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 i