In short: it depends. Some states do allow cyclists to treat traffic lights as stop signs and stop signs as yields, meaning that they can ride through both if it is safe to do so. Other states treat bikes as cars and so cyclists must stop at traffic lights. Why is there a problem on either side?
Cyclists and drivers often come to blows when it comes to sharing the road, with squabbles over where cyclists are allowed to ride and how fast they should be going, drivers being sworn at for driving too close, and cyclists and drivers interfering with each other while traveling or while parked! But nothing causes more contention between the two road users than traffic lights.
Drivers know that they have to go when it’s green, slow down or get ready to stop when it’s yellow and stop when it’s read; however, cyclists occupy a much greyer zone, and this causes strife between cars and bikes.
It is not helped by the fact that municipal, state, and federal law all have differing opinions on the whole thing and the law is upheld-or not-depending often on how the cops feel about doing it that day and how bad the infraction was!
And then, of course, there are the debates across the world about whether bikes should be allowed to go through red lights when it’s quiet, roll through stop signs, or whether they should obey all the same lights even if those lights go stale… It’s no wonder drivers and cyclists get frustrated with one another.
We are going to do our best to break through some of the confusion. At the end of the day though, we firmly endorse riding safely and riding legally.
So, even if it is legal to ride through a stale red light, roll through a stop sign, or ride swiftly through a yellow light, safety should still be the top priority and you should only do it if it is one hundred percent safe to do so.
What are the issues around cyclists and traffic lights?
- Why do Cyclists ride through red traffic lights and where/when are they allowed to?
- Should cyclists be allowed to roll through stop signs?
- How do the laws change when a cyclist is walking their bike?
- Who is at fault when a cyclist is struck by a vehicle at an intersection?
Riding Through Red Lights
Cyclists riding through red lights is probably the top complaint that drivers have. If you’re a driver, you have to stop at a red light and wait for it to turn green and many drivers say that if bikes are considered vehicles, cyclists should follow the same rules. And in many states, the law agrees.
However, there are a handful of states which observe what is called the Idaho Stop, and other states with cyclists lobbying to be allowed to do the same. So, what is the Idaho Stop law and why do cyclists want it?
The original Idaho Stop law is a law that was passed which allowed cyclists to go through a red light if the light sensors did not pick up the weight of the bike (causing a ‘stale’ red light). Cyclists could only go through if it was safe to do so. We talk more about the Idaho Stop in greater detail in an earlier article, so you can consider this a reminder.
Since that piece was published, Arkansas has also passed the Idaho Stop law and a similar law is working its way through Utah state government. Since the 1980s when Idaho first passed the law, it’s been picking up speed with several states passing their own version (such as the Delaware Yield) and more states looking to pass the full law or some variation therein.
The main reason for the push to allow cyclists to go through red lights (when safe) is, to some ironically, a matter of safety. The idea is that it does a few things:
- Encourages cyclists to find alternative and quieter routes
- Encourages cyclists to take advantage of the fact that they are slower moving and have a wider field of vision and so are able to see traffic coming before cars can see them coming.
- Many traffic light sensors do not pick up cyclists, causing lags in the flow of traffic and interruptions. The Idaho stop law was meant to avoid this.
- Cyclists can turn left against a red light which means they have a largely free intersection and can avoid ‘negotiating’ with cars. A couple of studies have shown that the Idaho Stop is safer for cyclists since it lets them get in front of traffic rather than beside it where cyclists risk being struck by people turning.
The Idaho Stop is only full law in very few places, but these states have passed it or their own version of it:
Anywhere where the Idaho Stop is legal (or some version of it is), cyclists may not necessarily have to stop at traffic lights!
Should Cyclists Be Allowed to Roll Through Stop Signs?
Part of the Idaho stop law also deals with stop signs. In full, the law gives cyclists the right to treat red lights as stop signs and stop signs as yields.
This means, that wherever the Idaho Stop law (or many of its derivatives) are in effect, cyclists do have the ability and the right to roll through stop signs, assuming of course that it is safe to do so.
While many drivers are likely annoyed or even outraged by this, there are arguments to be made for allowing the practice to become more widespread. The main one is, of course, safety.
One of the big problems with stop signs is that they were never meant for pedestrians or cyclists: they were meant for cars. In particular, they were meant to make sure cars slowed down in areas of high pedestrian concentration, such as neighborhoods.
A car going thirty kilometers an hour is going to have a harder time stopping than a bike or a pedestrian when they need to, so putting in stop signs ensures that they cannot go too fast and have plenty of warning to stop.
Bikes, on the other hand, don’t go much past a third of that speed and it’s much easier for them to stop or at least veer out of the way, so they don’t really need a stop sign to slow them down. Furthermore, cyclists that stop take longer than cars to get going again, slowing down traffic.
Now, this is not to say that cyclists should completely ignore stop signs: after all, they still travel faster than pedestrians or people on skateboards and still run the risk of either running someone down or being run down themselves.
Therefore, the happy medium of slowing and yielding at a stop sign rather than always coming to a complete stop seems the way to achieve a more fluid movement of traffic.
We would say that while cyclists may be able to go through stop signs (and probably should be able to across the country), they should only do so when it is safe and not compete with cars for space.
How Do the Law Change When Cyclists are Walking Their Bike?
An important note in all of this is the fact that a cyclist can easily become a pedestrian and then the rules change. In particular, the rules change when a cyclist is crossing the street at a pedestrian intersection (meaning they must walk their bike) and when they are on a sidewalk.
In just about every city, town or state, it is illegal or at least heavily frowned upon to ride a bike on a sidewalk unless the rider is a child. This is of course because cyclists would strike pedestrians on a sidewalk and cause accidents.
However, if cyclists dismount and walk their bikes, they can go on the sidewalks and are treated as pedestrians.
The same goes for using a crosswalk. If a cyclist wants (or needs) to use a crosswalk, they must dismount and then are treated as pedestrians and must obey the traffic lights accordingly.
So, while cyclists are walking their bike, they are treated as pedestrians and so must obey the appropriate traffic lights and signs.
Who Is At Fault in a Collision Between a Cyclist and a Driver?
A huge consideration for cyclists who want to know their rights on the road is the concern of an accident and who is at fault in cases of one.
Cyclists are very vulnerable on the road: they are sharing the space with vehicles that weigh much more than them and the drivers are generally protected from harm by their car.
This would seem therefore that if there is an accident, the cyclist should get awarded the damages since they are most likely to be damaged.
However, this assumes that cyclists are never at fault and that just isn’t true. Most of the states (aside from Alabama, Maryland, North Carolina, Virginia and Washington DC) observe the comparative negligence fault laws.
What this means is that in cases of an accident, the people involved would recover a percentage of their damages for which they are not at fault.
In the other states, contributory negligence is observed which is a much harsher law wherein if an individual is even 1% responsible for an accident, they recover nothing.
It’s important for cyclists to always be trying to prevent an accident in the first place since, while they may get awarded damages, they are also most likely to be killed or seriously injured. You can do this by making sure you always ride sober, avoid the use of headphones, having proper lights and reflectors to be visible, and making sure that your brakes and steering are in top working order.
In short, depending on where you live, cyclists don’t have to stop at traffic lights, but they do have to slow down, be mindful and respectful of other traffic on the road, and err on the side of caution over speed.
There is definitely more of a push for the Idaho Stop to be observed across the country, but for now, it’s best to know your local laws and be as safe as possible.