We’ve all been there before. You are riding along, approaching an intersection, and as you start to get closer, the traffic light for vehicles traveling your direction turns red. Of course, being a law-abiding cyclist, you come to a stop and begin waiting for the light to change. Depending upon the manner in which the lighting system is activated, various sensors may or may not detect your presence. You look both ways, left and right, and there is no traffic for as far as you can see. What should you do? You look behind, and there is no traffic immediately behind you. A string of cars is approaching, from approximately a quarter mile away. Understanding your obligation to obey the traffic laws, you continue to wait patiently for the light. Ultimately, the cars stop immediately behind you, and it looks like there are at least five or six of them. The light turns green, you begin to roll forward, clip into your pedal, and you can feel the anxiety of the motorists immediately behind you, who are frustrated with your inability to accelerate as quickly as they would like. You pedal as quickly as possible, getting yourself through the intersection, and far enough down the road where the lanes widen and the motor vehicles can safely pass you.
Years ago, Idaho passed a law that would have allowed the cyclist to proceed through the intersection after coming to a stop at the red light, and making sure that it was safe to ride on. Currently, the town of Breckenridge, the town of Dillon, and Summit County, have all passed local laws allowing various versions of “stop as yield” laws. Arguably, it is safer and more convenient for all involved when a cyclist can safely get through an intersection without slowing down motor vehicle traffic from behind. The majority of motor vehicle versus bicycle collisions occur within intersections. For cyclists, navigating through intersections safely significantly increases the prospects of an incident-free bike ride.
Interestingly, aside from the safety issues, all of the local governments who have passed these types of laws had the strong support of their local law enforcement agencies. Recognizing both the safety issues, and the practical reality that there was no point in issuing tickets to cyclists who were otherwise behaving safely and appropriately, law enforcement urged local governments to remove the requirement that cyclists treat red lights and stop signs in exactly the same manner as motor vehicle operators.
As an example, in both Breckenridge and Summit County, cyclists are allowed to treat a stop sign as a yield sign in all directions. When cyclists approach a red stop light, cyclists can treat it as a yield sign for executing a right turn, and a stop sign for making a left turn or traveling through the intersection.
As a bicycle advocate, I remember having a level of concern about changing the laws for cyclists at controlled intersections, as I did not think it wise to concurrently ask for the same rights as motorists on the roadway while requesting additional special laws applicable only to us. After further analysis, I have begun to believe that these types of laws are safer and better for all road users. To be clear, none of the laws allow cyclists to blow through a stop sign, taking the right of way of another road user who is lawfully proceeding along the roadway. The burden falls squarely on the cyclist to verify that it is safe to proceed, after either yielding or stopping as the law would require under the circumstances. While some motorists might bristle at the idea of cyclists having this “advantage” at a controlled intersection, they would likely admit that it would be their preference to not be “stuck behind a cyclist” when the light changed and they wanted to proceed ahead.
Further, our current state statutes already contemplate the notion that not every traffic law found in Title 42 will be applicable to bicyclists. Indeed, the primary state statute dealing with the operation of bicycles, C.R.S. § 42-4-1412 (1), states in pertinent part: “Every person riding a bicycle . . . shall have all of the rights and duties applicable to the driver of any other vehicle under this article . . . except as to those provisions which by their nature can have no application”. Accordingly, the law already recognizes and contemplates that not every “rule of the road” will be equally applicable to both the operators of motor vehicles and cyclists.
In the bicycle advocacy world, there is definitely a growing tide of support for laws such as Breckenridge and Summit County have passed. In those locations where these laws have been passed, I am not aware of any indication whatsoever that there has been an increase in motor vehicle / bicycle accidents. Perhaps you have experience with these laws in other locales, or ideas to share with respect to this issue. As we move forward thinking of ways to increase rider safety and enjoyment, I would urge you to share your thoughts on this issue with state and local bicycle advocacy organizations.