California law requires bicyclists to stop at stop signs, but many bicyclists regularly and blatantly ignore this rule of the road. Are the scofflaws in the majority? Or are they a minority whose behavior may make them more memorable to observers?
According to a recent survey, at the corner of Glenwood Avenue and Canada Road in Woodside, a little more than a third of the cyclists blow through stop signs, but that's when no one appears to be observing them. In the same survey, by Woodside Elementary School fifth-graders Luke Weigle and Peyton Warford, the data shows that cyclists may be modifying their behavior when they're conscious of being observed.
Luke and Peyton, working on their school science fair project, spent 90 minutes on each of two weekends measuring the stop-sign behavior of cyclists headed north and south on Canada Road. A legal stop on a bicycle, according to deputies, means "a cessation of movement" accompanied by either putting one's foot on the ground or balancing the bike.
The surveys took place between noon and 1:30 p.m. on Sunday, Feb. 1, and Saturday, March 8. The students employed three scenarios, each 30 minutes in length:
■ Scenario 1: Approaching cyclists could see a patrol car from the San Mateo County Sheriff's Office near the intersection. By design, the car was unoccupied, though Deputy James Goulart stood nearby. Of the 282 cyclists that passed by, the survey showed that 95.4 percent stopped at the stop sign.
■ Scenario 2: Approaching cyclists would see Luke and Peyton standing at the intersection holding up a large handwritten sign that read "Bikes must stop." Under these circumstances, the survey showed 90.8 percent of 227 riders coming to a stop.
■ Scenario 3: The intersection appeared to be unattended, leaving cyclists to their own devices. In this scenario, 66 percent of the 263 riders stopped.
The boys reported their findings on March 21 to the town of Woodside's Circulation Committee. The committee's mission is to encourage a sense of community in the safe use of town roads. The boys' conclusion: "It turns out that human behavior changes under the act of observing it," Peyton said in an interview. "We believe that cyclists are more willing to stop and obey the law when somebody is watching them."
It's an example of the Hawthorne Effect, they said. An everyday example: People in public bathrooms are more likely to wash their hands when there's another person present. The journal Occupational Medicine, published by Oxford University Press, describes the Hawthorne Effect as people changing their behavior when they think they're being watched.
For this Woodside experiment, the second day of Scenario 2 showed a 10 percentage point increase in cyclists ignoring the hand-lettered sign. The reason, the boys said, may be that cyclists reacted differently, having seen the sign four weeks earlier.
The Sheriff's Office has not seen the survey data, Deputy Rebecca Rosenblatt said in an email. When asked whether it could be meaningful, she said that it could help the town's Circulation Committee with its traffic safety efforts.
Some of the cyclists spoke kindly to the boys; some did not.
Among the kind comments: "Nice job," "I agree with the sign," "Did I stop?" and "That's one for the 'stop' column."
A lot of people said, "You suck," the boys said. One cyclist, on his way through without stopping, told the boys, "Your parents are raising you to be Nazis."
Was Deputy Goulart there to hear any of this negative stuff? "No, unfortunately, because I would have had a little discussion with those people," he said. "What's the reason for making a snide comment to a kid?"
The boys said that hostility, when it surfaced, came more often from groups of cyclists. Deputy Goulart did not disagree, but noted that he's been successful in talking with cycling groups about acting in the interest of better relations with the public.
The boys proposed adding small signs to the stop signs informing cyclists of their obligation to stop. "After they're there for a while, they just become part of the scenery," Deputy Goulart said. "They just blend back into the environment."