Cyclists Can Roll Through Stop Signs in One Metro Town, but Not Denver (Yet)

In Thornton, cyclists can now roll past stop signs if there's no traffic.
In Thornton, cyclists can now roll past stop signs if there's no traffic. YouTube
Thornton is now allowing cyclists to roll through intersections with stop signs after checking to make sure the area is clear of traffic. But despite a state law that makes embracing the policy a snap and the encouragement of bike advocates, the City of Denver isn't ready to shift gears in a way that experts say makes cycling both easier and safer.

"We tracked the state legislation last year," notes Theresa Marchetta, spokeswoman for Denver Mayor Michael Hancock, corresponding via email, "and do not intend to propose any code change at this time."

That's disappointing to Brad Evans, who calls himself the "chief agitator" of the iconic Denver Cruisers ride. "It's cool that the people in Thornton stuck their neck out," he says, "while Denver is sitting on the sidelines."

The so-called Idaho stop (or Idaho roll, as it's also known), isn't new. The regulation, which essentially allows cyclists to yield at a stop sign and continue through a red light after stopping first when there are no other vehicles around, was originally enshrined in its namesake state way back in 1982.

While it may actually seem more hazardous, Piep van Heuven, policy director for Bicycle Colorado, argues that what she refers to as the "safety-stop principle" actually minimizes risk for all concerned.

"Most crashes between bikes and cars happen in the intersection," she explains. "But using a safety stop allows you to clear out the intersection before traffic arrives. It creates smoother traffic flow, it clears the intersection and it gets bikes out of the right-hook zone" — the area near the right corner where cyclists tend to pause for stop signs or red lights, and where drivers making right turns may not see them, with potentially deadly consequences.

click to enlarge A graphic shows how cyclists approaching a stop scan for traffic before rolling through the intersection. - YOUTUBE
A graphic shows how cyclists approaching a stop scan for traffic before rolling through the intersection.
Also eliminated is something van Heuven refers to as "an illegal courtesy, when the person in a car waves a bike through the intersection even when they get there first. That can be dangerous, too."

The current law in Denver requiring cyclists to come to a complete halt at every stop sign is frequently broken as well. Because only about 50 percent of peddlers follow it, by van Heuven's estimate, switching to the Idaho stop takes only "a little paradigm shift. People biking like it, because they don't have to worry about cars all around them, and people in cars like it because they don't have to worry about bikes all around them."

Senate Bill 18-144, also known as "Bicycle Operation Approaching Intersection," co-sponsored by Senator Andy Kerr, recognizes the Idaho stop as a best practice. But the measure, signed into law last May, had a broader goal.

"Basically, the purpose of the bill was to create a common language," van Heuven points out. "In Colorado, communities can create their own bike rules, so we had four places that had already adopted distinct traffic laws for people on bikes: Aspen, Dillon, Breckenridge and Summit County. But each of their approaches was slightly different, which creates a confusing patchwork for people, where they don't know what law applies on county roads, city roads, wherever. So the bill created standard language so that as communities begin to adopt different bicycle regulations, they'll all be uniform."

The first community to do so under the legislation was Thornton, which formalized it on February 12. Darrell Alston, a traffic engineer for the city, says statistics underscore the reasons for taking this tack. "In other cities where a similar type of ordinance has been passed, studies have shown that there's about a 30-60 percent reduction in bicycle-versus-vehicle crashes. Some of that has to do with the way it allows the bicyclist to get out and moving and in front of vehicles and traffic also driving in the same direction, because the intersection is the high conflict point."

click to enlarge The term "Idaho stops" commemorates the state where the law was first instated. - YOUTUBE
The term "Idaho stops" commemorates the state where the law was first instated.
Alston adds that in Thornton, "bicyclists as well as walkers are a growing segment of the traveling population that cities like ours need to start accommodating. We can't rely strictly on motor vehicles or assume that everyone has one. We need to be sure we're accounting for all modes of transportation, whether it be bikes, walkers or transits such as buses or railways."

Of course, Thornton is a suburb, not a city. But, Alston says, "I don't see why it wouldn't work in Denver or a larger community. These rules improve safety for the cyclist in the end."

That's a big need, from Evans's perspective. In his view, "Denver is woefully behind in things like protected bike lanes and helping more disadvantaged users of roads." He remembers cycling here after moving from his previous home base of Boulder as being "a real eye-opener, especially when I'd go across Colfax and not have cars stop for me. Boulder has protected crosswalks, and everybody has been trained to stop for pedestrians and crosswalks. But in Denver, nobody in cars stops for anybody. I remember walking out of the Bluebird in the crosswalk and realizing, 'I'm not in Boulder anymore.'"

Evans doesn't see the Idaho stop as the solution to every problem for cyclists. To him, "it's one piece of the process — and we also need an education piece. Denver already has people blowing through stop signs. Now we have to come up with a way to educate people how to do it right."

That includes politicians, too, van Heuven believes. Right now, she says, "there's no formal effort I've heard about" to put Idaho stops to Denver statutes "either within city government or outside it. But I think this conversation is heating up, and I think it's a great time to talk about it. We've got a mayor's election coming up, and most of the city council is running, and a lot of them are talking about encouraging people to bike more. So I think this is going to be front-burner [issue] in Denver very soon."
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Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
Contact: Michael Roberts