A stop sign is shown with question marks superimposed on its surface to imply that the nature of them is changing.

Minnesota Adopts the Safety Stop

The last legislative session in Minnesota was magnificently productive, whether or not you liked the legislation passed. The Minnesota DFL earned back a majority trifecta for the first time since 2014 and quickly set to work following through on many campaign promises with a pace more or less unrivaled throughout the country (Michigan was probably a close second).

Positive developments on the transportation side included funding to reestablish rail travel to Duluth and a metro-area sales tax for transportation, much of which will support transit and active transportation through the work of the Metropolitan Council. Far too much money still made its way to the Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT), which has a long history of widening roads and adding more overbuilt liabilities to our transportation system. However, an exciting new state law that passed gives much needed teeth to the state’s climate and vehicle-miles-traveled (VMT) reduction goals when it comes to capacity expansion projects like road widening or grade separation. Such projects must evaluate whether they will increase emissions and VMT and alter, stop or include mitigation measures on the project.

There was also a lot of good news on the active transportation side. Important changes were made to programming, education, and rules. This accompanied increases in funding for infrastructure and initiatives like rebates for e-bikes that should have a positive impact on active transportation.

Minnesota Adopts the “Safety Stop” (or “Idaho Stop” or “Delaware Yield”)

One rule change that took effect this week, on August 1, 2023, was particularly welcome for people who bike: Cyclists may now treat stop signs as yield signs, making Minnesota the 10th state, plus Washington, D.C., to adopt a version of this rule. The original rule is often called the “Idaho Stop” because Idaho was the first state to adopt a version of it in 1982, though their version additionally allows red lights to effectively be treated as stop signs. The next state didn’t adopt a similar rule until 2017, when Delaware allowed the “Delaware Yield,” which is more similar to what Minnesota has done. In this case, red light rules remain unchanged and cyclists must wait for a green light. Minnesota does, however, have a “dead red” rule that allows a person on a bike to proceed through a clear intersection on red if the traffic signal does not appear to be detecting them.

These changes don’t alter right-of-way at intersections. Anyone with a stop sign must yield to anyone without one and whoever gets to a four-way stop first still has the right-of-way. Pedestrians, of course, have top priority, and you still need to stop for anyone crossing the street. However, if a person on a bike is approaching the intersection and they determine it is safe to proceed without impacting someone’s right-of-way, they are now allowed to do so without fully stopping first.

Full Text of the Safety Stop Rule Change:

Minnesota Statutes 2022, section 169.222, is amended by adding a subdivision to read:

Subd. 4a. Stopping requirements. (a) For purposes of this subdivision, “in the vicinity” means located in an intersection or approaching an intersection in a manner that constitutes a hazard of collision during the time that a bicycle operator would occupy the intersection.

(b) A bicycle operator who approaches a stop sign must slow to a speed that allows for stopping before entering the intersection or the nearest crosswalk. Notwithstanding subdivision 1 and section 169.06, subdivision 4, if there is not a vehicle in the vicinity, the operator may make a turn or proceed through the intersection without stopping.

(c) Nothing in this subdivision alters the right-of-way requirements under section 169.20. The provisions under this subdivision do not apply when traffic is controlled by a peace officer or a person authorized to control traffic under section 169.06.

Minnesota 2023 Session Law, Chapter 68, Article 4, Section 48

Five Reasons Why This Works

Why is this change welcome? To me, there are five main reasons. 

1. Safety improvements. The effectiveness of stop signs as a safety measure is actively debated already. They can lead to more pollution, lower fuel efficiency, increases in speeding, distracting mental and visual clutter, general frustration and noncompliance by drivers, which causes crashes.

People who bike tend to be hyperaware of their surroundings already, are quite cautious and understand that “might makes right” on the street. Ask just about anyone what their biggest fear is, and they’ll cite getting hit by a car driver. People who bike tend to ride very defensively already, and this change gives them additional leeway to do so. 

Safety gains can arise because proceeding through an intersection more quickly than is possible with a full stop, you have less risk of a driver approaching from behind, “not seeing you,” and rear-ending you. You also have less time in the intersection with exposure to cross traffic. Studies in both Idaho and Delaware after adoption of their rules found lower rates of bike crashes, with crashes at stop sign intersections in Delaware decreasing by 23% in the 30 months after passage. Even the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, not known for being particularly progressive and forward-thinking, largely endorses such rules.

2. It legalizes what cyclists already do. The majority of cyclists use a version of the Idaho Stop already. According to a quick, non-scientific poll I conducted on Twitter (now X), about 90% of 174 respondents said they already use some version of the Idaho Stop, although almost 70% of those respondents noted that it isn’t technically allowed. By legalizing what most cyclists are already safely doing, there is less chance for biased enforcement and unnecessary interactions with police.

Results from a Twitter poll showing that almost ninety percent of respondents already use some version of the Idaho Stop.
Results from Twitter poll about existing riding habits.

Almost everyone has probably heard complaints about “scofflaw cyclists blowing through stop signs.” While some drivers may dislike the change (even though its impact, if any, is probably positive), it renders this complaint moot, because cyclists will not be technically breaking the law anymore. 

As more people learn about the change, I hope we see this attitude fade, though I’m sure the most vehemently anti-cyclist folks who have made hating cyclists their hill to die on will still find issue, because no rule change or other argument will change their mind. However, it would help if government agencies like MnDOT and cities promoted the change, because drivers often don’t know about existing rules related to cycling, let alone changes to them. As someone who rides every day year round for fun and function, I make sure I know the rules and my rights on the road, yet I’ve often been yelled at for “breaking rules” that don’t actually exist.

3. It makes riding more attractive. Every time you come to a full stop on a bike, it takes significant effort and time to get back up to speed again, potentially using up to five times the energy to keep your speed constant on a street with frequent stops compared to one without them. Even carrying a slight bit of momentum through an intersection when safe to do so can make a journey much easier and quicker. By making riding more pleasant, more people are likely to choose to do it, leading to a safety in numbers effect.

Looking ahead down a bike path, with three stop signs coming up.
Stop signs along a bike path in Vadnais Heights. Photo by Walker Angell.

By making it easier to ride efficiently on quieter neighborhood streets, which are often more likely to have frequent stop signs, these routes become even more desirable. This means there’s less incentive to choose to ride on arterials that currently lack adequately safe bike infrastructure (which is most of them) and are often far less pleasant. This can be observed comparing Griggs Street and Charles Avenue, both bike boulevards, in St. Paul. Griggs enables efficient riding with mini-circles (like roundabouts but smaller) instead of stop signs, whereas Charles has ineffective stop signs at almost every block, making riding slower, more tiring and less fun. Anecdotally and according to Strava heatmaps, Griggs sees far more bike traffic than Charles, though other factors likely contribute to the difference as well.

4. Bikes are not cars. While some folks insist that people who bike should follow every single rule of the road just like drivers do (note: drivers definitely don’t either), the reality is that a 20-to-100-pound bike is not at all the same vehicle as a 2,000-to-9,000-pound car, truck or SUV. Pretending that operators of these two classes of vehicles should be subject to exactly the same rules and expectations is lunacy. Most of our existing rules and infrastructure were developed for cars, often with the goal of creating efficient traffic flow at the expense of everyone outside of them, something they ironically often fail to do because cars are the least efficient use of transportation space. Rule changes like this better reflect the reality of the vastly different danger these modes pose.

A cargo bike with a Danish flag on a sidewalk in front of a several large, deadly, climate-killing sport utility vehicles in a parking lot.
These vehicles are not the same. Photo by the author.

Additionally, people on bikes have unhindered hearing and no blind spots, whereas these senses are greatly impeded inside a car. A person on a bike generally has superior agility as well, with a narrow turning radius, short stopping distance, lower speeds and smaller overall size, making it far easier to avoid a possible conflict.

5. Less exposure to pollution. While maybe not immediately obvious, intersections can be home to the highest levels of pollution in all forms. Accelerating causes more noise pollution and higher levels of dirtier emissions, while braking approaching intersections releases PM2.5 brake dust particles. By limiting time spent in the intersection, as well as exertion while there, people on bikes can lessen their exposure to these secondhand, externalized costs of driving.

Drivers Should Support This Change, Too

Drivers should support this change because, again, any impact on them is likely positive. There is no change to right-of-way rules, so order at the intersection is unchanged. A person on a bike who doesn’t need to fully stop clears intersections faster. For example, if a cyclist is approaching a four-way stop and has the right-of-way, they can get through more quickly if they don’t completely stop, meaning less wait time for the drivers without right-of-way. The same is true for a driver following a cyclist at a two-way stop. In fact, I’ve found the only thing many drivers dislike more than a “scofflaw” who rolls through a stop sign is someone who actually comes to a full, complete, foot-down stop.

If the rule change can make riding more attractive and more people choose to bike, that’s a good thing for everyone! It leads to less congestion, pollution, competition for parking, and wear and tear on streets, as well as higher spending at local businesses. Any change that makes riding safer and more attractive with no negative impact to drivers seems like a win-win.

Other Considerations

Ultimately, each rider should decide what’s safe and comfortable for themself. This change enables exactly that. If you prefer coming to a full stop, you can continue to do so. This is probably advisable for those just getting started riding and younger folks. Especially with children, it’s often recommended to continue teaching them to stop fully each time, as their reaction, processing and observation skills are all still growing; a “full stop” also matches what they learn for safe walking (stop, look left, right, then left again). They will likely need more time to learn how to effectively determine when it is safe to cross than experienced adults. As people gain confidence and skills, they can adapt their behavior.

Again, it would be great to see public agencies, including MnDOT and local units of government, promoting the law change to help increase driver awareness. Messaging that highlights the positive impacts this new law will have on our communities would be particularly welcome. Thanks to the Bicycle Alliance of Minnesota for doing just that.