Living Here Guide

New to Boise? Here are 5 things to know about Idaho’s quirky traffic laws

The Treasure Valley keeps gaining people, which means it keeps gaining vehicles and pedestrians and bicyclists, which means it’s vital to know the rules of the road.

Now, one typically does not need to be a Rhodes Scholar to know traffic laws, but Idaho does have some codes and setups that might not jive with those in the states people have left to move here.

There’s a fine line between red and yellow, for instance, and red doesn’t even mean stop if you’re pedaling a bicycle. And some roundabout intersections might throw you.

So put those hands at 10 and 2, or at least 9:40 and 3, and don’t read this while driving.

No. 1: A yellow light can be permissive?

yellow light.JPG
Idaho is one of more than 30 states with a permissive yellow law. McClatchy file photo

So this is not necessarily all that unusual, but it’s a good place to start. Idaho is one of three dozen states with what is called a “permissive yellow light law.” That means if your front bumper has reached the intersection before a light is red, feel free to avoid slamming on the brakes and cruise on through.

Now, as Boise Police Officer Kyle Wills pointed out in a 2014 Statesman story, “that does not mean accelerate” when you see a yellow light. But it does mean the back of your car could still technically be in the intersection when the light turns red. In states without a permissive yellow, the entire vehicle must have cleared the intersection.

Idaho regulates the length of red and yellow lights. The signal must remain yellow for 3.2 seconds in areas with speed limits between 25 and 35 mph, and 4 seconds for speed limits of 40 mph and greater. After a light turns red, that intersection’s lights remain red for 2 seconds in all directions, giving vehicles time to clear.

No. 2: The ol’ Idaho stop

0408 Bike Ped Drivers Test (6)
When you take Idaho’s driver’s test you must answer at least one question about bicycles and pedestrians. Idaho Statesman file

This law has been nauseating people for years, and Idahoans are probably sick of hearing about it.

But if you’re new to the area, and you’re a motorist or a bicyclist, it’s really simple.

The “Idaho Stop Law” allows bicyclists to treat a stop sign as a yield sign, and a red light as a stop sign. If you see a cyclist rolling right through an intersection with a stop sign, that’s just fine — it’s up to them to check that the way is clear and proceed. They have to stop at red lights, but if it’s clear, then they may go.

Don’t honk at them. Don’t yell at them. Don’t show them your favorite finger. They aren’t doing anything wrong.

Arkansas passes the ‘Idaho stop’

3. Left on red

red lights Lee Giles III ph.JPG
New data out of the city of Puyallup shows its new signal system is paying off by improving the number of cars passing through an intersection during high traffic times. Lee Giles III Puyallup Herald file photo

Turning right on red is popular and well-known, but many still seem to be confused about turning left on red. So let’s clear it up.

Idaho is one of only four states — Michigan, Oregon and Washington being the others — where motorists may turn left onto any one-way street, even if they are departing a two-way street. About three dozen states allow left-on-red turns onto one-way streets only when travelers are coming from other one-way streets.

As the state of Idaho points out in its literature, when making any turn on red, be sure to yield the right-of-way to pedestrians and cyclists. You don’t own the intersection.

And please don’t go straight on red. That’s for bicyclists. We just covered it.

4. Ever heard of a ‘herd district’?

When you drive through open range land, be wary of wandering livestock. Pete Caster Lewiston Tribune

If you have no clue, that’s understandable. But a “herd district” is a county commission-approved line drawn around a municipality or community that exempts the area from open range law.

Oh, wait. Now you’re going to ask what the hell open range law is.

So under open range laws, the animals rule. Drivers are responsible for whatever is on the road. You plow into some livestock in open-range territory, you have the liability and will pay for the loss to compensate the rancher or farmer— and your own damages.

But within a herd district, it’s the duty of the livestock owner to make sure the animals are secured and not wandering down the highway. If an animal gets out and is hit, its owner is liable for the damages.

Ada County has more than 30 herd districts, and all of Canyon County has that status. But about 10 counties do not, the closest to the Treasure Valley being Adams, Camas and Custer. So, if you’re driving from Boise to Sun Valley, you’ll drive through open range land.

5. Those weird intersections

Traffic winds around one of two roundabouts along E. ParkCenter Boulevard and Warm Springs Avenue in East Boise. Idaho Statesman file

Many drivers learn early on that making U-turns is not necessarily an ideal way to motor. But here you might have to do just that to get from Point A to Point B in a proper manner in Boise’s newest intersections.

At the newly renovated intersection of State Street and Veteran Memorial Parkway, there are no left turns. You have to execute what is variously called a “median U-turn” or “thru-turn.” Traveling west on State, for instance, this results in traveling past the intersection, making a U-turn to head back toward your destination, and then turning right.

Traffic circles, or roundabouts, also have become popular in the area. Whitewater Park Boulevard, E. ParkCenter Boulevard, and Hill Road/36th Street all have them. And there are more planned.

Unfamiliarity with such circles at intersections is common because not all places use them. But you don’t have to be like Clark Griswold in “European Vacation” and just drive around in a circle for hours on end.

Navigating the roundabout is not overly complicated. Vehicles enter and bear to the right, circling until their street comes up and then exiting on that street. Motorists entering yield the right-of-way to the circulating traffic. The more than dozen such circles around the Valley are well-marked with how to proceed.

Related stories from Idaho Statesman