Is the solution to law-breaking cyclists better cyclists — or better laws? That’s the essential question Brookline police asked on Wednesday, when they wondered in a tweet whether the department should stop pursuing cyclists who turn right at stop signs without coming to a complete halt. To many harried drivers, that probably sounds like nothing short of letting the terrorists win. But such a policy, known in transportation circles as the “Idaho stop” after the only state to allow the practice, would basically legalize the behavior of cyclists who already routinely ignore the full-stop rule because, they say, it often makes little sense for bicycles.
Permitting Idaho stops — whether formally by changing the law, or through a wink and a nod by police — would gratify a lot of cycling advocacy groups. Bicycles don’t move at the same speed as cars or pedestrians, so different rules might be in order in some cases. Still, Massachusetts municipalities need to approach the issue in a systematic way, rather than carving out exceptions here and there. With its crowded, curvy streets, Brookline isn’t Idaho. Running stop signs can put unsuspecting pedestrians at risk. So can cycling the wrong way down a one-way street.
Indeed, the best argument against Idaho stops for cyclists is that they make the behavior of road users less predictable. One of the ideas floated by the Brookline police — to allow Idaho stops only at certain hours, and certain intersections — might only exacerbate uncertainty. It only takes one pedestrian wrongly assuming a cyclist will come to a stop to create a hazardous situation.
The Brookline police emphasized that Idaho stops are not legal, and that the tweet was merely intended to start a discussion. However the city and other municipalities choose to proceed, their policies should leave no room for confusion. One approach might be to specifically mark all intersections where cyclists need to stop, while allowing Idaho stops at unmarked intersections. That’s bound to frustrate some cyclists, who would probably still end up having to stop in places where it seems unnecessary (just as motorists also have to come to full stops even when nobody else is around). But just having that discussion could pay off. Right now many cyclists bristle at laws because they seem arbitrary and irrational when applied to bicycles. Making a fair effort to study which intersections truly need stop signs for bikes may lead more cyclists to respect them.