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A Cyclist's Argument Against Stopping at Stop Signs

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The other day, while biking to work, I came to a stop alongside another cyclist at a red light. Evidently he had been riding near me for some time because he asked, "Are you going to blow through any more stop signs?"

"Probably, yes," I told him, in all honesty.

"You are the type of person that gives cyclists a bad name," he said.

Before I could respond -- likely something about kissing and certain parts of my anatomy -- the light changed and we parted ways; but I've been thinking about what he said ever since.

You see, I'm actually a really safe cyclist. I have a bell that I use liberally, I signal my turns, I'm courteous and cautious around other cyclists and cars, and I would never dream of riding my bike without a helmet.

But I hate stop signs. Hate them. If you've ever been on a bike, you'll understand that it's really irritating to come to a complete stop then have to start up again. For a person in a car, stopping at a stop sign requires only a shifting of one's foot from the gas pedal to the brake pedal, then back again to resume their prior speed -- and from what I see on my commute every day, even that is too irritating a use of energy for most drivers.

For a cyclist, coming to a complete stop means halting all forward momentum and significantly increasing energy output. In fact, according to this study (Warning: science content) co-authored by a professor of physics at the University of California, Berkeley,

"[O]n a street with a stop sign every 300 feet, calculations predict that the average speed of a 150-pound rider putting out 100 watts of power will diminish by about forty percent. If the bicyclist wants to maintain her average speed of 12.5 mph while still coming to a complete stop at each sign, she has to increase her output power to almost 500 watts. This is well beyond the ability of all but the most fit cyclists."

In other words, if you were to stop at every stop sign on your way to work, it would be difficult for you to maintain a comfortable, constant, average speed. That might not seem like much, but over long distances, it significantly increases travel times and likewise increases fatigue. Even slowing to a virtual crawl instead of completely stopping allows cyclists to use "25 per cent less energy to get back to 10 mph than does a cyclist who comes to a complete stop."

You see, it's not just irritating to come to a complete stop; it's actually hard work.

Most people who are offended by cyclists going through stop signs are likely to scoff at my energy output argument and note, "Too bad, buddy. That's the law." Well to those scoffers I say, "Actually, it's not." Not everywhere at least.

In Idaho, since 1982, there has been a rather sensible section of their legislation that states, "A person operating a bicycle or human-powered vehicle approaching a stop sign shall slow down and, if required for safety, stop before entering the intersection."

That is, cyclists in Idaho need only stop "if required." Basically the law allows cyclists to treat stop signs like yield signs, preserving their energy and, actually, increasing safety: since the law has been on the books, cyclist-related accidents in Idaho have actually decreased.

Because you see, most cyclists aren't actually the maniacal, fly-through-traffic, ignore-all-laws psychos that we are so often portrayed to be. In fact, you'll probably find that the average person who has chosen to forgo a gas-guzzling car and opt for a vehicle that requires as much energy as a light bulb (coming from a person no less) is usually a pretty sensible person.

Not only do we not seek to intentionally ignore the law simply for the sake being rebellious, we also understand that in a battle between a 175lb bag of meat and a 3000lb block of metal and chrome, there is only one likely winner. So, believe it or not, we actually take some caution when we roll through a stop sign -- and with a head higher than your car's roof, I think we're also actually in a pretty good position to gauge traffic as we approach an intersection.

So, the next time a fellow cyclist tells me I'm giving 'our people' a bad name, I won't even get worked up. I'll simply laugh at his foolish, inefficient use of his energy, swivel my head to check that the coast is clear, and roll on past him, Idaho-style.

And the next time a driver asks me to make a complete stop at a stop sign, I'll respond the same way I always do, "You first."