The author is the founder of Vive la Ruelle and content director of Grupo dels Cinquanta. He also collaborates in Washington Post.
Every time I come across a “Stop” sign while riding my bike with my kids, I’m faced with a difficult dilemma: Should I tell them to do what’s legal or what makes sense?
If I tell them to slow down in gear, look around carefully, and move on if no one is coming, I will teach them to cross the lane as safely as possible, as several published studies around the world have shown. But in doing so, I will also teach them how to break the law. Because in Quebec, everyone with a bicycle must obey traffic signs and traffic lights at all times.
If I tell them to come to a complete stop, even if no cars are coming, I’m teaching them to be good, law-abiding citizens. But this learning will come at a price: I will also make them understand that they are surrounded by outlaws. Because, let’s face it, no one around will do the same.
This dilemma is imposed on us by the Quebec Road Safety Code. So, while Montreal is determined to become a bicycle paradise, the Highway Code falls under provincial jurisdiction, and Quebec law insists on treating bicycles as pathetically little mini-cars. power. By insisting that cyclists follow the same rules as cars, the Code ends up creating chaos and fueling much friction between cyclists and motorists.
The reality, perfectly obvious to anyone who rides a bike in Montreal, is that virtually all cyclists ignore stop signs at clear intersections on residential streets. The more cautious do the logical thing by acting as if it were a “give way” sign: they slow down, look carefully and continue without stopping.
The detail, and it is not insignificant, is that caution is not a characteristic unanimously shared by the members of my cycling clan. Many of my co-religionists consider stopping to be a bit ridiculous and therefore it’s okay to cross without even braking. Others seem to go further and conclude that the entire law is optional for cycling. Bikers love to hate these types of bikers and sometimes end up feeling that all bikers are, like them, public menaces.
In my opinion, the general confusion around stop signs for bicycles is the source of the problem, or at least a large part of it. The proverbial “Stop” rule has no social legitimacy among cyclists: almost the entire community has tacitly chosen to ignore it.
Any law that remains in force despite its lack of social legitimacy creates chaos. Today, cyclists in Montreal act as if certain sections of the Highway Code apply to them and others do not, but it is clear that there is no real consensus as to where the line between both. Each cyclist must therefore exercise discernment to establish his personal law, which gives rise to a mixture of behaviours, from the safest to the most reckless. Which brings us… down the path of chaos, the same chaos that too often reigns on the bike streets of Montreal.
Common sense code
Fortunately, there is a simple solution. Already in 2018, municipal councilor Marianne Giguère, responsible for active mobility in the Plante administration, asked Quebec to revise the Highway Code to legalize so-called common sense bicycle stops, as well as of US states following the example of Idaho.
We are loathe to borrow solutions from our American cousins, especially these days, but in this case we should make an exception. In 1982, the state of Idaho introduced a new standard that allows bicyclists to treat a stop sign as a “Give way” signal. In fact, the law allows all cyclists to do what responsible cyclists have always done: slow down when they see a stop sign, check for someone coming, and move on without warning.
The “Idaho stop” has been the subject of all sorts of studies in the forty years since its introduction, and there is ample evidence that it is not only safe, but much safer. One study found a 14.5% decrease in crashes at intersections after their introduction.
Since then, eight US states have adopted similar rules. Among them, Delaware saw a 23 percent decrease in crashes involving bicyclists at intersections controlled by stop signs. Some US states have gone even further by allowing cyclists to also treat red lights as “yield” signals: stop, look, and if the intersection is clear, continue without waiting for the green light. Something reasonable cyclists already do, anyway.
To ensure peace between cyclists and motorists, Montreal needs a road code whose legitimacy is recognized by all users. A code that would put an end to the absurd situation we currently find ourselves in, where cyclists do not have what it takes to impose a consensus that makes it easier to predict and therefore safer for both motorists and pedestrians . other cyclists.
Codify common sense, that’s common sense. And restoring the peaceful coexistence between cars and bicycles is also common sense. However, common sense, on a bike, Montreal really needs it.