Colorado’s new law permitting bicyclists to treat stop signs as yield signs and red lights as stop signs was not universally well-received, despite claims made by supporters calling it a common-sense measure that will make streets safer.
Bicycle-safety advocates say the so-called Safety Stop law codifies what has been common practice by many bike riders, arguing that it makes bicycling safer because most automobile-bicycle crashes occur in intersections. News reports covering the new law triggered harsh comments from motorists already annoyed by what they perceive as scofflaw behavior by cyclists.
Edwin Kramer of Highlands Ranch, 69, sees the law as a “disaster in the making” because some bicyclists “feel they own the roads.” Kramer is a bicyclist, too.
“If I am a driver stopped at a stop sign and there is a cyclist approaching the intersection, do I have to wait for the cyclist to roll through the intersection?” Kramer wrote in an email to The Denver Post. “I can see a cyclist rolling up behind me as I begin to make a right turn and plowing into me, or I run over them as they cruise through the stop sign. And what if it’s a four-way stop and I was already at the stop when the cyclist rolls up on the cross street? Can he just roll through, and I will have to wait on him to cross the intersection?
“This law is a mistake and will result in confusion, damage, injuries and maybe death,” Kramer wrote. “They better be having some public service announcements on the proper way to deal with this new law.”
Jack Todd, director of communications and policy at the advocacy group Bicycle Colorado, which lobbied for the new law, answered Kramer’s concerns this way:
“The new law doesn’t change the rules of the right of way whatsoever,” Todd said. “So, if a driver is already stopped at a stop sign when a bicyclist approaches, the bicyclist must come to a stop and the driver may proceed. This is true at all intersections, including in the right-hand-turn scenario this reader mentions. The law does not allow bicyclists to disregard existing right-of-way rules.”
Reaction to the new law highlighted the animosity that already existed between motorists and bicyclists on increasingly crowded Colorado roads, even as state and city governments enact measures designed to encourage more commuting via bicycles.
“We’ve certainly seen some disgruntled drivers who think this is just going to cause chaos on our streets, and we just don’t think that aligns with reality,” Todd said of the new law. “The reality is that many bicyclists do this already. This is legalizing a common behavior. The bicyclists know it will be safer for them. Bicyclists can only proceed when they already have the right of way. They’re not able to just fly through intersections legally. Some might do that, but those bicyclists are acting illegally.”
According to CDOT, which publishes a manual that outlines laws governing bicyclists and best safety practices, cyclists have the same rights and responsibilities that are applicable to motorists. They must obey traffic laws and rules of the road. They are expected to obey traffic signs and signals, ride with traffic (never against it), announce their presence when passing other bicyclists or pedestrians (by voice, bell or horn), and use hand signals before turns and stops.
Anyone who drives Colorado roads has seen bicyclists behaving badly, though. And, based on the reaction to the new law and other news stories on motorist-bicyclist issues, there are plenty of motorists who believe laws governing bicyclists should be more restrictive, not less.
“You don’t notice the vast majority of bicyclists because they’re acting in sensible ways,” Todd said. “You are going to notice the bad actors on the roads, whether that’s a bicyclist or a driver. Bicyclists do have every right to be there by law. The vast majority of bicyclists are abiding by the law. It’s the bicyclists who are not (obeying the law) that are likely being observed, painting this picture that all bicyclists are scofflaws. That’s just not reality.”
If so, it may be due in part to motorists misunderstanding some of the laws governing bicyclists. For example, motorists may wonder why bicyclists sometimes ride in the center of a lane, rather than hugging the curb on the edge of a roadway. According to CDOT’s Bicycling Manual, the practice of “taking the lane” is proper behavior for cyclists in certain circumstances. In fact, CDOT advises them to do so for their own safety.
“A bicyclist may take the travel lane where traffic is slow and the lane is narrow, there is no shoulder or bike lane, when approaching an intersection, or if you are moving at the same speed as the flow of traffic,” the CDOT manual says. “Moving to the center of the lane establishes your position and prevents motorists from passing until there’s enough room.”
This is especially true when stopping at intersections. If bicyclists stay to the far right near the curb rather than taking the lane, there is a heightened risk that the motorist will cut them off while making a right turn.
“Bicyclists can get a little bit lost on the edge of the road sometimes,” said Chris Winn, education program manager for Bicycle Colorado. “By moving to the middle of the lane, you’re much more visible to that driver behind. Also, you can control the traffic narrative a little bit. If the driver is behind and thinks, ‘I can slip through this small gap here,’ they might do so in an unsafe manner. If that bicyclist is in the middle of the lane, they’re controlling that narrative, and hopefully it makes for safer choices for everyone.”
Furthermore, the CDOT manual says bicyclists must ride as far to the right as “practicable,” while allowing them to avoid debris, obstacles and traffic. But that doesn’t mean hugging the curb.
“What that means in reality is that a bicyclist might be riding far to the right and they might see gravel or broken glass or ice on the far right side of the road,” Todd said. “They can legally take the lane and choose the safest path for them. They are not required to roll through that broken glass, which could be a huge risk to them.”
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Colorado law requires motorists to maintain a 3-foot separation between them and bicyclists when passing, and failure to do is a Class A traffic violation that could result in a fine and points on a driver’s license. In those situations, many motorists don’t realize they are legally permitted to cross a double yellow line to keep that 3-foot separation, as long as it is safe to do so.
Motorists also should be aware that CDOT recommends bicyclists maintain 3 feet of separation between them and parked cars to prevent them from being hurt in case a parked motorist opens the driver’s side door without checking the rearview mirror. Bicyclists who do that aren’t hogging the lane; they are protecting themselves in keeping with the CDOT rules of the road.
According to CDOT, Colorado had 15 bicyclist fatalities last year, amounting to 2.2% of the state’s 691 traffic deaths overall.
“Fatalities are climbing on our roads, and we don’t think that should be the case,” Todd said. “We need infrastructure changes. We need to build infrastructure that is forgiving of people making mistakes. But we also need to be patient and let people get where they’re going safely.”
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