Credit: Daniel Dreifuss (file)

As President Joseph Biden observed Earth Day by declaring that the United States would lead the world in a dramatic reduction in greenhouse-gas emissions, the California State Assembly overwhelmingly passed a bill to make stop signs advisory for bicyclists and no longer mandatory. If this bill is eventually passed into law, California will become the fifth state to do so. 

Currently, cyclists who do not come to a complete stop at intersections controlled by stop signs are subject to tickets and significant fines. If the new law wins approval, cyclists will be required instead to slow down and yield to oncoming traffic, but not necessarily to stop. 

More than 75 organizations advocating on behalf of greater road access for cyclists wrote letters on behalf of this bill. Joining the effort, among others, was the Santa Barbara Bicycle Coalition. Santa Barbara’s representative in the Assembly, Steve Bennett, an ardent bicycle advocate, voted in favor of the bill.

Driving the argument on behalf of the change were concerns about road safety for cyclists. It turns out that states that relaxed road rules regarding stop signs saw a significant decrease in the number of collisions involving cyclists at intersections. Delaware reported a 23 percent reduction three years after the State legislature passed a similar measure in 2017. The State of Washington — the most recent state to adopt such a measure — reported a 14.5 percent drop in the year following the change.

Dave Snyder, a pro-bike lobbyist and advocate with CalBike in Sacramento, noted that the new bill enshrines into law the existing behavior of many cyclists already. “To me, it confers dignity on people who ride bikes,” he said. “You don’t have to break the law to behave in a normal and convenient fashion. It’s safe and it’s normal and it’s necessary to roll through intersections without stopping if there’s no traffic there.” If and when the new bill goes into effect, he predicted, “You won’t feel like you’re breaking any law by doing what comes normally.”  

Snyder also evoked aspects of the George Floyd moment, noting, “It gives police less of an opportunity to harass cyclists,” adding that in Black and brown communities, that nerve is especially raw. Snyder was struck by the desultory nature of the opposition to the bill led by the California Police Chiefs Association. The bill won by a 53-to-11 margin with support from both parties. 

As a practical matter, cyclists prefer not to come to complete stops at every stop sign, not out of any scofflaw insurrectionist impulse so much as a matter of ergonomic efficiency and concern over wear and tear of the joints. A great degree of exertion is required to start pedaling from a dead stop. Over time, that torque can inflict damage on the knees. 

Based on a study on the behavior of 18,000 cyclists dubbed “Scofflaw Cycling, Illegal but Rational,” it was determined that 70 percent of the cyclists who rode through stop signs cited safety reasons for doing so. The study noted that motorists violate the law with greater frequency.

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