How to run a stop sign on a bicycle


There it is. That big red and white octagonal nuisance emblazoned with all capital letters that says ‘STOP’, a big dumb sentinel, powerless to make us obey. The only influence these symbolic objects hold over us is the ability to make us scan our surroundings for real authority. Are the police about? If a messenger runs a stop sign in the middle of the city and no one is around to see it, did it really happen?

If the stop sign is reminder that we live in a civilization and in order for our society to function properly, maybe some of us should take more time to consider its meaning?

I am a firm believer in the societal necessity of stop signs. However, I do choose to either ignore or respect their authority selectively. There are a couple of situations where I will be decisive in my choice to obey. The first situation I speak of is one in which I may come under the watchful eye of a police officer. Obviously, I come to a complete stop, put a foot down, and go as soon as the intersection is clear as prescribed by the holy text known as the California Driver Handbook. Getting a stop sign ticket on a bicycle is painful, embarrassing, and expensive.

The second situation where I will at least acknowledge the stop sign is when there is other traffic. It in this that I find the rules written into our state law to be quite effective and reasonable. Unfortunately, many people, both drivers and cyclists (especially cyclists) completely ignore the basic etiquette that makes a four way intersection a logical and manageable way to get along with others in this most frequent traffic situation.

Here’s an excerpt from the California DMV website:

“An intersection is any place where one line of traffic meets another. Intersections include cross streets, side streets, alleys, freeway entrances, and any other location where vehicles travelling on different highways or roads join each other.

  • At intersections without STOP or YIELD signs, slow down and be ready to stop. Yield to vehicles already in the intersection or just entering it. Also, yield to the car which arrives first or to the car on your right if it reaches the intersection at the same time as you do.

  • At “T” intersections without STOP or YIELD signs, yield to vehicles on the through road. They have the right of way.

  • When there are STOP signs at all corners, stop first, then follow the above rules.

  • When you turn left, give the right of way to all vehicles approaching you that are close enough to be dangerous. Also, look for motorcyclists, bicyclists, and pedestrians. On divided highways, or highways with several lanes, watch for vehicles coming in any lane you must cross. Turn left only when it is safe.
    Safety suggestion: While waiting to turn left, keep your wheels pointed straight ahead until it is safe to start your turn. If your wheels are pointed to the left and a vehicle hits you from behind, you could be pushed into oncoming traffic.

  • Yield to traffic before entering the road again if you have parked off the road or are leaving a parking lot, etc.”

I would reason that for most cyclists these rules would seem to be common sense, and if not strictly adhered to, then at least used as general guidelines, but what I see in practice is a flagrant disregard for personal safety and a complete lack of respect for others.

It’s like cutting in line at the movie theatre. Most of us wouldn’t do that, but I observe on a daily basis many people imposing their will on others by going out of turn or simply blowing the stop sign. Automobiles seem to do this much less when there is other traffic, thank goodness. Cyclists, however, seem to be the worst offenders.

It is common for me to witness a bike rider hold up an entire intersection as they blast through, without slowing or yielding and with utter disregard for when it is most logical to cross.

I see this behaviour almost every time I go through the four-way-stop at 17th and Harrison streets here in San Francisco.

As a bicycle courier one quickly realizes that the easiest and safest way to get around in a city is to treat traffic as a rushing river. One needs to acknowledge that there is a flow that must be respected, but that also can be taken advantage of. Bike messengers aren’t just fast because they are athletes; they are fast because they understand that traffic follows mostly predictable and negotiable patterns of flow.

This brings me back to the four way intersection. At a four way intersection, the goal is to get the most amount of traffic through it as quickly, efficiently, and safely as possible. Blindly blowing an intersection because you are on a bike and you know that the world will stop for you as you pedal by screws up the whole deal. It destroys natural flow and makes everybody mad. Furthermore, this action gives cyclists a bad image.

As soon as you make somebody needlessly apply the brakes of their car to avoid hitting you, no matter how wide the margins of safety are, even if you can get away with it at a stop sign, you have failed.

Think of four way intersection as a dynamic negotiation. For the purposes of courtesy and safety, you may actually need to come to a full and complete stop, although I rarely find myself in this situation.

Maybe there is a car in the oncoming lane with its blinker on, stopped, ready to make a right turn into your path. Should you heed the stop sign? Out of common courtesy, I would. Not much flow here. Sometimes it just goes that way.

Perhaps the intersection may be completely clear with out a car in sight. We all know what to do then. We are the flow and we can do what we want.

But It is when the river is raging that we can really utilize flow.

Timing is everything. As you are coming to busy intersection, you can actually use the flow of traffic to speedily and securely negotiate your way through without pissing anybody off .The trick is to time your entrance into the intersection to coincide with a car that is going in the same direction as you are and whose turn to go has come up. Simply ride beside them at a safe distance as they move through the intersection and, voilà, you have successfully and reasonably made it through without disturbing flow. In fact, if you weren’t there at all things would have happened just the same.

Of course one needs to mind that there are no autos making turns into ones path, pedestrians, police officers, or other impediments. Duh! Common sense!

I wonder about the mindset of all the rude cyclists. Are they simply stupid, or perhaps ignorant? Maybe they’ve see other more experienced cyclists running a stop sign and do it themselves without realizing all of the dynamics involved.

Could it be that some cyclists feel a sense of entitlement? After all they are rebelling against car culture and are “saving the planet” by not driving? Maybe some of them ride like this because they can get away with it.

Whatever the cause of this behaviour, all it does is disturb flow, impinge on the rights of others, and piss people off.

I’d like to leave on this final note: running a stop sign is illegal and should not be attempted by anyone.