ASPEN - City of Aspen officials are considering a change to city laws that would allow bicyclists to simply yield at stop signs.
State and local laws require cyclists to stop at stop signs, just as they do with motorized vehicles. Some city employees, tasked with coming up with ways to fulfill a City Council goal to enhance bicycle and pedestrian safety, have suggested to council members that it's safer to allow a cyclist to yield rather than stop at the big, red, octagon-shaped signs.
Aspen Assistant Police Chief Bill Linn said the "stop-as-yield approach" has proven to work in states such as Idaho, which changed its law allowing cyclists the option to yield some 30 years ago. A 2008 study by a University of California at Berkeley researcher showed that in Idaho, police and motorists have accepted the measure as public policy that makes sense. Boise, which has a large percentage of regular bicyclists compared with motorists, has become safer as a result of the change, the study concluded.
"The study determined that bicyclists are actually at greater risk when they stop at stop signs because of a few factors," Linn said. "One of them being that there is always an unknown element when a bicyclist comes to a stop sign to the motorists in the area. Is that bike going to stop or not?"
Other factors are the difficulty some bicyclists have in dealing with the bike's inertia when coming to a hard stop and faulty gear that fails to allow them to stop on time.
He acknowledged that many bicyclists already view stop signs as a nominal request.
"If people are already doing it for practical purposes, and it's not causing a wave of traffic crashes around town, why don't we at least discuss the possibility of changing the law and allowing people to do it legally? It removes the guesswork for the motorists," he said.
A bicyclist would be required to yield to motorists during times in which the motorist has the right of way, Linn said.
"If no cars are coming, they wouldn't have to stop at all," he said.
Linn added that the impetus behind the rule change was the council, which asked staff to look into easy and cost-efficient ways to help them meet the goal of enhanced bicycle safety. He said police aren't actively writing tickets to cyclists who break the existing law.
Scott Miller, the city's capital assets director, recently sent information on the topic to council members. The idea briefly was discussed at the council's work session Tuesday. Another short work session on the topic is likely, Miller said. There is no timetable for bringing the stop-as-yield proposal back to a City Council regular meeting for a vote.
Miller said changing the regulation "would legalize cycling behavior currently observed over 90 percent of the time in Aspen."
He said he's been doing a lot of bike riding in recent years and that it's changed his mindset to one of a bicyclist.
"If you ride a bike a lot and you actually have to come to a stop at every stop, it can actually cause injuries," Miller said. "Also, a person riding a bike, ... you're depending on inertia. Stopping at a stop sign, you're losing your inertia, and then you have to start all over again.
"And like the study says, it creates certainty. If we were to pass this law, everybody would know that the bicyclist is allowed to yield. Basically a bicyclist yields to everybody anyway."
Council members have asked staffers to explore the potential for liability to the city should an accident occur in relation to giving cyclists the option of yielding. They also want staff to gather more community input and are interested in whether other cities of comparable size and bicycle presence to Aspen are undertaking similar approaches.