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Who taught YOU to drive?

Release the bicycles

I t’s become a rite of spring, as regular as buds on trees and Red Sox games. I speak, of course, of the moment one realizes that bicyclists are back on the road.

For me, the epiphany came two weeks ago, when I’d pulled over at 5:50 a.m. to get a coffee in Davis Square, Somerville. Elm Street was desolate at that hour, but when l looked out my driver’s side mirror, sure enough, there was an orange-clad cyclist about to pass my car. Had I opened the door without looking . . . well, I try not to think about that.

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Bicycling tops today’s agenda. Let’s get to it.

How many times have you seen a cyclist run a stop sign or a red light? It happens so often, you might think the law requiring vehicles to halt doesn’t apply to bikes.

Well, what if it didn’t?

Idaho cyclists have been allowed to proceed through intersections, even when a light is red, since 1982. The “Idaho Stop” rule, as it’s commonly called, dictates that a bicyclist must slow down when approaching a stop sign, but can continue through if the roadway is clear, as they would with a yield sign. Cyclists must stop for a red light, but can start biking again before it turns green if no cars are coming.

So, there are tons of bicycling accidents in Idaho, right? Not really.

In 2009, University of California Berkeley researcher Jason Meggs analyzed crash data from the 2000 Census, and data from the years before and after the Idaho Stop became law. He found that bicycle injuries actually went down 14.5 percent the year after the law was passed. But that was the early 1980s, when people probably drove far less aggressively.

His figures drawn from the census were more intriguing. Comparing Boise, Idaho, with Sacramento — two state capitals that share several demographic similarities — Meggs found that Boise cyclists were 30 percent less likely to sustain an injury. Boise typically records zero annual cycling deaths, the report said.

“Intersections are the most dangerous places for cyclists, and the degree to which cyclists can avoid traffic, the better,” Meggs told me when reached by phone. “What the law does is it allows cyclists to choose the safest time to cross the street. They still have to stop if it isn’t safe. But they get to choose when it is most safe for them.”

Ted Vanegas, a senior planner with the Idaho Transportation Department, said his agency analyzed bicycle accident data in 2008, and also found “no evidence of any increase in injury or fatality rates as a result of the adoption of the law.

“I don’t know if the law offers . . . more protection” for cyclists, Vanegas told me in an e-mail. “But I think it does move the cyclist through traffic more seamlessly. A cyclist has the ability to move out of the intersection on a red light, effectively removing themselves from the path of turning traffic when the light turns green. Even at stop signs, where the bicyclist uses the sign as a yield, it allows the cyclist to move beyond the traffic, helping improve the flows and getting the cyclist out of the way of vehicles.”

Will we ever see an Idaho Stop in Boston? Vanegas told me that for the change to succeed, motorists would need to be thoroughly educated. In Idaho, car drivers expect cyclists to bike through stop signs and red lights, so when they do, it’s not a surprise.

Riding with children

Which is safer: riding a bicycle with your child sitting behind you, or sitting in front of you? There isn’t a definitive answer.

“I haven’t seen any scientific studies showing where the safest place is,” said Dr. Lois Lee, an emergency medicine physician at Boston Children’s Hospital. “There are reasonable arguments for both’’ locations.

The benefit of having a front-mounted child seat is that you get to talk to your child while riding, and they see the road just as you do. But because most front-mounted seats place children between the cyclist and the handlebars, balance and control can be compromised. If you were to stop abruptly and flip over, Lee said, you could fall on top of your child, causing further injury.

With a rear-mounted seat, falling onto a child isn’t really a concern. And rear-mounted seats often have higher backs, all the better for supporting children’s backs. But there are drawbacks, too: You can’t see the child, it’s tougher to have a conversation, and balance can also be compromised.

Child trailers for bicycles are a third option. Recommended by the American Academy of Pediatrics and Consumer Reports, trailers are perhaps the safest way to go because hitches are usually designed to allow the trailer to remain upright should your bike tip over. But it’s harder, and potentially dangerous, to ride with such a trailer in traffic.

One final option worth mentioning — if only because it’s such a cool word — is the bakfiet. Popular in the Netherlands (the word is Dutch for “box bike”) and some bike-centric cities, such as Portland, Ore., it’s essentially a bicycle married to a wheelbarrow.

Kids ride in the bucket, which sits just off the ground in front of the handlebars and behind an extended front wheel. You’ve never seen one? Well, that’s probably because they’re costly: Bicycle Belle, a Somerville shop, sells models starting at $3,000.

Bicycle Belle owner Carice Reddien swears the device is terrific.

“The balance is a lot better because of its lower center of gravity,” says Reddien, who rides with a bakfiet. “The number one thing with carrying kids is, the lower you can get the center of gravity, the better.”

State law lets parents choose where on their bicycles they want their child to sit, though certain guidelines always apply. Children under age 4 must be harnessed in a “baby seat,” their hands and feet must be protected from the bike’s spokes, and they must wear a helmet, unless they are riding in a bike trailer. (Lee and the Academy of Pediatrics, it’s worth noting, recommend that children always ride with helmets.)

Above all, it’s illegal to bike with a child younger than 1 year old. Such children lack enough neck strength and head control to support a helmet, and could incur injuries, including neurological ones, from the jostling action of a ride, Lee said.

No hands, not cool

I’ve always been in awe of cyclists who have such great balance they can ride using no hands. Well, looking cool isn’t cool in the eyes of the law.

Massachusetts General Laws Chapter 85, Section 11B, specifically states that bicyclists “shall keep at least one hand upon the handlebars at all times.” Though I can’t imagine the rule being enforced, it would result in a $20 fine.

Carrying charge

I live a few blocks from a locally run, specialty food market, the type of place where you usually pick up just four or five items at a time. I bike there easily, and sling my plastic grocery bag over one of my handlebars on the way home.

Turns out, I’ve been breaking the law: You’re not supposed to carry anything while cycling “except in or on a basket, rack, trailer, or other device designed for such purposes,” according to state law. The statutory fine is also $20.

“Note that while the law does not specifically say messenger bags or backpacks are OK, they clearly fall into the catch-all of ‘other device designed for such purposes,’ ” said David Watson, the Massachusetts Bicycle Coalition’s executive director.

Peter DeMarco can be reached at peter.demarco@globe.com. His Facebook page is “Who Taught You to Drive?” and on Twitter @whotaughtU2driv.

Peter DeMarco can be reached at peter.demarco@globe.com. His Facebook page is “Who Taught You to Drive?” and on Twitter @whotaughtU2driv.
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