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Karen Telleen-Lawton: Bikes and Rolling Stops

A bill is winding its way through the state legislature to legalize California stops — for bicycles. Bicyclists would be allowed to treat stop signs as yield signs: proceed with caution if conditions are safe.

While not coming to a full stop at a stop sign is fairly common for cars, it’s even more routine for bicycles. One reason may be that cyclists have been gauging the intersection for a longer time as they approach it.

Some motorists complain that cyclists pick and choose which rules of the road to follow, forcing them to avoid cyclists like annoying gnats.

As a driver, I have been surprised and then angered when a cyclist blows through a stop sign, jeopardizing his/her own safety while giving me a heart attack. As more and more people share the road, it’s important to reevaluate the rules for the safety and efficacy of all involved.

That is the idea behind the bipartisan bill introduced by Assemblymen Jay Obernolte, R-Hesperia, and Phil Ting, D-San Francisco. Their reasoning is based on a similar law in Idaho where a rolling stop law resulted in a decline in bike-related injuries.

“It’s pretty compelling that the data support this kind of change in the law,” Obernolte said. “Their loss of momentum causes them to spend a substantially longer amount of time in the intersection.”

The longer time they spend in the intersection, the greater the likelihood they get hit by an oncoming vehicle.

It’s not clear exactly why accident rates dipped after the Idaho law passed. Another theory is that bicyclists abandon the busier streets (where stop lights still require a full stop) for side-street commutes. Either way, the rule could benefit cyclists and motorists.

Listening to a KPCC call-in show about the bill, I heard pushback from several quarters.

A bicycle commuter on his first day of work
A bicycle commuter on his first day of work (Karen Telleen-Lawton)

A runner and a blind walker, who each were hit by cyclists blasting through intersections, said this law could further reduce their safety.

“Why make bikes a protected class?” the runner asked. “They’re dangerous. They’re the ones who break laws every day.”

A cyclist caller agreed: “The proposal creates too much confusion.”

Dave Snyder of the California Bike Coalition acknowledged the bill needed to be amended to explicitly include pedestrians as traffic. He said the law would only apply where there is no traffic. With that in mind, California stops sill would be against the law when pedestrians or motorists are around.

I bike for enjoyment and exercise, and sometimes for errands. Normally, I find motorists treat me fairly on the road.

I only recall being honked at once, when I signaled a right turn as I slowed for a stop sign. The driver blasted me with her horn just as she came alongside me. I’ve always wondered whether she somehow misinterpreted my signal as giving her the bird.

The prospect of increased safety tilts me to the side of the proposed law. I have felt a skosh more room between the cars and me in the last three years, since a law passed that requires cars to maintain a 3-foot radius away from bicycles at all times.

If you believe the legislation unfairly favors bicyclists, you might consider commuting to work or errands a few times to add some data points to your thinking.

Barring that, pretend the bicyclist you encounter on the road is your parent, child, spouse or friend. At least they’re a fellow Santa Barbarian, and a vulnerable one at that.

— Karen Telleen-Lawton serves seniors and pre-seniors as the principal of Decisive Path Fee-Only Financial Advisory in Santa Barbara. You can reach her with your financial planning questions at [email protected]. Click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are her own.

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