Do Bicycles Have To Stop At Traffic Lights & Stop Signs? (With Video)

By Troy Stamps •  Updated: 04/17/18 •  9 min read

Outdoor cycling is good when conditions are awesome and there are absolutely no cars on the road. But in reality, that’s not always the case especially when it comes to road cycling. The intersection is known as one of the most dangerous places on the road for cyclist.

There has been much debate as to whether bicycles should stop or not at traffic signs. Since this particular situation contains so many grey areas it is best to consider your state and local laws for the definitive answer.

In the meantime let’s consider some of those grey areas as well as point out some instances where it might be crucial for you to consider stopping to avoid damage to your personal life.

What The Law Says

Regarding bicyclist or pedicab cyclist in California, for instance, the California State Law specifies that bicyclists have the same rights and provisions as a driver of a motor vehicle.

That being said if you are on a bicycle and ride up to either a red traffic light or stop sign you must stop, yielding to vehicles that have the right-of-way.

When it comes to bicycles stopping at these traffic signs, its a grey area since bicycles are not considered motor vehicles nor are you considered a pedestrian while riding a bike.

So if a bicyclist is somewhere in the middle between being a vehicle and non-pedestrian, does it make it ok to run a red light or stop sign? In short, “No”. Breaking the law is breaking the law. It’s illegal in some states and some local authorities may write you a ticket if sighted.

Who Were The Original Traffic Laws For

During the first decades of the 20th Century (1900-1920), cars on the road had days of free-for-all driving.

There were no traffic lights, stop signs, DMV, traffic officers, and among other things very little understanding of speed. You might say it was “every man for themselves”.

Traffic laws were written for cars, not cyclist. Some have reasons to believe that the intent to have cyclist abide by the same rules as cars is so that these moving vessels would behave like motor vehicles.

All 50 states have deferring state and local laws in regards to cyclists that govern where you can ride, how to ride and what you need specifically in order to operate your bike.

For a good resource on the subject of laws for a cyclist, check out Bicycling & The Law by Bob Mionske. In his book, he provides information and guidance for cyclists of all levels in the event legal problems arise.

What If You’re Cycling In A Group

If the group is comprised of beginner cyclist, be prepared to stop a lot more. When riding in a big group ride prepping for Tour de Cure Silicon Valley, there were BIG stops at red lights and stops signs.

So that there was no panicking, the lead cyclist encouraged riders to learn to pay attention to red lights and stops signs.

Many of the stops though were dependant upon a few things: whether there were two-way stops or an intersection full of traffic.

With such a large group, the stops will be long, but be patient, respect the other riders, and enjoy the ride.

Idaho Stop

It may surprise you that many states actually have laws that actually allow cyclists to roll through stop signs. This is similar to what cars drivers are known to do, sometimes called, “The California Roll” or “Hollywood Stop”. But this law was written specifically for cyclist (and motorcyclist).

What Is Idaho’s Law

A law established in Idaho in 1982 which allows a cyclist to treat stop signs as a stop-as-yield sign and a red traffic light as a stop sign.

Idaho holds the record for the largest and longest advocate of this law and it has influenced other states to consider passing a law such as this.

The only other state to adopt this law was Delaware, as of 2017, but to a degree in which it legalizes the stop-as-yield law on roads with two travel lanes.

According to Wikipedia, the states that have yet to pass such laws as stop-as-yield and red-as-stop are the following: Oregon, Minnesota, Arizona, Montana, Utah, Washington DC, Santa Fe, Oklahoma, Edmonton, Colorado, California, and Arkansas.

Check out this cool video illustrating the Idaho Stop:

Red Light, No Car’s Around

There have many instances where I’m cycling home and approach a red traffic light at a four-way intersection and have to make a left turn. If there are no cars around and no cars turning in the same direction, “I’m stuck-like-Chuck”!

A double handful of states actually allow cyclists (and motorcyclists) to stop at and then proceed through a red light if the light doesn’t change. Some have claimed this to be a “defective light” and ok to run under certain conditions.

Due to some faulty embedded sensors in the ground, such laws often require that the cyclist stop, confirm that there is no oncoming traffic, and only then may they go after waiting a period of time or cycles of the light.

This exception to the rule is called, “Dead Red Law”. It’s a bill that allows not only cyclists but anyone operating a moped, or motorcycle to signal at an intersection and roll through a red light.

The 15 states that have passed this law are as follows: Arkansas, Idaho, Indiana, Kansas, Minnesota, Missouri, Nevada, North Carolina, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee, Utah, Washington, Wisconsin, and Virginia.

The reason only 15 states are listed here is that California has not adopted this law. Each state varies as to the wait time on red traffic lights and not all the states include bicyclist.

If You’re Ticketed, Breaking The Law

It’s almost inevitable at some point for a beginner cyclist as well as an experienced cyclist to ignore a bicycle traffic law. This may not be because they intend to but they may be put in a situation where they do not know what to do or not do for fear in their safety.

For instance, one may be guilty of running a red light to avoid being stuck in an unsafe intersection. Maybe a cyclist decides to ride on the wrong side of the street (against traffic) which places the cyclist and others in danger of colliding with you. On some occasions, a cyclist could be caught riding on the sidewalk in the city to avoid busy traffic with no bike lanes.

Since some of these scenarios may hold a valid reason for ignoring a law, the participants may still get ticketed. So what’s provided to the cyclist to prevent these occurrences from happening if ticketed?

There are some states that have adopted a “diversion program” for cyclists. For example, California has allowed police departments in the state to create a ticket diversion program for people cited breaking the law on a bicycle.

What the program provides are as follows:

Some Bicycle Traffic Laws You May Not Know About

This Law goes back to what was discussed before in regards to bicyclist or pedicab operators having all the rights and subject to all the responsibilities as a driver of a motor vehicle.

Stopping In The Crosswalk

You probably see this all the time and might be guilty of occupying crosswalks yourself with a bicycle.

But according to the California Vehicle Code, for example, a stop must be made at a sign, crosswalk, or limit line unless otherwise indicated.

In the absence of that sign or limit line marking, then a stop made at the signal is appropriate

In Summary

Will there come a time when the debate between motor vehicles and cyclist rights and laws cease to be a problem? Probably not, unfortunately.

Considering some grey areas regarding what a cyclist can and can’t do when it comes to traffic lights or signs may help provide some guidance.

Quite frankly there-in lies an ongoing debate and some confusion among both motorist and cyclist. It’s almost better to leave the decision making to bicycle advocates and local authorities to sort out.

I’m certain though, that everyone wants to see to it that their concerns are met out and voices heard on the issues at hand in which individuals have every right to do so.

On the other hand, if one is caught committing a traffic violation and they know they were in the wrong, might as well own up to it.

After all, traffic laws and regulations were meant to provide order and safety for the sake of all users of the road.

Troy Stamps

Troy Stamps is an avid cyclist based out of California. Road cycling is his passion which he's been doing his whole life and he has even competed in some local races. He loves getting new people into the sport and teaching them how to change their life through cycling.

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