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Opinion >  Column

Getting There: Bicyclists in Washington will no longer need to stop at stop signs, if the coast is clear

A bicycle commuter heads west along Riverside Avenue at Lincoln Street, Tuesday, July 9, 2013.  (COLIN MULVANY)
A bicycle commuter heads west along Riverside Avenue at Lincoln Street, Tuesday, July 9, 2013. (COLIN MULVANY)

Jim O’Hare says he and his fellow members of the Spokane Bicycle Club are “pretty good about following any rules.”

As of the first of this month, that means they don’t have to stop at stop signs, as long as the coast is clear.

Washington bicyclists’ newfound freedom to treat stop signs like yield signs comes courtesy of a bill co-sponsored by Spokane’s own Andy Billig, the Senate majority leader, and Rep. Joe Fitzgibbon, a fellow Democrat from Seattle.

While bicyclists can now roll through stop signs when no cars are coming, they still have to stop for cars, at rail crossings, for school buses and at traffic lights.

O’Hare, president of the local bicycle club, said he’s glad about what he considers a practical tweak to the rules.

“Personally, it makes sense for me,” O’Hare said, “because a lot of times, bicyclists are out riding and you can ride up slow enough and see if traffic is coming, and it doesn’t always make sense to put your feet on the ground.”

A staff report prepared for the Senate Committee on Transportation made much the same argument, calling what was then a proposed change “intuitive.”

While some may have visions of cyclists screaming through intersections at top speed, that’s not what the law allows for. In fact, proponents of the bill say it actually improves safety.

Under the old way of doing things, the staff report pointed out, a bicyclist who stopped at a stop sign would often pull off to the right to do so. When they were stopped, cars behind them were able to catch up, pull even with the bike and put the bicyclist in a blind spot for crossing traffic.

That can put cars and bikes unnecessarily close and create a dangerous situation for the bicyclist starting from a dead stop and entering into speeding traffic.

And as O’Hare points out, “250 pounds on a bike is no match for a 3,000-pound car.”

When the bill passed the Senate on a 44-1 vote earlier this year, Billig told The Spokesman-Review it was good both for bicyclists, who are able to “keep their momentum going,” and for drivers, who don’t have to wait on bike riders to stop and start again.

Another potential safety benefit of the law is that it can encourage bicyclists to use slower, lower-traffic streets that are dotted with stop signs, instead of sticking to busier, speedier streets with stop lights. The result might be to get “cyclists off these faster streets and funnel the bikes on to safer, slower roads,” as an article on the website Vox pointed out.

Though some may doubt that safety improves when one mode of transportation no longer has to obey basic traffic rules, it has been tried with apparent success before, including in Arkansas, Delaware, Oregon and Idaho.

The Gem State has let cyclists yield at stop signs since 1982, leading the practice to become commonly known as the “Idaho stop.” Data suggests the change has been a success.

In 2010, a University of California, Berkeley researcher actually produced a paper with 47 citations on the subject, “Bicycle Safety and Choice: Compounded Public Cobenefits of the Idaho Law Relaxing Stop Requirements for Cycling.” He found reduced injuries from bike accidents after the law was passed and much lower rates of accidents per bike commuter in Boise than in Sacramento, California, where no such law exists. But that wasn’t the only benefit that Jason Meggs, the paper’s author, identified.

“There is no single measure as quick and cost effective for increased and safer cycling, than to relax stopping rules for bicyclists,” Meggs wrote. “Stop signs and signals intended to discourage motor traffic have been placed in precisely the places where bicyclists most wish to ride, often without warrant for motorists let alone bicyclists, discouraging cycling and creating widespread noncompliance with a requisite backlash.

“Contrary to the assumption that frequent stopping and compliance with stop laws improves safety,” he continued, “the argument in favor of The Law has become one of saving lives, preventing injury, protecting the environment, and facilitating increased bicycling both culturally and physically.”

Work to watch for

Snow may intrude, but as of late last week, the city of Spokane was expecting work to continue this week on a $2 million grind-and-overlay project on Indian Trail Road and Nevada Street. Along Indian Trail, traffic interruptions are expected to be minimal as crews finish up work. But paving is scheduled take place on Nevada between Francis and Sharpsburg Avenue and between Holland Avenue and Magnesium Road. Those sections will be reduced to one lane of traffic in each direction on Tuesday, if work goes forward as planned.

Work on a $1.7 million paving project on Eagle Ridge Boulevard, Regal Street and Bernard Street is also slated to continue. If it goes forward, Bernard will be closed between High Drive and 29th Avenue from Wednesday to Friday. Eagle Ridge Boulevard between Shelby Street and Meadow Lane will remain open, with flaggers directing traffic as crews are paving the south half of Eagle Ridge.

Work on Regal Street is substantially complete, though crews are working on punch list items expected to cause minimal traffic interruptions.

Grind-and-overlay work is also expected this week on Third Avenue from Perry to Magnolia Street.

Geiger Boulevard remains closed from Soda Road to Electric Road, though local businesses remain open. The project to replace the roadway is expected to continue through the end of November.

Crews are working below the Pine Bluff Bridge to stabilize the Coulee Creek slopes and install concrete walls. That means drivers should expect delays in both directions and all lanes on Pine Bluff Road from Seven Mile Road to Carlson Road. The project is also expected to continue through the end of November.

Work on the Spokane Transit Authority’s bus-rapid-transit City Line is underway, leading to the following closures:

  • The westbound lanes of Mission Avenue between Fiske and Regal Street will remain closed until Wednesday.
  • Two north curb lanes of First Avenue between Cedar Street and Jefferson Street will remain closed into early November.
  • Two south curb lanes of Sprague Avenue between Adams to Cedar Street will remain closed into early November.
  • Two south curb lanes of Sprague Avenue between Monroe and Madison Street will remain closed into mid-November.

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