The first time I saw a bicyclist pedal through a red light in Boise, it irritated me.
While the rest of us all sat in our cars waiting for the light to turn green, the dude just took off through the intersection.
“What an idiot,” I muttered to myself.
At the time, I’d never heard of “Idaho stop law,” which allows bicyclists to treat a stop sign as a yield sign, and a red light as a stop sign.
In other words, the idiot was me.
Apologies for the obnoxious headline, but we are surrounded by ignorance — from both drivers and bicycle riders.
“People just don’t understand what the laws are,” says Boise Police officer Andy Johnson, “and they believe they know what the laws are.”
At times, the ignorance even turns into aggression, whether it’s that road-raging bicycle rider who angrily yanked the side-view mirror off a car this summer, or a recent thread at the Boise Reddit page where a poster urged drivers to not stop for cyclists in crosswalks unless they dismount. Last month, about 20 bicycle activists lined up on 8th Street in a demonstration to remind motorists about bike lanes.
In the interest of education, saving a few lives and perhaps settling a future bar bet at The HandleBar, I asked Johnson to explain bicycle laws to me. He’s been riding for more than 45 years and was hit by a car once — motorist’s fault.
Johnson has been in the saddle as a bike patrol police officer for more than a decade.
“It’s either gonna keep me young,” Johnson quips, “or kill me.”
Fact: In Idaho, bicyclists can cruise through stop signs without stopping and through red lights after stopping.
“Let me clear this one up from the beginning,” Johnson says. “It’s called Idaho stop law. Idaho is the only state in the nation where a bicycle can pull up to a stop sign but proceed through without stopping. But they have to yield. And yield means they have to slow down, and they can proceed through with safety. They have to yield the right of way to anybody at the intersection already there lawfully that’s stopped or close enough to the intersection as to constitute a hazard.”
A red light requires a bicyclist to stop — albeit briefly. “You do not have to put a foot down, per city code,” Johnson adds. “You have to yield. And then once it’s clear to proceed safely, you can proceed through the red light.”
What if a bicyclist is turning right at a red light? “You do not have to stop,” Johnson says. “You can treat that as if it’s a stop sign on a bicycle.”
Johnson knows that motorists struggle seeing a bicycle pausing at a red light, then taking off. Even if it’s legal, like, it’s not fair!
“Cars look at that,” Johnson says, “and then they think, ‘Who is this guy?’ ”
But it’s proven to be an effective law, says Jimmy Hallyburton, founder of Boise Bicycle Project. In the past couple of years, he’s been contacted by other cities interested in adopting Idaho stop law — particularly the stop sign aspect.
“It increases traffic flow,” Hallyburton says, “basically by getting people through the intersection faster.”
On a street, bicyclists must ride in the same direction as traffic.
If there’s a bicycle lane, cyclists in Boise must use it. (You hearing that, bikers illegally riding three abreast on Hill Road?) The exceptions are when moving into position to turn, or when faced with unsafe road conditions or obstructions.
Either way, cyclists on a street are not allowed to ride against traffic.
“Think of a bicycle as a car. Cars have to go with traffic,” Johnson says. (There’s one exception: The green contraflow bike lane in Downtown Boise.)
“What we hear from bicycles going the wrong way is, ‘I can see traffic better,’ ” Johnson says. “But they can’t see regulatory signs. They can’t see traffic signals. And they’re outside the driver’s normal scan pattern and in an unexpected area of normal vehicle operations.”
If a bicycle switches from street to sidewalk, it can roll in either direction.
Bicycles are governed by laws that change the moment they hop the curb.
“This is a situation that a lot of people don’t understand,” Johnson says. “If you’re a bicycle, you live in three worlds. You’re a pedestrian on the sidewalk, you’re a bicycle on a bike lane, and you’re a vehicle on the roadway.”
Bicyclists are subject to pedestrian laws while riding on sidewalks and crosswalks.
Yes, it is legal to ride bicycles on sidewalks. Bicyclists are not required to dismount when they use a crosswalk, either.
But bicyclists can’t pull the Idaho stop law card at a crosswalk.
“If you’re on a sidewalk, and it’s governed by pedestrian lights, you can’t just pull onto the roadway and go, ‘Red light, I’m going through,’ ” Johnson says. “Pedestrian light — you’re a pedestrian.”
Cyclists are not allowed to blaze wildly down sidewalks — or ride a bike carelessly anywhere, for that matter.
“There’s reckless cycling,” Johnson says. “Boise city code 10-14-17. It’s a misdemeanor.”
Bicyclists must give an audible signal when overtaking pedestrians.
It can be the “ding ding” of a bell. It can be your voice: “On your left!” Whatever the case, bicyclists must warn pedestrians in advance when they overtake them on the Boise Greenbelt or on sidewalks.
(Even if everyone on the Greenbelt seems to be wearing earbuds.)
“It’s courteous,” Johnson says. “It scares a lot of people when you pass with high speed.”
Has a bicyclist ever gotten a ticket for not giving an audible signal?
“People have been cited on the Greenbelt for it, but it’s minimal,” he says. “It’s like citing people for jaywalking.”
Personally, I would argue that the “on your left!” etiquette applies to cyclists overtaking cyclists, too — but there’s no law about that.
Gas-powered bicycles are not allowed on sidewalks. Electric bikes? Um ...
“Gas-powered bicycles are motorcycles for the most part,” Johnson says, “and they’re governed by motor vehicle rules, by and large. E-bikes, electric bikes — it’s one of those things where it’s been in flux. There’s not a lot of agreement. The legislation is still out on that right now, and it’s to be determined.”
(Seeing electric bikes buzzing down sidewalks bugs me. But that’s just me.)
(Update: After this column published, the Boise City Council gave the green light to e-bikes on sidewalks.)
Can’t we all just get along?
In the end, Johnson says, the world would be a safer place if everyone showed more empathy. Most of us have experience at some point as a driver, bicyclist and pedestrian.
“We’re all members of the community,” Johnson says. “We have to look at it in a more holistic manner and ... understand both perspectives. And try to reconcile it with both perspectives in mind. And not just lump everybody into the bad basket.”
Hallyburton agrees. “There are a lot of people out there who are following the rules and doing the right thing in both cars and on bikes,” he says.
Still, it’s tough. Your perspective is entirely different when driving and riding. If a driver surrounded by 2,000 pounds of steel passes a bicyclist and gives three feet of clearance (which is legally required), the driver feels safe. The driver feels like that was plenty of room.
But as a cyclist, Johnson says, you might feel like that’s way too close. "Your attitudes are going to be diametrically opposed.”
“I think that’s the hard part,” Hallyburton adds. “When you’re on a bike, you are in a vulnerable position. You’re not only angry, you’re kind of scared. The consequences for you are a little bit higher than for that person driving the car. But at the same time, nobody really wants to hurt anyone. That’s why bicycles are usually not hit from behind.”
The next time you’re driving a vehicle? Maybe try to put yourself in the bicyclist’s position.
And if you’re riding a bike on the street? Be grateful for Idaho’s unique stop law. Treat it as a privilege.
“I think there’s some responsibility on the cyclists to not abuse the law,” Hallyburton says. “It’s not intended for somebody to just squeeze the gap. The law is there to get them out of an intersection faster. To increase that traffic flow. It’s a law that when it’s obeyed, it really benefits both types of users. But there’s just a lot of confusion around it.”
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