Written by Kirby Beck
Just as the philosophy of community policing has been changing the paradigm under which police operate, efforts within federal transportation agencies are under way to change the way police view, and deal with, bicycle enforcement.
Few will argue that bicyclists and pedestrians are the most vulnerable of all roadway users. All states have statutes that allow bikes and pedestrians on the majority of public roadways, with no minimum age, testing or licensing required. As a result, it is construed to be a basic right to walk or bicycle within the designated portion of most public right of ways.
The frequently dangerous act of cycling against the flow of traffic is seen as unimportant and unworthy of police action, while writing tickets for such innocuous offenses as expired vehicle registration or parking violations are considered legitimate and valuable enforcement actions.
Add to the paradigm the perception of many motorists, whether police or civilian, of bicyclists as scofflaws. One veteran officer complained to this author that cyclists rarely follow the laws and almost never stop for stop signs or red lights. When asked how many of these cyclists he had stopped or ticketed in his career, he replied, “None.” That’s the case with a vast majority of police officers in the U.S. Is it a surprise that so many cyclists choose to ride that way? The police let them, it seems. If the police won’t enforce bicycle traffic laws, who will?
Enforcement is Key
Traffic safety efforts are made up of three components: engineering, education and enforcement. This is sometimes referred to as the “Traffic Safety Triangle.” Engineering involves building safer roads, facilities, vehicles and protective accessories. Educational efforts in bicycle safety are undertaken by a large number of law enforcement agencies. That might range from distributing bike safety brochures to conducting on-bike events such as bike rodeos. No matter what level of education the agency provides, those instructional efforts will be largely lost if they are not reinforced on the street through enforcement! With all traffic laws, the important component of enforcement is too often necessary before roadway users will voluntarily comply with the laws.
Part of learning when and what to enforce with bicyclists is understanding what proper, vehicular-style cycling is. In every state in the U.S., bicycles are either considered vehicles, or cyclists are given all of the rights and responsibilities as other vehicle operators. That includes both the right to use the roadway and the requirement to follow the established laws.
Bicyclists fare best when they act and are treated as drivers of vehicles! Traffic laws are created to make travel safer and more predictable for everyone. Laws used properly save lives. They are far less effective if they aren’t reinforced.
The majority of traffic laws apply to bikes, except those that by their very nature cannot. For example, bicycles aren’t expected to have seatbelts, legal bumpers or windshield wipers. Regulatory signs, right-of-way rules and traffic signals all apply to cyclists. Bicycles are also required to have working brakes and use headlights (not just reflectors) at night or in inclement weather. All states require a functioning rear reflector or taillight for night use, as well.
Bikes are required to operate as close to the right side of the roadway as practicable. Practicable means “safe,” it does not mean as far right as possible. At times, bikes are allowed to use the center or left portion of the lane. Cyclists may choose to “take the lane” when, for example, they feel it is too narrow for another vehicle to safely pass, to avoid an object in the roadway, or if preparing to make a left turn.
A cyclist is as far right as practicable if he approaches and rides straight through an intersection from the right side of the through lane when a right-turn only lane exists. A motorist going straight from a right-turn only lane would likely be cited. A cyclist doing the same thing is just as unpredictable, just as dangerous and just as unlawful and confusing to traffic. He should be stopped and either cited, or warned, as well.
In many states, bicyclists are prohibited from riding on sidewalks, either in designated areas, such as business districts, or throughout the jurisdiction. Statistically, riding a bike on a sidewalk is more dangerous than riding predictably on the street. Where they are not prohibited, cyclists riding on sidewalks, or within crosswalks, are often considered and defined as pedestrians, with all the rights and responsibilities of pedestrians.
Pedestrians are not required to obey most normal traffic laws; for instance they don’t require headlights or brakes. Nor are they required to travel the same direction as adjacent traffic. Stop signs control vehicular traffic on the roadway, not pedestrian traffic on the sidewalk. A cyclist operating legally upon a sidewalk as a pedestrian has no legal obligation to stop for a stop sign!
The law likely says a pedestrian cannot leave the curb unless it is safe to do so, making bolting out in front of traffic unlawful. If they do, they are guilty of a pedestrian failure to yield right of way violation. A sidewalk cyclist riding past a stop sign, and in front of a motorist causing a collision or near collision, would be guilty of that same pedestrian violation and should be cited accordingly. Because these laws differ from state to state, it is important to check your statutes to be sure. Knowing and understanding these laws can help officers in ways they may not have yet imagined.
Crash report analysis has demonstrated that certain behaviors by cyclists and motorists most frequently result in crashes. In crashes involving adult cyclists, it has been found that the violation is most often a result of the motorist’s actions. In bike crashes involving children, it is most often the actions of the young cyclist that cause the incident. Enforcing the laws involved, with the intention of reducing those violations, can result in fewer deaths and injuries from car-bike crashes.
The top three car-bike crash types involving adults are the motorist stop and go, the unexpected left turn, and motorist overtaking. The motorist stop and go (failure to yield) occurs at intersections with a stop sign. Here the motorist either fails to stop or fails to see the cyclist and pulls out prematurely, striking the cyclist who has the right-of-way.
The unexpected left turn also occurs at intersections and involves a motorist making a left turn across the path of the straight through cyclist who has the right-of-way. Here, the motorist is intent on locating a gap in oncoming traffic in which to turn and fails to see or recognize the oncoming cyclist. The driver might also misjudge the approach speed of the cyclist and thinks he can complete his turn in time.
The motorist overtaking crash is the most feared of all bike-crash types. Here, the motorist and cyclist are traveling the same direction and the motorist strikes the bicycle from behind. Injuries are often serious, if not fatal. These crashes are rare, occurring in less than 8% of all motorist-bike crashes. Many happen at night on higher speed roads where expectation of bicycle traffic is low. Many involve cyclists with insufficient or illegal lighting and reflectors. Often the motorist is intoxicated.
When these crashes occur in daylight hours, it is often a result of a swerve by the cyclist to avoid debris or other surface hazard. It is just as likely a result of a motorist making an unpredictable turn or swerve. Some people think riding against traffic is safer because they can spot these erratic movements by motorists, but they are wrong—sometimes dead wrong.
The top three car-bike crash-types involving children are usually the result of actions by the child. They include mid-block rideouts, intersection rideouts and unexpected turns. In a mid-block rideout, the child rides out of a driveway, alley, or off a sidewalk somewhere in the middle of the block. Motorists traveling at legal speeds are hard pressed to avoid hitting them.
In an intersection rideout, as the name implies, the child rides into the intersection disregarding traffic control lights or signs. Young children are physically incapable of accurately judging the closing speed of approaching vehicles. They may not have been taught how to search and react properly to compensate.
In an unexpected turn situation, a child who is riding straight suddenly swerves left, perhaps toward a driveway or companion, or to avoid debris or other surface hazard. That action may be a failure to yield to an approaching motorist overtaking them. Children are easily distracted. They may forget to look behind them if they are attracted to something “more important” like a friend, a dog, or even a squirrel that has been squashed by a passing car. A motorist doesn’t have to be speeding for these crashes to occur. They occur because the child failed to search for traffic before moving out in front of it.
Selective enforcement by a traffic unit can target specific violations, selected locations, or specific violator types (cars, trucks, buses, pedestrians or cyclists). For bicyclists, selective enforcement of those violations that most often result in crashes can give a department more “bang for the buck” in its efforts to improve safety through reinforcement.
For adult cyclists, the big three” bicycle violations are: 1) disobeying traffic lights and stop signs, 2) wrong way riding, i.e., riding against traffic and 3) riding at night without a headlight and required reflectors. For children, the additional violation to watch for is failure to yield right-of-way such as when they race out of driveways in front of traffic, or make sudden movements or turns in front of overtaking traffic.
Motorists also violate the laws in ways that endanger cyclists. The big three motorist violations are 1) unsafe passing, i.e., passing too closely, 2) unsafe turns, when a turning motorist turns right or left in front of a straight-through cyclist and 3) driving under the influence.About 40% of fatal crashes between bicyclists and motorists occur at night. That might not seem very bad until you consider that only a small percentage of cyclists actually ride at night. They most often occur because the cyclist isn’t seen in time to avoid hitting them. Every state requires some sort of steady white headlight and a red or yellow rear reflector, pedal reflectors and side reflectors. Some states now require or allow a flashing or steady red taillight. Police officers could make a dramatic effect on both safety and crime in their communities if they enforced these laws on nighttime cyclists.
Bike Enforcement and Fighting Drugs
Drugs and bicycles have some things in common. Many street level dopers ride bicycles. Many times, dealers are using bikes or have helpers on bikes to move their drugs around for them. No dealer wants to lose a luxury sedan or SUV to forfeiture, but none of them mind risking a beat up old Huffy.
Knowing the bike laws can give a proactive officer yet another way to stop people legally. Someone missing a required light or reflector, or failing to stop at a sign is an articulable reason for a stop. Riding on a sidewalk where prohibited can be an equally valid reason. Bike laws and bicycle registration laws, together with the pedestrian provisions, can provide an officer with more tools to stop, identify and search people they may not otherwise be able to.
In some departments, officers have made felony arrests and recovered a number of valuable bikes, drugs and cash, by merely stopping people biking at night without required headlights. Smart officers know how to deal with people they have stopped; the tough part may be finding a reason to legally stop them. Using bike and pedestrian laws can be a valuable tool for the proactive officer’s “toolbox.”
Kirby Beck retired from Coon Rapids, MN Police with 28 years of service. He has served as a training consultant with NHTSA and is an IPMBA Police Cyclist™ Instructor-Trainer. He currently works as a training consultant and expert witness.
Published in Law and Order, June 2007