Pros, cons of WA stop-as-yield law for cyclists

Last week I announced the upcoming change in Washington to the law that allows cyclists to treat stop signs as yield signs. It took two parts to give it proper consideration, so if you haven’t already read part one, do that now. It’s OK, I’ll wait. I’m in no hurry.

Now that you’re all caught up on the history and data we covered in part one, part two looks at how this law works in the real world and why you might like it, even if you don’t ride a bike. While blowing through a stop sign is a low occurrence event for cyclists who want to survive (there are always a few outliers), I’ve spoken to cyclists who intuitively sense that coming to a complete stop at an intersection when there is a clear path through feels less safe than rolling across the stop line. That feeling is backed up by the research of Jason Meggs, a transportation researcher we met in part one.

As counterintuitive as it seems, yielding at stop signs increases cyclist safety. In his studies he found that, “bicyclists rely on their momentum to find windows of opportunity, traversing intersections more quickly at times of minimum risk. Momentum affords a bicyclist myriad options to maneuver so as to avoid danger. Lack of momentum means being a “sitting duck.”” He calls it “clearing the danger zone.” And that’s a good name for it, as crashes in intersections make up a large portion of cyclist fatalities.

I wondered how much time I could really save by entering an intersection at 5 mph (the speed of a moderate jog) instead of coming to a complete stop, so I did a test at an intersection in my neighborhood (one without a stop sign in my direction, just to keep it legal – there are two more weeks before the law takes effect.) I rode through the exercise several times to make sure my results were reasonably accurate. Here’s how it worked out:

Coming to a complete stop: 5.4 seconds to clear the intersection

Slowing down to 5 mph: 3.8 to clear the intersection

Less than two seconds doesn’t sound like much, but it’s 30{d758473eadf0b692d331aa823300cffd0ef21fd1fd535177f3429dd328b70b5d} less time spent in one of the most dangerous places for a cyclist (and driver); the intersection.

Here’s another factor in the favor of the stop-as-yield law: It turns out that even when a cyclist doesn’t come to a complete stop, they spend more time assessing the safety of crossing an intersection than drivers do. That’s because with the exception of the people competing in Tour de France, cyclists approach intersections at a much slower speed than cars, giving them more time to look for traffic and other hazards.

Cyclists also don’t have to deal with visual obstructions that are part of cars themselves. The pillars that hold up the roof of the car create blind spots for drivers. As we add more airbags to vehicles (a good thing) those pillars get bigger and bigger (a bad thing) blocking more of the view, and it’s often the vulnerable road users, like cyclists and pedestrians, who suffer for it.

I still haven’t addressed the concern I mentioned about the unfairness of letting cyclists follow different rules than car drivers. I think the problem here is making a false equivalence between fairness and sameness. This isn’t the first time we’ve adjusted the rules for safety based on the type of vehicle. Car drivers already get to follow different rules than bus drivers and truck drivers. A couple of examples that come to mind: buses have to stop at all railroad crossings, while cars can drive on through (if there’s no train coming, obviously), and on some stretches of roadway cars are allowed a faster speed limit than trucks.

But it’s not just about fairness; the stop-as-yield law also increases traveling efficiency for both bikes and cars. That little experiment I did shows that cyclists and, by extension, the cars behind them save about two seconds by yielding rather than stopping at a stop sign. I’ll be the first to say that if you’re concerned about a few seconds on your commute time you’re doing it wrong, but consider it a return for the time you waited a couple seconds for a cyclist instead of passing in a curve.

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