An untold amount of death and destruction is caused by bicycle riders each year. Let me re-phrase that. The amount of death and destruction caused by bicycle riders is so negligible that it isn’t a topic worth telling you about. What is worthy of discussion is why we have traffic laws to protect us from these not-so-killer bike riders. Wait, you say, we don’t have traffic laws for bikes, we have them for cars, which are multi-ton rolling weapons responsible for tens of thousands of deaths per year just in the United States alone! Traffic laws must help to protect bicyclists, of course, rather than to protect us from them, don’t they?
Not exactly. We didn’t invent stop signs and stop lights to protect anyone from bike riders, only to protect us from cars, so why do they have to follow the same laws if we are able to invent other laws that make more sense? The answer is, bike riders don’t have to follow the same laws, at least not in some states, and they should not have to. The so-called “Idaho stop” refers to the Idaho law that states that bike riders do not have to come to a full stop at a stop sign and can treat a stop light the way cars treat a stop sign. When they come to a stop sign, they can assess the situation and, if they have the right of way (e.g. first to arrive at the intersection), they can proceed through slowly. When arriving at a stop light, if nobody else is coming through with the right of way (e.g. with a green light), they can proceed after a brief full stop. Other states have similar “Dead Red” laws that allow bike riders to ride through a red light after stopping.
Sure, sometimes I just hate bike riders too–they can be a pain in the ass! I get annoyed by the ones who take up too much of a narrow road and keep me from passing or slow me down. And sometimes they act like no laws apply to them. But that’s a different issue. It doesn’t mean they have to follow all the same rules I do, as long as they follow whatever rules we decide make sense for bikes. As long as they don’t take my right of way by blowing through traffic signals, which the Idaho and other state laws do not allow, I’d actually prefer that they keep moving along as quickly as possible.
It makes sense to have special laws for bicycles. After all, they don’t cause death and destruction like cars or motorcycles and they are generally only injured when cars break the law. Sure, some are likely due to reckless people on bikes, but they are probably the ones who turn without looking and blow through lights without even slowing down, which will remain illegal due to the havoc that can cause to nearby cars and pedestrians. 726 bicyclists were killed and 49,000 injured in 2012; however, only 29% of injuries were due to cars. Even more were killed by crashes due to falls (17%), bad road conditions (13%), rider error (13%), other collisions (7%), and dogs running into their path (4%).
Bicyclists aren’t even responsible for a meaningful number of pedestrian injuries. 4,743 pedestrians were killed and 76,000 injured in 2012, but most injuries were due to trips and falls (41%) than from getting hit by a car (only 12%). The number that might have been caused by a collision with a bike isn’t even on the list, so it must be lower than causes that include wildlife or pets (6%), tripping on a rock (5%), and stepping in a hole (5%). If you live in a city, you probably know someone who has been run down by a bike, Again, however, that has to do with ignoring all traffic laws, not with having different ones.
The thought that car traffic laws somehow must apply equally to bicycles is just lazy thinking. One might even suggest that allowing bicycle riders to cruise carefully through stop signs and go through stop lights will lead to greater safety. This is because bikes can currently travel faster on high-speed roads than on roads with a lot of traffic controls, so many avoid the slow roads. If they were able to deal with the traffic signs differently, then the slower, safer roads might become more attractive.
Of course, we will always probably still have the problem of distracted, drunk, or jackass bike riders. About 24% of bicyclists killed had blood alcohol levels of .08. So, I’d still be against riding drunk or using a mobile phone while riding unless it was hands free. I might even be talked into a law banning sexy biking. I have no idea how many bike riders, or pedestrians for that matter, have caused accidents just by dressing sexy. It has got to be higher than the number caused by dog collisions!
The point may eventually be moot. I suspect that, someday, we will require bike riders and pedestrians to wear devices that electronically signal their presence to cars with smart sensors and to self-driving vehicles. That will make stop signs and lights even more obsolete.