Last week DC's Committee on Transportation and the Environment held a hearing on several traffic safety bills, including the Bicycle and Pedestrian Safety Act. One small part of that bill was a provision allowing cyclists to treat stop signs and steady red lights as yield signs. Of course if you watched or read media coverage of this, you might think it was the main change being proposed, or that it was a particularly controversial proposal. Neither is true.
The "stop-as-yield" provision of the 2015 Safety Act is a small part of the bills discussed. The bill is 19 pages long, and this provision is less than one page of it. It's not nearly as important as the complete streets provisions or the mandating of side-under run guards on all District-registered trucks, but it is the "telegenic" part since it allows news reporters - especially TV news reporters - to say "Whaaaat? Let cyclists run stop signs??"
It's also not that controversial - The provision came out of the Bicycle and Pedestrian Safety Working Group, where it originally was approved with only token opposition, but then after the draft report came MPD expressed reservations about it (though Co-chair John Townsend disagrees with this, and says consensus was never reached). The "opposition" was limited to:
- Wayne McOwen, executive director of the District of Columbia Insurance Federation when speaking for DCIF said only that they wanted to see it coupled with an education effort. But later when, coincidentally, the subject came up during the panel he was on, he said - speaking for himself - that he had concerns about it. That was it. He didn't show up to testify against it, and would not have had it not come up. Nonetheless, Mr. McOwen's testimony was widely covered by the media in part because he was on the first panel and, other than Martin DiCaro, the media had largely left before the hearing was over and MPD spoke against it.
- AAA never said that they opposed it or were even concerned about it. Townsend, in his role as the Working Group co-chair, noted that MPD was "diametrically opposed to it" and gave MPDs reasons in an effort to clear up what he saw as an inconsistency in that this provision was in the bill even though it was not approved in the final report (the bill was based on the draft report).
- The main opposition to the provision came from MPD. They took the position that it was not about safety and was a matter convenience, and that "in fact, in a highly populated setting, this could lead to more bicyclist and more pedestrian injuries by them not stopping at stop signs and red lights" because it would confusing to motorists and other users when taking into consideration young and inexperienced riders.
- When asked, Leif Dormsjo, said that having two sets of traffic rules for different users is problematic and that he obeys all the laws of the road. Which isn't really a statement against it.
MPD's opposition either isn't relevant or isn't based on any facts.
First of all, during the working group meetings and during the hearings it was repeatedly stated by others that MPD represented experts on traffic safety. No offense to MPD, but I'm not sure that this is true. They're experts on enforcement, and probably have a great deal of relevant field knowledge about safety, but I would not call them experts. DDOT is the experts, and within the working group they supported it.
The criticism that it is only about making cycling more convenient was relevant on the working group, when we were charged with creating recommendations for ways to make DC roads safer and thus eliminated anything that wouldn't. But Council is not so limited. So, if this only makes cycling more efficient, and I believe that it is more than that, and it has no negative impacts, Council should still support it anyway, since making a more efficient transportation system is something they should support. This unsupported point, thus, is irrelevant.
As to the safety concern, when pressed by CM Elissa Silverman, Assistant Police Chief Lamar Greene said that he thought it was safer when all road users obey DC laws and regulations. His argument was, then, that the law shouldn't change because it's safer when everyone follows the law. But, of course, if this bill passed as is, then the laws and regulations would change so that cyclists who roll through stop signs when no one else has the right-of-way would be following the law.
When Silverman (who clearly supports stop-as-yield) asked him what his belief that the "stop-as-yield" change would lead to more crashes was based on and what evidence he had, he offered none but said that some of his colleagues had talked to some in law enforcement in Idaho and that they had shared his concerns. That was it.
And just to respond to Wayne McOwen's criticism "“We teach our children when the light is red we stop. We teach them when they see a sign that says stop to stop. We teach them to look both ways before they cross the street. We teach them to cross at the crosswalk. Now we are beginning to say follow those rules except if there’s no one around, you can run across the street anyway" Well, yeah. The only way if no one is coming is if they looked both ways. Basically stop-as-yield is how pedestrians already treat stop signs, since they aren't required to stop unless someone else has the right-of-way. I don't see where the problem is.
There are reasons to believe that it does make cycling safer.
Authorities in Idaho have conservatively said that they have perceived, at minimum, no impact on the number of crashes, injuries or deaths since the law was passed. Furthermore, the only study done showed that bike crashes dropped by 13% following introduction of the law.
Determining why it makes things safer is somewhat more difficult, but there are several possible reasons. It could be that it makes riding on slower streets, with more stop signs, more appealing since cyclists can travel at a faster average speed, thereby getting them out of harms way. It could be that the safety-in-numbers effect comes into play once biking is more convenient and more people bike. It could be because bikes, unlike cars, are inherently instable at slow speeds and so forcing cyclists to slow to a stop and then restart creates wobbly cyclists at the most dangerous part of the road - intersections. Or that the Idaho Stop at red lights allows cyclists to get in front of traffic, the same way that bike boxes and Pedestrian Leading Interval lights do, where they're more easily seen. Or a combination of these, or something else.
Knowing how it works might be hard to tease out. But aspirin was developed in the late 19th century and had been used for nearly 80 years before researches figured out how it works, so maybe knowing how something works isn't as important as knowing whether or not it does. [I also use this analogy when talking about distracted driving. We may not know WHY talking on the phone is more distracting then talking to someone else in the car, but there is a lot of research indicating that it is nonetheless. So we'd be wise to not wait to figure out why.]