© 2023 Boise State Public Radio
NPR in Idaho
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations

The origin of the Idaho Stop

Mr. Leeds
Flickr Creative Commons

Potholes. Car doors opening in your path. Distracted drivers. Aggressive drivers. Aloof pedestrians. Riding a bicycles can be a complicated and often dangerous obstacle course in any city.

In most places, two-wheeled bicyles are supposed to follow traffic rules designed for cars. This means staying in your lanes (but not the whole lane, just the right side of the lane), going with the flow of traffic and coming to a complete stop at stop signs and traffic lights.

But back in the '80s, Idaho decided to give cyclists a break and let them roll through stop signs. Cyclists still need to stop at traffic lights, but once the intersection is safe, they can cross on a red light. Basically, red stop signs become yellow yield signs and red traffic lights become stop signs.

This rule, more commonly known as the Idaho Stop, became state law in 1982 and was the only one of its kind for 35 years.

But why?

Advocates of the law say allowing bicycles to navigate streets differently than cars makes sense. It decriminalizes a common behavior that is not deterred by its illegality and encourages cyclists to determine the safest course of action on the spot.

The CDC says roughly 1,000 cyclists die in the U.S. each year, while 130,000 sustain injuries following traffic accidents. Only one in 10 bicycle accidents involve some sort of collision with a car, but when they do happen, the cyclist dies in 45% of them.

Cyclists are most often injured in intersections. Depending on the layout and traffic, bikes are often difficult for incoming traffic to spot. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration reports almost 30% of cyclist fatalities in 2019 happened in intersections.

The year after the 1982 Idaho Stop law was implemented, the state’s cyclist injuries decreased 14.5%.

Copycat laws

The law was not known as the Idaho Stop until 2015 when proponents in San Francisco pointed towards the Gem State to try to adopt a similar roll-and-go style law. It didn’t work. After intense debates, the ordinance was vetoed by mayor Ed Lee who cited safety concerns.

In 2017, Delaware started allowing cyclists to yield at stop signs, but they still had to follow automobile laws at traffic lights. Since then, a handful of states have also adopted similar “rolling stop” laws: Arkansas, Oregon, Washington, Utah, North Dakota and Oklahoma.

Colorado and Washington D.C. were the latest to usher in similar laws in 2022.

As the Canyon County reporter, I cover the Latina/o/x communities and agricultural hub of the Treasure Valley. I’m super invested in local journalism and social equity, and very grateful to be working in Idaho.