign, it's less likely that drivers and pedestrians get angry because we've simply "broken the law." No, just as in a lovers' spat, a key source of their frustration comes from simply not knowing how to react to what we're doing. Why not tell noncyclists how to react?

3. Confound Driver Expectations of Bad Cyclist Behavior.
This one unites the two above and then some. Take intersections slower than you're maybe used to. Signal a bunch. Make eye contact and smile. Wave, even. But there's also a public-relations side to riding. I'm thinking specifically of "The Wiggle," that lowland shortcut left to us by our predecessors. Especially when descending The Wiggle, there's only a few truly combustible intersections. You know the ones I mean. They're epicenters of bad PR. Walkers naturally expect us to kill someone there, and drivers are likely at their wits' end. Does it really hurt to slow down in these spots?

Keep in mind too that this city was practically founded on expressions of nonconformity. So, gifted with a flagship as oddly distinctive as The Wiggle, San Francisco needs an equally distinctive approach. I vote for using hand and head indications at every single intersection where a car is present and its driver stands a chance of being confused. Try it, you'll like it. A critical mass (huh!) of riders consistently using signals will be key to building San Francisco's reputation as The City that Knows How to Ride Bikes Well.

4. Keep Your Ego in Check.
I guarantee that Chris Bucchere was feeling pretty great about himself just before he blew through that Market Street intersection at 30-some-odd miles per hour -- unlawfully it now may seem, and certainly, unprofessionally, out of control -- and hit pedestrian Sutchi Hui in the crosswalk. Egos kill.

Sure, I've spat on cars. And thrown some pretty lurid swears at drivers. But I always end up feeling like the loser afterward, jumpy and miserable. I mean, Jesus, one time I spat on a car that I'm pretty sure was filled with thugs bent on murder -- just afterward they chased me through the Mission and I lost them only by cutting into a one-way alley, heading the wrong direction. Things like that wreck your ride, even if you are right.

Lately, I'm instead having a blast laughing at people who cut me off, shouting truly absurd comments ("Go eat a baloney sandwich!" comes to mind), and if I'm really pissed, giving a long and abrasive "slow down!"

You'll notice that the first words of these four tips spell out SUCK. Just remember, whether or not a driver (or even a wayward pedestrian) near you sucks, you've got to SUCK even harder. To all bicyclists in the city: Adopting a SUCK-y mentality is how we're going to break free of this antagonistic cycle, secure the representation and legitimacy we crave, and fully address the substantial legislative and infrastructural challenges before us -- whichever side of the intersection we're coming from.

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The Spokesman is a weekly bicycle column by French Clements on bicycle culture and the ways it's reshaping the city's appearance, economy, and politics.

For more events in San Francisco this week and beyond, check out our calendar section. Follow us on Twitter at @ExhibitionistSF and like us on Facebook.
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Rob Anderson
Rob Anderson

RegSF:

Talking about cab drivers is just changing the subject from bad behavior of cyclists.

Lydia
Lydia

It's also worth noting that the "Idaho stop" is the law in most parts of Europe, as far as I know. Drivers constantly complain about bicyclists breaking the law, but the laws were made for cars and are virtually impossible to follow on a bike. I am very careful to always respect the right of way but if it's clearly my right of way or there are no other cars or pedestrians around then I will only yield at stop signs. I have noticed that people tend to expect bicyclists to blow through and so when I do come to a stop it creates a confusing situation. Perhaps if we had laws that made sense for bicyclists then people would be more likely to respect them and expectations between drivers and bicyclists would be more aligned. 

mjh
mjh

AYHSMB

Prinzrob
Prinzrob

A good parallel with Idaho's largest city Boise is Fremont, CA, with a similar size population and density. However, once the collision stats are corrected for % mode share, Boise is just as or more safe for cyclists than Fremont, even with the stop-as-yield law in place. This is probably because cyclists in California roll about as many stops as those in Idaho, but in one state it is illegal and the other it is allowed, which leads toward greater predictability and higher safety.

When arguing for such a law, however, I think it is important to separate out the application at stop signs from the application at stop lights, which is not as appropriate for use in urban areas.

Prinzrob
Prinzrob

A stop-as-yield law can only happen on a state level, not locally, but the city of SF can issue a resolution supporting such a law which would have a big impact on moving the issue forward in the legislature. Even smaller cities can issue similar resolutions, all of which add up to a larger consensus. Nothing will happen without a show of support however.

Foodtalk
Foodtalk

Its also nice to remember that its not just other cars on the road but your fellow bicyclists... when I'm on my bike and I get cut off by another cyclist I really wish I had my baseball bat handy

guest
guest

 ooh, hitting someone with a bat....that's probably good for a ticket.

Logan T Huge
Logan T Huge

There are plenty of reasons advocating cyclists to ignore the law is terrible.

1) Laws are there to know what is expected.  By telling people to ignore them, what is expected becomes questionable.2) I watched someone get ticketed on wednesday making a right turn onto Steiner from Waller on Wednesday.  I'm sure that guy feels great about the money he will pay, and the time he will waste for "the cause".  The guy couldn't have been going more than 5 mph, but he didn't stop so the motorcycle cop waiting on Steiner took off after him.  Missing the two cyclists who went straight down Steiner, through the stop sign without slowing down at all, nor yielding to the stopped left turning cyclist (me). who had right of way, also completely unable to stop were there another road user heading east on Waller.3) What does "Yield" mean?  If you present a traffic situation to 10 different people, you will get 10 answers of what one must do to Yield.  And as a user of the wiggle, I wish more people would at least "Yield" at stop signs as I would define it.4) If the Idaho Stop was so great, why is it only in Idaho?5) Many voters in this city (look at sfgate comments) think of cyclists as straight white male entitled asshats.*  Every time someone sees a cyclist break the law, their biases are confirmed.  This is remembered in the voting booth.   *(as did the guy who literally screamed spewing spittle at me today on Arguello for the audacity of raising my right hand [no rude gesture given] when he backed out of the Indian Consulate and I wasn't sure if he was going to block all the lanes of traffic. I'm hoping he was having a bad day with him going to the vets and MCA dying)

Rob Anderson
Rob Anderson

"This is remembered in the voting booth."

City voters never get a chance to vote on bike issues, like the Bicycle Plan, not to mention Critical Mass. This suits the Bicycle Coalition and its many enablers in City Hall, since they know that cyclists are unpopular and the whole anti-car bike movement would be stopped in its tracks if that ever happened.

Guest
Guest

omg rob anderson commentedthis shit is for real now

Rob Anderson
Rob Anderson

Great, just what we need, more bike propaganda. Filling the bike void left in the absence of Matt Smith? That makes it unanimous: the Chronicle, the Guardian, SF Weekly, and the Examiner is beginning to fall in line, too. 

Shawn Allen
Shawn Allen

How is a post calling on cyclists to be more intelligent, communicative, and considerate "propaganda"? Reasonable people tend to appreciate all of the above.

Rob Anderson
Rob Anderson

Actually, you're right. My comment was unfair. Clements is at least sincere and struggling with the issues, however unconvincingly. The Idaho Stop seems like a non-starter, especially after two pedestrians in the last year have been killed by cyclists running red lights. Hand signals are a good idea to make your intentions clear to others.

One cyclist with good intentions doesn't offset the bad behavior of hundreds, perhaps thousands. There's something about the spirit and ethos of riding a bike in SF---the bike messenger image, Critical Mass, etc---that attracts the young, the reckless, the would-be rebel. Something about youth and testerone, probably, and the large population of young people in SF going to college at any one time.

Regsf
Regsf

Rob, here's a better target for you. Cabbies. Probably worse than cyclists at obeying the vehicle code and infinitely more dangerous.

Annoyed
Annoyed

How many people driving cars have killed pedestrians, and cyclists in the past 6 months?

Jake Wegmann
Jake Wegmann

Awesome piece. I love this new column. It's written with savvy and wit.

The only thing I would add -- and it's obvious, but it bears repeating -- is that cyclists need to NOT STEAL SOMEONE'S RIGHT-OF-WAY. That's the real issue, not the mere fact of rolling through four-way intersections without stopping.

If I roll (without first completely stopping) through an intersection but no one's there, then who cares. It's like a tree falling in a forest.

But if a car is stopped at a four-way stop, and then I just roll up and fly through, I'm being really inconsiderate and the driver has every reason to be annoyed at me. Like French says, hand-waving and communication goes a long way.

The worst is when I'm stopped at a four-way, and I'm waving a car driver through because she's gotten there first, and then a cyclist coming from behind me just blows past me right into the intersection. That forces the driver to slam on the brakes, puts the rider in danger, and makes me look like an idiot. Bad juju all around.

The Idaho Stop would basically fix these problems, like French says. Reserve the enforcement for the people engaging in behavior that's actually dangerous, which is not yielding the right-of-way.

Annoyed
Annoyed

In California there is no right of way at a stop sign. You are supposed to yield and drive responsibly, and defensively. Look it up in the drivers manual.

Vitaly Gashpar
Vitaly Gashpar

On the one hand, I'm glad that when you decided to write about Chris Bucchere you linked to my blog, which I think takes a sensible approach to the subject matter (at least that's how it was intended). On the other hand, I'm a bit surprised at the distorted image of the events you chose to present in the remainder of that paragraph. 

guest
guest

Drivers cannot simply yield when we know we are the only car at an intersection or light. If bicyclist want equal rights there has to be equal responsibility to obey the laws of the road. Which I kindly remind you were built throughout this entire country for motor vehicles. It takes a few seconds, so just stop at a stop sign. 

Just Pointing Out Reality
Just Pointing Out Reality

Of course drivers simply yield at a stop sign when there are no other cars present.  Our state even coined the name for this ubiquitious behavior - the "California Stop".  [I've also heard it called "stoptional" sometimes.]  Sure, it's illegal but you have to accept the reality that practically everyone does it - it's the de facto rule of the road.  Bikers shouldn't do it either, it's true, but don't get up on your high horse as a driver and claim that drivers always come to a full and complete stop at stop signs.  They just don't.  And yes, maybe most drivers slow down to a slower speed than a lot of bikers when they roll through stop signs, but cars are way heavier.  So the amount of momentum and kinetic energy they carry through the intersection -- the thing that kills people -- basically works out even.  So the potential for public harm is really the same.  Not that any of this is legal or right for cars or bikes, but don't pretend that car drivers obey every traffic law and that bikers are somehow worse.  

jrh1406
jrh1406

 I think what you mean is that drivers *shouldn't* simply yield when they know they are the only car at an intersection.  Because they certainly do just yield and role through.  I can count on one hand the number of cars that I have seen come to a complete stop at a stop sign in the last month.

Seriously, I've been riding in this city for years now, and I stop and signal more than motorists do.

Sean Dolan7
Sean Dolan7

I really do like this post. I ride through the Wiggle everyday and I 'try' to abide by the rules of the road. I have ridden my bike in some huge cities (London, New York, Philadelphia, and now SF) but I can honestly say I think the drivers in San Fran are TERRIBLE! I feel as if I have to be extra cautious because the driving is so bad. I am shocked when a driver uses their turn signal - SHOCKED! It has to be a two street somewhere.

guest
guest

I respect and try to be mindful of bicyclists when I'm on the road.  But when I come across one who doesn't have the etiquette while "sharing" the road with motorists, they can SUCK on my nuts.

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