The City of Montreal put forward a controversial request to the Quebec government to amend the Quebec Highway Code to allow cyclists to perform a rolling stop – popularly known as the “Idaho stop”, named for the state that legalized it in 1982 – which would eliminate the need for cyclists to come to a full stop at stop signs, under certain circumstances.
This request has drawn the ire of many motorists, who already see cyclists’ generally unpredictable habits and disregard for the law as a threat to their comfort and safety. Common sense dictates that formalizing what is perceived as reckless behaviour would only succeed in putting lives at risk.
It must be said that what is considered common sense is not necessarily true or accurate, especially when it comes to risk assessment. Policies and practices that can improve safety are often counterintuitive, such as the example of mandatory helmet policies, which have been demonstrated to not improve overall safety.
Studies have shown that drivers are less likely to give cyclists a wide enough berth when passing, if the cyclist is wearing a helmet. Let me be clear that I’m not suggesting we shouldn’t wear helmets when cycling, but the kind of head trauma that helmets protect us from is comparatively rare to the other dangers faced on the road, and legislation should encourage rather than discourage cycling.
Which brings us to the Idaho stop.
Formally, the change will allow cyclists to treat stop signs as yield signs, meaning that we could slow down, gauge if there is oncoming traffic, and carry on if the coast is clear. Functionally, we already do. As an avid cyclist in the city of Montreal for the better part of thirty years (and more recently a driver), my habits are unlikely to change and the risk of being fined for running a stop sign on my bike has never been a deterrent, which is true of most cyclists in the city.
The reason is twofold.
First of all, cycling is a very physical activity, and maintaining efficiency is what makes it worthwhile. The amount of energy expended coming to a full stop, and then starting again from zero is significantly greater than maintaining some forward motion and balancing upright while scanning for traffic. Having to do this at every intersection would be a deterrent from riding at all.
City councillor and member of the Mayor’s executive committee Craig Sauvé knows this distinction.
“Pushing a pedal in a car to accelerate is not the same as moving one’s entire body to accelerate as a cyclist does,” he told me when I asked for his input.
This difference in acceleration contributes to the second factor: safety. As is often the case at an intersection on our crowded roads, I find myself next to a car, or stopped in their blind spot. And Montreal drivers aren’t exactly known for their consistent use of turn signals.
If I’m at a full stop, and a car – or worse, a truck – suddenly veers in my direction, I very likely will not have enough time to accelerate fast enough to get out of the way. However, if I maintain motion , I can accelerate or stop as needed very quickly, and will also place myself sooner in the driver’s field of vision, so they don’t accidentally clip or crush me.
Zvi Leve, a member of the Montreal Bike Coalition, views this kind of policy as a way to shift the focus of our enforcement efforts away from ineffective traffic calming methods and towards actions which are truly dangerous to others.
“We need infrastructure which is designed for the safety needs of vulnerable road users. We have designed our cities for vehicle circulation, and then we wonder why pedestrians and cyclists keep getting injured.”
Leve doesn’t suggest that this should be a free for all for cyclists, and is quick to point out that pedestrians are the most vulnerable, and need the most protections.
“Cyclists also need to understand the ‘rules of the road’ and to cede the right of way when necessary. In fact, that is what it comes down to: The ‘right of way’ can be ceded but it should never be taken.”
Hopefully, this mindfulness of courtesy regarding right of way will catch on with drivers as well. In the meantime, I’m looking forward to further infrastructural changes that will improve safety, and in a tangible way, save lives, and so is Sauvé:
“The reality is that the current highway safety code was made a half a century ago with only cars in mind. Society has evolved and there are more and more cyclists on the road every year. We have to change our highway code in Montreal to reflect that reality.”
* Featured image by Richard Mason/Cyclelicious via flickr Creative Commons