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Blowing through an intersection on a bike: Is it worth it?

Pam LeBlanc, Fit City

Staff Writer
Austin 360
Cyclist Pam LeBlanc stops at a stop sign on Riverside Drive near Auditorium Shores. As tempting as it can be to roll through a stop sign sometimes, it's illegal for cyclists to do so, sends the wrong message to cars and can be deadly.

We've all seen it: Cyclists who blow through stop signs or red lights, sometimes without even slowing down.

It ticks off motorists, frustrates bicyclists who obey the law and puts lives in danger. It does something else, too: It erodes the oft-delicate relationship between motorists and cyclists.

Motorists remember the biker who ignores traffic rules, and presume that everyone on two wheels breaks laws, wreaks havoc and slows movement on roadways. Cyclists point out that motorists cut them off, roll through stop signs, speed and commit other infractions regularly.

To be fair, both sides are at fault. If you need proof, park in view of a busy intersection during rush hour and watch the chaos unfold.

The difference, though, is in the consequences. A motorist can run a stop sign, collide with another vehicle and roll away with nothing more than a dented fender. If a car, which weighs about 3,000 or 4,000 pounds, collides with a bike, it can do grave damage to the rider. There is no room for error on the bicyclist's part.

"We really are vulnerable. We were not designed to hit the ground at 20 miles per hour," says Preston Tyree, 68, who recently retired as education director for the League of American Bicyclists and now serves as education director of the Austin Cycling Association. "There's a lot of us who are arrogant, thinking, ‘I'm on a bicycle, I have rights.' But we have to take responsibility for our own safety."

First things first. In general, bicyclists must follow the same rules as motorists. Whether you're driving a car or riding a bicycle, the law requires you to stop at red lights and stop signs. In Austin, a ticket for running a red light can set a bicyclist back $217.

Curious about how Austin cyclists handle intersections, we put out a call, asking readers who ride bikes if they always stop at red lights and stop signs.

The answer? Of course not.

The reality is that many cyclists slow down at stop signs, check for traffic, and proceed if the intersection is clear. Whether or not that's a good thing to do depends on whom you talk to.

In Iowa, it's perfectly legal for a cyclist to roll through a stop sign — if conditions are safe to do so. In the rest of the United States, it's not.

Stopping doesn't mean you have to take your feet off the pedals. "Nothing in the law says you have to put your foot down," Tyree says. "It means cease all forward motion."

But stopping isn't always convenient or comfortable, and it might not seem necessary. And, as some cyclists point out, it might even annoy motorists.

"It takes a lot of energy to completely stop and restart, especially if there is no one around, when I could save the energy for the upcoming hill," says Natalie Poulos, who says she stops at red lights but treats stop signs as yield signs. "It takes much longer for a cyclist to stop and restart, which often causes the car behind me to get frustrated and zip around me."

Phyllis Schunck — and many other Austin cyclists — does the same. "I always slow down for intersections, well enough that I can stop and take my turn if a car is coming, but I don't always stop if there's no one around," Schunck says. "My bike is heavy, and it's just too hard to get going again, especially going uphill with a load of groceries in my double baskets."

Several wrote to say that they will stop briefly at an intersection, but start across the street early if the oncoming traffic, which had a green left turn arrow, has stopped. That prevents cars behind them in line from getting frustrated when a cyclist takes longer than they want to start up again, they say.

Tyree says that's not a valid reason to proceed. "Never compromise your safety for someone else's convenience — riding or driving," he says. "A cyclist really has to build that into his soul."

No one admitted to blowing through intersections without slowing down at all, and only a few who contacted us said they always make a complete stop.

"I mostly try to do what I consider ‘safe' depending on the conditions," wrote cyclist Erik Kwiecienski. "For instance, I almost never come to a complete stop at a stop sign (driving or cycling) when there is no traffic at the intersection. I don't blow through stop signs (and never through a light) in either case, always coming nearly to a stop but never clicking out of my pedals while riding. At some deserted stop lights on early Sunday mornings, I will sometimes ride through them after nearly stopping if there is no traffic visible anywhere. Practical: yes. Against the law: yes."

Brian Buckmaster says he generally stops at red lights and stop signs. But some lights are controlled with induction loops buried in the pavement, he notes, and if his bike doesn't trigger them, he'll proceed against the light when there is no cross traffic. And on country roads, when there's no traffic, he'll "blow through the intersection, but I'm wary, especially of police cars."

That behavior, when it's done on busy streets within sight of motorists, can saddle other cyclists with a bad reputation.

"Nothing irritates me more than to see another cyclist run a red light because it gives us a bad name," says cyclist John Fessenden.

And that's just it.

"I hear drivers complain about folks on bikes, basically condemning all bikers in one fell swoop, and all based on the bad behavior of one cyclist," says Laura Anderson, who used to bike to work in Houston. "I don't, however, hear drivers saying that all drivers should be taken off the roads when encountering a driver behaving badly. Why the double standard?"

The bottom line is we're all in this together.

"We are all trying to move on the roads," Tyree says. "If we expect motorists to pay attention to the rules, why can't we? ... What is so compelling that you can't stop at a stop sign?"

pleblanc@statesman.com; 445-3994

10 reasons to stop at a stop sign

1. It is the safest way to negotiate a stop sign controlled intersection. Period.

2. It is the law, and you are breaking the law when you don't stop.

3. Want respect from people in cars? Respect the rules of the road.

4. You're a good rider. You can spot potential dangers at an intersection without stopping, so you glance around and roll through. This approach works every time until the time that it doesn't. Then, what is the cost? A broken arm? A broken neck? Worse? A quick stop for time to double-check is worth it.

5. Future generations of cyclists are watching you. Help parents who are teaching their child to ride safely around the block by setting a good example.

6. Every time you maneuver your bike at slow speeds and every time you stop and start your bicycle, you deepen your relationship with your bike. You know how the bike feels the moment before you need to put your foot down. You know where to put your pedal for a smooth transition from stopped to moving. Eventually, your body does all of these things so naturally that you can focus your attention on the conditions of the intersection. That is safer for you and for everyone else on the road.

7. Fitness. Once you're safely rolling, take a few hard pedal strokes. You'll be surprised at how quickly you are back up to cruising speed. That little burn in your legs is what getting stronger feels like.

8. Clipping back in sounds cool, especially in a group.

9. Get flipped off less.

10. When he's not racing, (professional cyclist) Mark Cavendish stops at stops signs. It's true. I read that somewhere.

The bottom line is that your safety is your responsibility. By being good road users, Austin cyclists can be part of establishing an ethos of safety. Ultimately, isn't that more fun for all of us?

— David Tietz, ride director, Austin Cycling Association