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'Idaho stop' could be coming to Virginia, allowing cyclists to roll through stop signs

A bit of Idaho-style bicycle safety could reach Virginia if state Sen. Creigh Deeds gets his way.

His new bill that would allow Virginia localities to adopt rules letting cyclists treat stop signs as yield signs – what’s known as an “Idaho stop” – won passage in the upper chamber of the General Assembly earlier this month.

Passage in the Democrat-controlled Senate won every Democratic vote and two Republican crossovers. Passage in the GOP-controlled House of Delegates is going to be a tougher battle.

“I thought it was worth trying out,” Deeds, a Democrat who represents the Charlottesville area, told The Daily Progress.

In 1982, the state of Idaho enacted the measure that would come to be known as the Idaho stop. Today, nine states plus the District of Columbia allow some version of this rolling stop.

At least one local bike shop owner thought Charlottesville already had the Idaho stop.

“I get customers from out of town, and they will ask me about the rules of the road in this area,” said Todd Ely of Basic Cycles. “I’ve been telling people that it’s roll-through in this area.”

In reality, Virginia has long required bicyclists to follow nearly all the rules of the road that cars must follow.

Ely said that’s difficult to do on Charlottesville streets.

“Bicyclists are not allowed to ride on sidewalks, but that is something bicyclists are forced to do for their own safety, and I’ve certainly done it,” said Ely.

A legal scholar agreed with Ely’s assessment and Deeds’ proposal.

“An Idaho stop is great idea,” University of Virginia transportation historian Peter Norton told The Daily Progress. “It’s much safer.”

A 2010 study by a University of California, Berkeley, researcher found a 14.5% decrease in bicyclist injuries the year after Idaho passed its law. A more recent data set from Delaware, which enacted its rolling-stop law in 2017, showed 23% fewer bike crashes at stop-signed intersections.

Building road rules around cars is a 20th-century problem, according to Norton.

“The rules of the road were written for the user of a motor vehicle that is capable of killing another human being,” Norton said.

The author of “Fighting Traffic: The Dawn of the Motor Age in the American City,” Norton said that American streets were once filled with bicycles, pedestrians, horses and wagons pulled by various animals.

“The rule was you go though the intersection paying attention to what you were doing,” said Norton. “There was no expectation that you stop at all. Like a busy airport corridor, you just kind of figured it out.”

Norton alleged that the safe sharing of roadways ended with the advent of cars and that agents of the auto industry exerted undue influence over cities and state legislatures to expand the rules governing motor vehicles to all road users.

“The stop rule was introduced to make motorists less lethal,” Norton said. “This in turn means that the rules that we’ve got are a poor fit for other street and road users.”

Norton asserts that an Idaho stop would be particularly helpful in a hilly city such as Charlottesville.

“Starting from zero is effortless in a motor vehicle,” Norton said. “But if you’re in a bicycle, accelerating is tough, so you need to be conservative in your acceleration, and it helps that your field of vision is excellent.”

In 2021, the most recent year for statewide data, the Virginia Division of Motor Vehicles reported that 502 bicyclists were injured, 131 of them seriously, and 16 bicyclists were killed in collisions. About half of all incidents involved no wrongdoing by the cyclist, the DMV said.

While the state data doesn’t explicitly blame motorists for what happens on the road, recent history in Charlottesville shows that some drivers can’t even keep their cars on the road. Already this year, there have been three reported incidents of cars driving into buildings.

Deeds said that he cut an Idaho stop provision out of another cycling safety bill that became law two years ago. That 2021 law let cyclists ride two abreast and required motor vehicles to move into the opposing lane to pass.

“I didn’t want the whole bill to die,” said Deeds.

After attending a National Conference of State Legislatures’ Legislative Summit in Denver in August, Deeds said he realized there was another path: create enabling legislation that allows each locality to make the choice.

“I’m not confident this will work in every locality,” said Deeds. “I knew from hanging around gas stations in rural areas and hearing from pulpwood cutters getting slowed by bicycles that this wouldn’t be universally popular.”

The result is Deeds’ bill, which allows each municipality to decide if it wants to let bicyclists treat stop signs as yield signs and red lights as stop signs.

“I figure if some localities adopt it, that will be sort a laboratory for the state,” said Deeds.

Already, Deeds has seen some aisle-crossing. Republican Sens. Emmett Hanger of Mount Solon and Steve Newman of Forest voted with every Democratic senator in favor of his local-control measure.

Now the bill heads to the House Transportation Subcommittee on Monday. Unlike the Senate, the lower chamber is controlled, narrowly, by Republicans.

“This week is do or die for this bill,” said Deeds.


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