When it comes to bikes, traffic signals, and the road, it’s generally assumed that bikes are treated as vehicles (or riders are at least expected to uphold the same rights and duties as drivers), all traffic signals are to be obeyed, and riders should stay as far to the right as possible.
But humans are a fickle, strange bunch and there are always instances where things get changed to throw a wrench in the way things are done. A good case in point? The Idaho Stop law.
The Idaho Stop has caused minor clashes between cyclists, police, and the courts has prompted spirited arguments for and against, and is one of those things which has been around a lot longer than people think but only in small areas with a very slow outward growth.
What is the Idaho Stop and what should you know about it?
The Idaho Stop: Origins
The Idaho Stop law has its origins in Idaho in 1982, making it close to thirty years old! It was part of a broader package to modernize bicycle laws in order to free up time in the courts (minor traffic offenses were downgraded to civic public offenses so that they wouldn’t have to go through a criminal court).
The modernization package was part of the broader traffic code changes and included things like allowing cyclists to take a lane or merge left and to treat a stop sign as a yield sign, thus freeing up the courts from the tedium of dealing with a zillion violations from bikes rolling through stop signs.
The Idaho Stop law also grew to cover red lights which would be treated as stop signs.
The goal of the Idaho stop is two-fold: free up court time and energy from being tangled up in minor traffic violations and to focus on yielding right-of-way rather than stopping and starting based on lights.
This way, cyclists aren’t frozen in place by a stop light that didn’t pick them up when there’s no traffic to worry about anyway, and the courts don’t have to deal with piles of tickets from cyclists accidentally going through stop signs or going through them when it’s quiet anyway.
The Idaho Stop was put into Idaho law in 1982, but it took many decades for it to be adopted elsewhere. In 2017, Delaware adopted a limited version of this law and in 2018, Colorado took on pieces of it as well.
The Idaho Stop Spreads
Several states have now taken on limited versions of the Idaho stop law with an eye towards keeping traffic flowing smoothly. However, they don’t all observe the same thing and it’s important to know the differences.
The following states observe some form or another of the Idaho Stop:
However, what is covered can vary.
|State||Treat Stop Signs as Yields||Proceed Through a Red Light||Proceed through a light that is inoperative or malfunctioning||Enter an intersection||Notes|
|Arizona||No||No||Yes||When it’s safe|
|Colorado||There are no state laws. Summit County, Breckenridge, and Dillon have stop as yield local laws.|
|Delaware||Yes||No||No||Must yield first||Stop signs are only treated as yield signs on roads with two or fewer lanes.|
|Illinois||No||No||Yes||After 120 seconds||Only applies in municipalities with fewer than 2 million people|
|Indiana||No||Yes||No||Must wait at least 120 seconds||Must exercise due caution when treating a red light as a stop sign|
|Kansas||No||No||Yes||After a reasonable period of time*|
|Minnesota||No||No||Yes||After a reasonable period of time|
|Missouri||No||No||Yes||After a reasonable period of time|
|Nevada||No||No||Yes||After two complete cycles of the lights or lighted arrows|
|Oregon||No||No||Yes||After one complete cycle||Signal must be controlled by a detection device.|
Table 1-Information from https://bikeleague.org/sites/default/files/IdahoStop-DelawareYield_8_2018.pdf
*A reasonable period of time is quite vague. 120 seconds seems to be the safe norm but is hard to fight in court.
As you can see, the Idaho Stop in the states which have adopted it largely covers going through a traffic light that doesn’t seem to be working properly to ‘pick up’ the presence of a cyclist.
The reason for this is to keep traffic moving so that bike riders don’t get snarled up in each other, other pedestrians, and other traffic.
It’s far rarer to be allowed to treat stop signs as yield signs and be allowed to just go through red lights.
The Idaho Stop Controversy
The Idaho Stop is not without its controversies. The fight basically boils down to two sides: Cyclists who see that the law codifies what is already being done by cyclists anyway and that by doing so, they are helping to move traffic along faster; and drivers who see this as giving cyclists special and unfair privileges.
It’s muddied by the fact that most drivers don’t know it exists and cyclists abuse it by thinking they have the right to simply blow through all intersections. All in all, it leads to increased tension between drivers and cyclists.
Layered on top of that is that there has not been enough research done on whether observing the Idaho stop makes roads safer, although that is changing the more the law is being implemented.
Anecdotally, it appears that the Idaho stop generally makes roads safer, assuming it’s observed properly. The idea is that it allows for freer flow of traffic (particularly for cyclists who don’t prompt the traffic lights to change which is why states that have a modified version of this law tend to at least allow cyclists to go through a ‘stale’ red light).
It also frees up the courts from dealing with a million tiny infractions from cyclists going through stop signs.
However, many cyclists forget that they aren’t supposed to blow through the red light or stop sign; they are supposed to yield and only go through when it’s safe to do so.
And the Idaho stop law does not apply to cyclists on sidewalks. If they are on the sidewalk, they are treated as pedestrians and must follow the traffic lights again.
If these things aren’t done, the Idaho Stop is no safer than any other law and causes drivers to get very unhappy.
The Idaho Stop may be slowly making its way around the country, in one form or another, but it’s still not widely known about or understood by cyclists, traffic, or police.
If you’re going to observe it, it’s important to ensure you know what your state and local law cover (and don’t cover) and be able to back it up if you are given a citation. And even if the law is on your side, you may still be cited because the law is vague in many places.
All in all, it’s worth keeping track of the Idaho Stop law and how it impacts your ability to navigate the roads. Above all, remember that you still must yield to traffic at stop lights and signs even where you are allowed to go through them, and be polite and aware while on the roads. Stay safe!