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Posted by on Apr 27, 2009 in Safety | 13 comments

Police Have it Wrong: Traffic Flow vs. Safety

Have you ever had one of those “epiphany moments” when something that was always obvious –yet subtly hidden– then explodes into your consciousness and you experience the  light-bulb “AHA!! Yes!! Of Course!!!” moment?

It happened to me at the most recent Florida Bicycle Association quarterly meeting in West Palm Beach, where I had been invited as a guest to come in, listen, and learn more about what FBA is doing for cycling and cyclists here in the state of Florida.

I can tell you lots of good things are happening within FBA — so much so that I’d have to write another post to tell you all about the many things FBA is working on.  But I’ll stick to this one project FBA is developing which makes a hell of a lot of sense to me — that is, working with law departments to help train their officers on the issues that affect cyclists.

The idea is to get in front of law enforcement groups to present information and training to help the officers understand the law/rights/issues that confront cyclists who use the roads.   As part of the presentation, George Martin created a PowerPoint slideshow to highlight the main ideas that FBA wanted to convey.  The slideshow mentions all the things that we all know about and can almost repeat verbatim — the Florida statutes on defining a bicycle as a vehicle, the “close as practicable” issue, 3-foot law, reasons for taking the lane, etc.  OK, nothing earth-shattering.  All good stuff, all important, but no big revelation — until about  halfway through where I saw a slide which said in effect:  Police — you’re worrying about the wrong things with cyclists.  You’re worrying about traffic flow issues, and not safety issues.

BANG!!  It was like a gun going off inside my brain.  How obvious, and yet I never picked up on this!!

Police have been concentrating on the wrong issues.  What is one of the biggest reason for a cyclist to get pulled over when riding on the roads?  Hint — think about our friend Fred_dot_U’s most recent experience.  That’s right,  he was pulled because he was (a) not far enough to the right and that made him (b) an impediment to traffic flow (in the officer’s mind, anyway).

Where is any safety issue(s) being addressed?  It could be argued that a cyclist like Fred is endangering himself when riding on the road in the manner that he has chosen (vehicularly), but we can prove statistically that isn’t the case.   What police are choosing to do is enforce traffic flow issues over safety issues — perhaps unconsciously, but more likely due to a cultural shift of the concerns of society about having unencumbered access to the street.

Mighk Wilson had done some reading on this and pointed out that early on, police were NOT interested in dealing with traffic flow issues, but were much more concerned with safety issues — specifically at the time (I think it was the early 20th century) it was how to get pedestrians safely across the street.  Somewhere along the way, safety has taken a back seat to traffic flow such that now the flow of traffic has been deemed critical for society and something for law enforcement to regulate.  Today we have an auto-centric view of traffic that supports the notion that the auto drivers come first and much further down the line are cyclists and pedestrians. That’s completely backwards from a safety perspective.  The most vulnerable members of traffic are first pedestrians, followed second by cyclists.  Next would be motorized two wheels (electric bikes, scooters, motorcycles) followed finally by autos and then trucks.

So what are the safety issues that we, cyclists would like to see law enforcement concentrate on for us?   The FBA would like to see more enforcement in the following areas:

  • For motorists — Improper passing and following too close (enforcement of the 3-foot rule), harassment for being on the road, reckless endangerment and assault.
  • For cyclists — Red-light running, wrong-way riding and riding without lights at night.

Doesn’t this make sense to you?  LEOs: Quit worrying over how far to the right a cyclist is riding (traffic flow issue), but do make sure they are riding in the correct direction, are stopping at red lights, and if riding at night have the proper equipment (all safety issues, statistically proven to be the cause of the majority of bicycle accidents).  Write tickets for those that do not comply!  To help cyclists share the road, make sure motorists do not threaten the safety of the cyclist by acting aggressively with their car or pass too closely.  Write some tickets!

I believe if this message is taken under serious consideration by local police and other law departments, and action taken, then we could see significant, positive changes for cyclists.  I for one would love to see cyclists pulled over and ticketed for running red lights.  I don’t think it would take many before the word spreads through the cycling community — yes, you’re not supposed to run and yes, you will get a ticket if they see you.  I’m sure there are motorists who would appreciate seeing a few of these tickets given out as well,  and I’d sure like to eliminate “running red lights” as a major pet-peeve that motorists have against cyclists.  Consequently, I’d love to see motorists who deserve it ticketed for unsafe passing of a cyclist.

But most of all, what I would like to see is all police and law enforcement as a friend to cyclists, who care about our safety and take it as being more important than how fast traffic flows.

13 Comments

  1. Similarly, the traffic engineering and planning profession likes to say that “safety comes first,” but their actions belie that. They know that, for example, a six-lane highways have much higher injury and fatality rates per vehicle mile traveled than four-lane highways, but they continue to widen four-laners to six. The same goes for speed; they know they can reduce injuries and deaths by designing roadways for lower speeds, but refuse to do so.
    Speed and capacity come first, and safety has to bend to those priorities.

  2. As I watch all the cyclists come out this Spring, most of whom seem to ride on the sidewalk where I live, I would like to see more tickets for that too.Overall though, I couldn’t agree more with your post. Presentations to police like the FBA’s is certainly a starting point. Sadly, I fear there may not be enough hours in the day or cruisers on the street to get the ticketing rolling…

  3. It’s a matter of helping them understand why it’s important to focus on behaviors like wrong-way riding and sidewalk riding. Stopping crash-causing behaviors may prevent them from having to work a crash.

    I’d like to see them at least warn the sidewalk riders in places where they interfere with pedestrians. I had one skim past my elbow as I was walking along the sidewalk on Park Ave in Winter Park. There’s just no excuse for riding on the sidewalk there.

    I really want to see them come down on wrong-way riders, because those dimwits put MY safety at risk.

  4. The Bicycle Coalition of Maine (bikemaine.org) has had a fairly successful LEO education program in the past, although it’s not very active right now, sad to say. I think it has been cited nationally as an example. It was developed largely by our former Executive Director, Jeff Miller (now of the Alliance for Biking and Walking, formerly the Thunderhead Alliance) and a state police administrator who is now retired. (I think those are the two main reasons it is not active right now.)

    FBA may want to contact our education person, Deborah Ladner, or call up Jeff in DC.

  5. Andrew, I hope I can remember your epiphany when I need it next. I’d like to be able to ask the officer, “Is this a traffic flow issue or a safety issue?”

    It is funny, though, that in the fifteen traffic stops I’ve had, the alleged safety issue is the last thing brought up, once the statute has been identified and resolved (in all but two, of course) and that the original reason for the stop is imagined traffic flow issues.

    I agree very much that law enforcement would do well to focus on wrong way riders, ninja cyclists (night riders without lights (boy, do I miss Yehuda)) and the like. Those are true safety concerns for everyone.

    I’ve posted a number of vehicle-related videos to YouTube in the past and the response from the “general public” is most negative. “It could be argued that a cyclist like Fred is endangering himself when riding on the road in the manner that he has chosen (vehicularly), but we can prove statistically that isn’t the case. ” I’ve been told that I should be run over for blocking the road, even though a particular video might be for someone passing me on the right by going off the roadway entirely. I’ve been told that I’ll be run over, that I’ll be killed, that one of the viewers is waiting for the video that shows I’ll be hit.

    Rampant ignorance is certainly our biggest “enemy”.

    Andrew, I hope you never recover from this particular gunshot to the head.

  6. In one city in my area, there has been recent increased enforcement of cyclist “far to the right” laws on early weekend morning group rides on multilane arterials wtih little traffic. This isn’t the first time this has happened in that city – typically the increased enforcement is a result of political pressure from public outcry of cyclists “being in the middle of the road”.

    That said, I also believe part of the problem is that many have convinced themselves that “improved traffic flow = improved safety”. There are studies which show that there are fewer crashes on a freeway/expressway when speeds are uniform. But then this mentality is applied to regular streets, which doesn’t apply because of traffic lights, driveways, stopped buses, etc. Furthermore, most of the folks who cite speed differential as a safety issue will pin the blame on the slower driver.

    Actually, I believe a cyclist controlling a lane is less disruptive to traffic flow than a gutter bunny, since traffic will change lanes much earlier and in a much more orderly fashion to get around the cyclist.

  7. The unsafe cyclist list is great: Wrong way cyclists (salmon), ninjas and stop light scofflaws.

    Speed limit enforcement would be helpful too.

    Keri makes a great point too, a cyclist ticketed today may reduce a cop’s paperwork tomorrow!

  8. The tickets for car drivers and bike riders could be used to create a bicycle safety and rights fund to fight for those issues.

    Cops that have served as bicycle patrol cops might be more passionate about bicycle traffic issues and thus might be more credible traffic liasons.

    I once got ticketed by officer Cimini of OPD and he lied twice in a court of law and right before he ticketed me for a trumped up charge and abused me at the stop he had ridden his bike perpendicular to extremely heavy vehicular traffic on Orange Ave. downtown and he crossed the road in the middle of the road not at a crosswalk/intersection and worst of all Hearing Officer Gross was complicit in the injustices.

  9. You got us curious Dennis. What was the charge?

  10. We should also appeal to the officer’s sense of service to the community. The motorist who is involved in a crash with a law-breaking cyclist will rarely be physically injured, but will often have to spend time and money on repairs, and may even suffer some emotional impact. I know I’d sure be pissed to have to spend time and money cleaning up after the ignorance or stupidity of a bicyclist.

    Give me the option of sitting behind a cyclist for 30 seconds waiting for a gap, or spending hours getting my car repaired…

  11. With the danger of being thought of as a crass and shameless self-promoter, I relate my own personal police stop over an imaginary violation of the law here:

    http://chipsea.blogspot.com/2009/04/abuse-of-power.html

    There could also be a middle way for traffic code enforcement. Perhaps the court could offer a requirement to attend a road I course to both motorists and cyclists in lieu of a fine or damage to their driving record. Lord knows we need to educate both motorists and cyclists.

    Is there any bicycle advocacy groups in Florida willing to propose such an effort?

    Perhaps a “streamlined” citation process for cyclist infractions such as riding like a salmon or a ninja. In other words, reduce the time and paperwork burden for the cop to make a bicycle related traffic stop. Perhaps it will help make these safety violations easier to be seen.

  12. I was driving my car in the far left lane south on Orange Avenue downtown in extremely heavy traffic when officer Cimini of OPD crossed directly in front of me (going from west to east) on his bike going perpendicular to the grain of traffic and dressed like a ninja all in black. His bike riding did not strike me as so odd at the time but the fact that he wore all black did, especially when 95 percent of OPD bike officers wear white shirts. He rode his bike a little further south parallel to Orange on the sidewalk and stopped a few feet south of Wall Street Plaza. I drove very slowly past him behind a large fire truck (I believe). I went through the intersection at Central as did cars to my right rear and then all of a sudden officer Cimini pulls up on my left on his bike yelling and screaming at me to stop. He first asks me if I noticed him and I said yes, because most OPD bike officers wear white shirts and he wore black. All the while he is treating me extremely abusively. He tells me that he stopped me for running a red light and then he changes the charge to following behind a truck too closely. We depart.
    Either that day or the next I go to OPD to file a complaint against officer Cimini and they send down a latin officer (I guess because I’m latin) to talk me out of it. He tells me that if the matter is not resolved in court, then I can file a complaint. I go to Hearing Officer Gross’ court the first time and officer Cimini does not show so they make me come back to court again. I go back to court 3 more times (the second and third times Hearing Officer Gross does not show up for court) and each time I pay for parking. On the 4th time in court Hearing Officer Gross has officer Cimini explain his case first and right away he lies about his location from where he says he saw me crossing the intersection at Central. He says that he was located in the southwest corner of Central and Orange Avenue when there was no doubt that he was located next to one of the bars south of Wall Street Plaza. I interrupt and tell Hearing Officer Gross about that lie as well as another and she throws me out of court.
    Shortly afterwards I file a complaint at OPD against officer Cimini and they do nothing about it. To this day I have no idea if anyone even looked at my complaint. When I went in to get the complaint paperwork I pulled officer Cimini’s record of complaints and found that he head between 5 and 7 complaints against him in his very short career at OPD and just about all of them were for very abusive treatment.

  13. I might add, that because of officer Cimini of OPD and Hearing Officer Gross’ misconducts I lost my drivers license for over a year and a half.