Should lawmakers amend the Minnesota bicycle laws?

Here’s a scene that many cyclists act out everyday: They hop on their bikes in the morning, and within the first few blocks encounter a stop sign. Only, instead of obeying the law, they blow through the sign. I’m not a car, they think, so why should I stop?

Here’s another scene --and this one is available for live viewing every single day: A cyclist rides down Hennepin Ave. and approaches an intersection. The light is red. So they sit at the stoplight and wait patiently. Then behind them another cyclist creeps around them, glances in both directions at the lack of traffic and blows the red light, leaving the law-abiding cyclist feeling like a hall monitor. And while this cyclist waits, it gives cars and buses plenty of time to line-up at the same intersection, making the cyclist question if waiting and following the law is the safest thing to do while on a bike.

All this gets down to a fundamental question: should bikes be treated the same as cars when traveling on the same roadway?

Anyhow, back to the first scene. The everyday cyclist who blew the stop sign gets caught by Minneapolis Police. Normally, the officer would give the cyclist a warning, but today they dish out a $128 ticket. They’ve seen too many cyclists blowing stops signs and are tired of the negligence.

As Jake Weyer in the Southwest Journal writes:

It’s the law in Minnesota for bicyclists to follow the same rules of the road as motorists, but some cyclists are unaware of those restrictions and others choose not to follow them.

In enters two elected officials, Sen. Jim Carlson, DFL-Eagan, and Rep. Phyllis Kahn, DFL-Minneapolis, who hope to change the law. These officials want to make it legal for cyclists to cruise through stop signs and treat lights like stop signs, but only in specific instances.

Again, back to the words of Weyer:

Bikers approaching a stop sign would have to slow to a speed that would allow them to stop quickly but could proceed without stopping if no vehicles are in the area, according to the proposal.

Cyclists approaching a stoplight could make a left turn on a one-way street or a right turn without stopping. They could also ride through the intersection at a red light, but only after coming to a full stop and determining no cars are nearby.

The proposed amendment is an interesting take on how bicycles should operate through the city. For cyclists who ride everyday, they can understand that, yes, it is annoying and sometimes dangerous to come to a complete stop at every sign and signal (1). But for motorists and or cyclists that view the current rules as a way for all to stay safe, the proposed change annoys the hell out of them.

From the Urban Renaissance Coalition:

…As most of you have either heard or seen the increase in the number of recent meet and greets between bikes and cars. Yet we have our glorious “elected” officials at the state and city levels wanting a change in the laws to allow bicycles to blow thru lighted intersections and stop signs. This is a reckless disregard for the lives of people who use the self-propelled mode of two-wheeled transit. Too often have I been witness to bicyclists disregarding the rules and laws of the road and ending up almost getting turned into hood ordainments…Common sense and a respect for the rules and laws of the road will go a long way to keep people safe. Changing the rules will get people killed.

But for a better understanding about the debate, check out the idea behind the legislation. It comes from Idaho, where the progressive thinking minds of Boise established a law (last revised on July 1, 2005) that allows cyclists to treat stop signs as yield signs and stop lights as stop signs.

Rachael Daigle, a staff writer for Boise Weekly explained the results of their statewide law in a story, published in the San Francisco Bay Guardian. It’s worth looking at no matter what side of the debate you’re on.

Anyways, she comes to this conclusion:

Rather than each faction exerting ownership over the pavement, cyclists should know and follow all the laws, while drivers should concede that bicycles are different from cars and should therefore be subject to different laws. Stopping at empty intersections is cumbersome for drivers and cyclists alike — but cyclists aren't likely to kill pedestrians with their carelessness.

By drawing a legal line in the sand between cars and bikes, allowing them different rules in the same environment, Idaho's bike laws ultimately foster a mutual respect between drivers and cyclists. In Boise it's common to see road signs instructing drivers and cyclists to "share the road." It may be common sense advice for cyclists, but to motorists, it's a subtle reminder that bigger shouldn't mean better (2).

(1) Except when cyclists ride downtown and view the interruption in speed as an opportunity to practice/show-off their trackstand skills. (Shout-out to the rider on Hennepin who completed such a feat on a touring bike yesterday morning…impressive balance, man.)

(2) There is also the position that allowing cyclists to ride through the stop signs with caution will keep them safer during the winter months. The free pass will keep them in the elements for less time. And anecdotally, it will reduce the number of spills-- as most cyclists know, breaking in the snow is sketch.

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