22 March 2017

The Idaho Stop: A Women's Issue (Or: Does Obeying The Law Kill Us?)

I learn some interesting things from my students.

From one of them--a criminal justice major--I learned that the vast majority of crime is committed by males between the ages of 15 and 25.  After that age, the crime rate plummets, and there is an even more significant difference between the lawlessness of males and that of females.

Or, to put it another way, females are more law-abiding than males.  Of course, that usually works to our advantage, but there are instances in which it doesn't.

One of those areas in which it doesn't is in traffic law, as applied to cyclists.  In most municipalities, the law requires cyclists to stop for red lights, just as motorists do.  Of course, such laws are not evenly enforced:  A state highway cop in a rural or suburban area is more likely to give a summons for running a red light than an urban police officer, and in cities, Black or Hispanic cyclists are more likely to get tickets (or worse) than a White or Asian person on two wheels.

But, according to studies, women are, proportionally, far more likely than men to be run down by heavy transport vehicles while cycling in urban areas.  As an example, in 2009, ten of the thirteen people killed in cycling accidents in London were female.  Of those ten, eight were killed by "heavy goods vehicles", i.e., lorries or trucks.  That year, about three times as many men as women cycled in the British capital.

That stark reality reflected conditions described in a report leaked by The Guardian's "Transport" section.  According to that report, 86 percent of the female cyclists killed in London from 1999 through 2004 collided with a lorry.  In contrast, 47 percent of male cyclists killed on London streets met their fates with a truck.

In unusually blunt language for such a study, the researchers concluded, "Women may be over-represented (in collisions with goods vehicles) because they are less likely than men to disobey red lights." (Italics are mine.)  They, therefore, confirmed what many of us already know:  We are safer, particularly in areas of dense traffic or in the presence of heavy vehicles, if we get out in front of the traffic in our lane rather than wait for the green light--and run the risk of getting smacked by a right-turning vehicle.

A DePaul University study of Chicago cycling and traffic patterns made use of the British study and came to a similar conclusion.  More broadly, the DePaul researchers concluded that it would be more practical and safer to mandate the "Idaho stop" for cyclists.  

In essence, the "Idaho stop" means that cyclists treat red lights like "Stop" signs and "Stop" signs like "Yield" signs.  It allows cyclists to ride through a red light if there is no cross-traffic in the intersection.  

Believe it or not, Idaho enacted that law all the way back in 1982.  Since then, no other state has adopted it, although a few Colorado municipalities have enacted stop-as-yield policies since 2011.  Interestingly, a 2012 decree allows cyclists in Paris to turn right at--or, if there is no street to the right, to proceed straight through-- a red light as long as they excercise prudence extreme and watch for pedestrians. Three years later, that policy was modified to allow cyclists to treat certain stop lights (designated by signage) as "yield" signs as long as they are making right turns or going straight through "T" junctions.

The funny thing is that you don't hear or read the kinds of flat-earth rants about cyclists in the City of Light that we regularly find in American discourse.  And, it has seemed to me, cycling is generally safer than it is in New York or just about anyplace else in the US I've ridden.

Now, back to my original point:  Allowing the "Idaho Stop", or even the policies of Paris or those Colorado municipalities, is not only a cycling or transportation issue.  It's a women's issue!

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