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driving concerns

A cyclist shoulder checks for traffic while cycling on Queen St. East in Toronto, on June 13, 2022.Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

I have a neighbour who rides her bike to work every day. She told me she was frustrated by police ticketing cyclists in High Park this summer for speeding and not coming to a complete stop at stop signs. We got into a bit of a good-spirited argument about stopping at stop signs. I said the law is the law and stop means stop. She said cars roll through stop signs all the time. She also said it’s safer for cyclists to treat stop signs as a yield sign. She said some U.S. states let cyclists slow down at stop signs and go only if it’s clear. Does anywhere in Canada do this? – Gabor, Toronto

Legally, a stop sign is a stop sign everywhere in Canada, full stop.

So, if a cop catches a cyclist rolling through a stop sign, they could get the same fine as a driver would – just without the demerit points.

“A cyclist on a roadway is subject to all rules of the road applicable to any other roadway user,” Calgary police said in an e-mail. “They must come to a full and complete stop at a stop sign or red light.”

But nine U.S. states – Idaho, Delaware, Arkansas, Oregon, Washington, Utah, North Dakota, Oklahoma and Colorado – allow cyclists to treat a stop sign as a yield sign. Cyclists must slow down and yield to any approaching vehicle or pedestrian.

Because Idaho was the first state to pass the law, back in 1982, a cyclist yielding at a stop sign is also known as an Idaho Stop. After Delaware became the second state to allow the rolling stop in 2017, seven more states have passed laws. Also, four of those states – Idaho, Arkansas, Oklahoma and Colorado – allow cyclists to treat red lights like stop signs and, after stopping completely, proceed if clear.

Yield to pressure?

So why should bikes get to yield at stop signs?

“We’re a momentum-based sport, so each time a cyclist has to come to a complete stop, it takes that much more energy to go forward,” said Alison Stewart, senior advocacy manager with Cycle Toronto, a pro-cycling non-profit.

If a cyclist stops completely rather than yielding, it will take them longer to get moving again – which can slow down traffic behind them.

“I always slow down and yield right of way at stop signs, but in the last few weeks, I’ve been on heightened alert [after the police enforcement effort] and have come close to stopping completely at signs,” said David Shellnutt, a Toronto-based personal injury lawyer who specializes in cycling cases. “A driver behind me got so mad that I was taking my sweet time that he blew past the stop sign and passed me.”

Yielding at stop signs rather than coming to a complete stop is already something many cyclists do – including some Toronto police bike cops, Shellnutt said.

In a 2016 DePaul University study of 875 Chicago cyclists at six intersections, only one in 25 came to a complete stop. But a 2010 study by Jason Meggs of the School of Public Health at the University of California, Berkeley, found a 14.5-per-cent reduction in bicycle injuries the year after Idaho adopted the stop-sign law and no evidence of a long-term increase in injuries or fatalities. Police in Vancouver, Toronto and Montreal didn’t immediately respond when asked how many tickets they’d given to cyclists for failing to stop at a stop sign.

Calgary police said they didn’t know because their recordkeeping system doesn’t show whether the person ticketed was a driver or cyclist.

Montreal police said between Jan. 1 and Sept. 21 of this year they issued 528 tickets to cyclists for failing to stop at a stop sign. During that same time, there were 10 collisions between a car and cyclist where the cyclist failed to stop – and no collisions between a car and pedestrian.

Ontario’s Ministry of Transportation didn’t immediately respond when asked whether it is considering allowing bicycles to yield at stop signs.

Bikes are not cars

Allowing the Idaho Stop would be a step toward modernizing Ontario’s Highway Traffic Act so it reflects the differences between cars and bikes, Shellnutt said.

“The laws were written however long ago and are designed for [motor] vehicles. Thought hasn’t been given to the unique nature of bicycles and the vulnerable road users who drive them,” he said. If bikes were allowed to yield, cyclists could still be ticketed if they didn’t yield and blew through a stop sign completely, Shellnutt said.

Generally, bikes and cars shouldn’t be treated the same under the law because cyclists “don’t have the same infrastructure as cars” and, in a collision with a car, a cyclist is more likely to be injured or killed, Cycle Toronto’s Stewart said.

“Currently, people focus on criticizing cyclists [for] ‘breaking the law’ despite the fact that car drivers treat stop signs as yields just as, or more, often,” Stewart said. “Pitting one group against the other isn’t solving the problem.”

But could yielding cyclists pose a danger to pedestrians? While pedestrians have been hit and injured by cyclists, it’s rare, Stewart said.

For instance, out of more than 6,800 reports of pedestrians struck in Toronto between 2006 and 2019, 15 involved a cyclist hitting a pedestrian, according to Toronto police traffic collision data. None of those crashes were fatal. Three resulted in a major injury – in the rest there were no injuries or they were minor.

Have a driving question? Send it to globedrive@globeandmail.com and put ‘Driving Concerns’ in your subject line. Emails without the correct subject line may not be answered. Canada’s a big place, so let us know where you are so we can find the answer for your city and province.