More cyclists are riding with forward- and rear-facing cameras. But what do you do when authorities won't review the footage?
BYROBERT ANNIS, Bicycling magazine, AUGUST 14, 2017
IMAGE COURTESY OF PHOTOFUSIO/ GETTY IMAGES
Over the past several years, more and more riders have been strapping video cameras to their bikes—not to capture rad jumps or beautiful scenery, but for safety reasons. However, the cameras might not be the panacea that many riders believe. On-bike video footage helped authorities catch the alleged driver who hit a cyclist on the Natchez Trace last month, but too often, video evidence from cyclists is ignored by overwhelmed police departments, particularly in cases where there’s no injury or other crime committed.
Still, many attorneys and cycling experts do recommend riding with video cameras. Colorado attorney Megan Hottman rides with a Cycliq Fly 6 rear-facing camera and light on every ride.
“Watching the footage afterward, it’s crazy to see how close some people get,” Hottman says. “It’s nice to know I have footage rolling should I ever need it!”
“Typically it's the drivers who hit a cyclist from behind that try to get away from the scene because the cyclist is often not in a position to ID the fleeing driver,” Hottman continues. “Also cars that hit cyclists from behind tend to be traveling at a faster speed, hence the increased need to capture backward-looking footage. Forward footage is good, too, but most cyclists don't have the cash or desire to run two cameras on every ride.” (Ride safe and confidently with Bicycling's Complete Book of Road Cycling Skills.)
Bike Law attorney Lauri Boxer-Macomber is currently involved in a civil case involving on-bike camera footage that shows a driver failing to yield to an injured rider who had right-of-way. Local authorities are also using the video to determine if charges or a citation should be filed against the alleged driver.
“Having the footage available is not only helpful for showing the wrongful act of the driver, but also for showing the pre-crash customs and practices of the bicyclist—(showing) he stopped at red lights and stop signs, took the lane when appropriate, and rode to the right when appropriate," Boxer-Macomber says.
But just because you have on-bike video footage doesn’t automatically mean that the police will investigate or charges will be filed. Hottman warns that law enforcement is less likely to press forward if the driver of the vehicle can’t be seen, as the vehicle owner can claim that someone else was driving. Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Department spokesman Sgt. Kendale Adams admitted IMPD would be unlikely to follow up a car passing too closely in violation of the city’s three-foot passing ordinance if no bodily injury or other possible crime occurred, as traffic infractions must be witnessed by an officer.
Cyclist Fraser Cunningham has commuted by bike 15 miles to his Cincinnati-area office for the better part of a decade without missing a single workday for more than four years. Safety is of paramount importance to Cunningham, so not only does the British expat now ride with a pair of front- and rear-facing Contour cameras, but he also has a sideways-mounted flag attached to his bike to denote the minimum safe passing distance. (The Ohio legislature enacted a statewide three-foot passing law earlier this year.) He’s compiled a nerve-wracking video collection of near misses during his commute. Armed with video evidence, Cunningham has filed about a dozen police reports. But until recently, only one resulted in an investigation.
“My rear camera caught the driver of a pickup truck looking right at me, then steering toward me,” Cunningham says. “It was obvious from the footage what was happening, and I think that’s why the officer went after him.”
The result? A $140 fine and two points against the driver’s license for an improper passing ticket.
Cunningham travels through about a half-dozen different police districts on his daily commute, and has filed reports in several of them. He's frustrated at the apparent lack of interest from most of the officers he’s dealt with. In one instance, a Mercedes came within inches of striking him, but the Sharonville PD officer placed much of the blame on Cunningham in his report, writing that he “didn't seem to realize that riding too far left put him in danger.” But Cunningham's video footage clearly shows him riding just a foot away from the curb.
In a more recent incident, a dark-colored Honda barely misses Cunningham. Moments later, he sees the Honda park and confronts the driver, who is clearly visible in the recording. However, when he brought the video to the police, Cunningham says they declined to investigate at the time. Sharonville Lt. Steve Vanover denies that his department refused to take Cunningham’s video evidence seriously, saying they would investigate any potential crime or infraction using whatever evidence could be produced.
A day after our interview with Vanover, Cunningham said that the Sharonville police contacted him, saying they would be pursuing charges against the driver.
Despite that success, Cunningham still wishes more police departments would take the complaints of cyclists and their video evidence seriously.
“It seems these close-call complaints are too low on the priority list for (many) departments to investigate,” Cunningham says. “They’re not going to help until I’m either dead or in the hospital.”
If police refuse to investigate, Boxer-Macomber suggests requesting a meeting with the chief of the police department and the responding officer to review the footage, or even approaching the district attorney directly with the footage. In one case, a cyclist armed with Garmin data, not camera footage, was able to convince the prosecutor to move forward after the local police declined to further investigate. If the local authorities still refuse to budge and an injury was involved, it might be time to consider a civil case, which typically has a lower burden of proof.
Still, there are other ways that camera footage can be used to help riders stay safe. One option is to share the footage with the Close Call Database that sends subscribed riders warnings of dangerous local drivers. Cycling advocates across the country have also compiled footage of various incidents to show both law enforcement and city planners the need for greater enforcement and changes to city infrastructure.
“It’s amazing how much more effective and efficient advocates can be when they can present actual video to law enforcement officers and planners,” Boxer-Macomber says. “Having that footage takes away many of the ambiguities associated with ‘he-said, she-said’ complaints and lets everyone dive right into substantive discussions about behavior, choices, laws, infrastructure, education and appropriate enforcement responses.”