Bicycle riders are usually the focus when police think of enforcing bicycle laws. We've all seen riders running red lights, riding on the sidewalk, or riding at night without lights and wanted them to be stopped and ticketed! However, many bicycle crashes are caused by the bad behavior of motorists, and drivers may not realize the impact of riding too close to a cyclist or speeding past a rider just to cut in front of them and make a right turn. Good law enforcement strategies will target both cyclist and motorist and will focus on behaviors that cause the greatest fear or danger.
What Role can Law Enforcement Play in Bicycle Safety?
Most crashes can be avoided if both bicyclists and motorists follow the rules of the road. Heightened awareness of these rules among law officers can lead to: enforcing of laws, modeling of good behaviors and recognizing and taking advantage of teachable moments with both bicycles and motorists. The ultimate goal is to prevent crashes and enhance traffic safety.
Bicycles are legal vehicles and, unless specifically prohibited, can be expected on all roadways. Law enforcement officers come in contact with bicyclists on a daily basis and are expected to be experts on bicycle safety.
Law enforcement officers are the only ones who can enforce laws, both for bicyclists and motorists.
Law enforcement officers are in a unique position to assist with and add credibility to community efforts to encourage bicycling and improve bicycle safety. However, most officers do not possess the bicycle safety knowledge or the community assessment skills necessary to do this job.
What is the Value of Law Enforcement Training?
Most officers have never received any bicycle specific training. How do police officers know which laws to enforce, both for bicyclists and motorists, to improve bicycle safety if they do not know about the leading causes of bicycle crashes?
By increasing knowledge of the rules of the road for bicyclists and for motorists relating to bicyclists, law enforcement officers can better serve the community and potentially save a life.
Challenges to Taking Action - Common Beliefs
Police have better things to worry about: terrorism, gangs, crashes, and crimes-what's the big deal? Why bring bicycles into this?
Law Enforcement must also include PREVENTION. Anticipating high-risk behaviors that can lead to terrorism, gang behavior, crimes, and crashes, INCLUDING crashes involving BICYCLES, is part of their mission.
A bicycle is considered a vehicle and is bound by the same laws as other vehicles, e.g., riding with traffic, obeying red lights and stop signs.
Motorists must treat bicyclists with the same respect as other motorists.
Police Officers are already overworked-why give these folks more to worry about? There are only so many hours in a day and they can be better spent.
Knowledge leads to thinking about every day in a different light. In this case, it means greater awareness of situations that could lead to a crash. Since bicyclists are more vulnerable if they are hit - no safety belt, no steel exterior to take the brunt of a hit - safe behavior is essential.
With more knowledge, police can incorporate the laws as they apply to their everyday activity in law enforcement and direct bicyclists and motorists to safer behaviors that can prevent crashes.
What are you asking a police officer to do - ticket a kid?
Most enforcement actions do not result in a citation. Law enforcement officers are trained to use the least amount of force necessary to gain compliance with the law. Enforcement options include positive reinforcement, verbal and written warnings and yes, finally, citations.
Tickets are seldom effective in changing a child's behavior, especially young children. A firm reminder about the rules of the road from an officer is generally sufficient.
Adults aren't wearing helmets - I didn't wear a helmet when I was a kid - it should be up to the parents to decide; government and law enforcement should stay out of it.
Bicycling is not unreasonably dangerous but it is not without its risks. Regardless of the law in your area, bicycle helmets do save lives and prevent traumatic brain injury (TBI).
According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), each case of TBI costs $125,000 in rehabilitation, social services, insurance and other disability costs. These are costs we all have to pay because someone did not put a bicycle helmet on AND wear it correctly.
Areas of Enforcement
Violations of traffic laws that place cyclists at risk can be committed by both cyclists and motorists. Here are some important considerations for officers involved with enforcement action with both types of road users.
Bicycle riders sometimes contribute to their being involved in a crash. Some ride at night without lights. They may make themselves more difficult to see by wearing dark garments. They may ride the wrong direction in the traffic lanes. Even if they ride on the sidewalk, which is not legal in most places, traveling counter to the traffic lane on the adjacent street might result in them surprising a motorist who is often looking only for slow-moving pedestrians and searching for cars.
They may drive through stop signs and red lights. Sometimes they may be dealing with a signal that won't detect a bicycle, or a stop sign placed at the bottom of a long hill that the cyclist would just as soon attack without losing momentum. Regardless, the sudden appearance of the bicyclist can surprise motorists.
Some bicyclists make sudden or unpredictable turns. Others may not yield the right-of-way when required.
Problems with Enforcement against the Bicycle Rider
Stopping bicyclists and taking enforcement actions against the rider can be a problem for a police officer who has not thought through the process.
Highly Mobile - Bicyclists are highly mobile and can be difficult to overtake, signal and actually stop. The best tool for doing this is another bicycle and voice or whistle commands. Pursuing a bicyclist by chasing with a motor vehicle can appear heavy-handed and out of proportion. Once stopped, bicycle riders feel exposed and can't shrink down in their seat and "disappear" like a motorist might.
Dealing with a Bicyclist's Identification - Bicycle riders are not required to carry any identification, much less a formal driver's license. This creates serious problems. The bicyclist may give a fictitious or altered name. The officer may have identity questions under any circumstance.
As in any traffic stop where the violator has no ID, the officers should take detailed notes of the identity information given. After it is all collected, ask for a repeat. Keep companions separate and then ask for them to verify the information. Carefully study how the violator begins to sign their name. Frequently, a violator will give a fictitious name but begin to sign their true name, since the signature is largely an automatic function! They will usually freeze after signing a few letters. By then it is too late. On the other hand, someone slowly laboring through a signature may be writing an unfamiliar (and false) name. When a cycle messenger is involved, requiring them to call a supervisor to identify them has proven effective.
Dealing with Children - Many bicycle riders are young children. In most states, children under age eight are considered incapable of committing an offense and cannot be cited. Under these circumstances the officer should call the attention of the parent to the problem.
Dealing with an Anti-automobile or Anti-authoritarian Bicyclist - An occasional bicyclist will take strong exception to the police challenge to their behavior. They may verbally abuse the officer. Some of these riders will be strong advocates of cycling and have strong emotional attachment to their way of doing things, legal or not. Some will have anti-automobile and anti-authoritarian ways. A cop in a car will represent both evils. Officers should not debate such issues but should focus on the specifics of the violation observed.
Pulling over the Bicyclist - More than half of bicycle crashes are caused by falls. The cyclist is riding too fast for conditions and goes down. Bicyclists also run into dogs, other cyclists and pedestrians as well as automobiles. The best approach is a soft one. Ideally, a bicycle officer can ride along with the cyclist and ask them to stop. An officer in a patrol car can follow until a cyclist pauses or stops in traffic and then address the rider verbally.
An officer who has reviewed the bicycle and traffic laws should have minimal difficulty with either group.
Areas of Focus for Enforcement against the Bicyclist
- Driving at night without lights or required reflectors
- Riding the wrong way in a traffic lane or on the wrong side of the road
- Running a stop sign or red light
- Failing to yield the right-of-way
- Riding out mid-block
- While turning right or left
- Abruptly entering a crosswalk, too fast for the approaching motorist
- Failing to signal an abrupt turn
Some communities have periodic enforcement blitzes, and others may concentrate enforcement efforts on particular intersections and behaviors in order to have the maximum impact.
University campuses are frequently the target of enforcement campaigns, and many campuses have extensive bicycle training and safety programs that include an enforcement element.
Few motorists go out of their way to deliberately hit or frighten bicyclists. However, an equally small number really appreciate the impact they can have on the safety and comfort of those around them who are outside the protection of a steel cage. Motorists are on the lookout for threats to their safety and so are scanning for other vehicles; they may not be paying attention to the cyclist or pedestrian ahead of them in the road. They may not realize that speeding through a neighborhood prevents people from crossing the street or feeling comfortable riding up to the shops. When overtaking a bicyclist, motorists are worried about how close vehicles in the adjacent or oncoming lanes are rather than how close they are coming to the bicyclist, and they are certainly in too much of a hurry to stop and wait for a gap in traffic before pulling out and safely passing a rider.
EVERY police patrol officer should watch for these violations while on routine patrol and take enforcement action when they observe them.
Problems with Enforcement against the Driver
Unfortunately, the law enforcement officer is most likely having to make up for the failure of traffic engineers to properly accommodate bicyclists in roadway design, for the failure to train motorists to deal safely with bicyclists, or for a lack of bicyclist education. If a bicyclist is "holding up" a motorist by riding in the middle of the travel lane, the chances are the bicyclist would be more than happy to be riding in a designated bike lane or on a paved shoulder, but none exists. Many motorists are uncomfortable passing a cyclist because they were never really taught how to deal with that situation when learning to drive.
Bicyclists are often held in quite low esteem by other road users. The image of the errant cyclist running stop signs and red lights pops easily into almost everyone's head. Thus, stopping a motorist to cite them for a traffic violation involving a cyclist is, on the face of it, going to win the officer very few new friends. Indeed, many motorists will be completely unaware of what they have done wrong even after being pulled over. The first task for the officer, therefore, is to make sure the motorist does understand and appreciate the impact of behavior that causes danger to a bicyclist. If the driver seems to get the message, a warning may be all that is necessary.
Some drivers, however, will not get it. They will steadfastly refuse to accept that a cyclist - any cyclist - should be on the road, particularly that road, in front of them. They may even claim to be acting in the cyclists' best interest in telling them to "get off the road" for their own safety. Even if the officer wouldn't ride on that road themselves, they should help the driver understand that the cyclist has a legitimate right to be on the road and that riding in the gutter or on the sidewalk (assuming one exists) is likely much less safe. If the driver still fails to see the light, a ticket may be the only option.
Officers should beware the defense that "the cyclist was all over the road." Certainly some cyclists do weave around and are unpredictable. More often than not, the cyclist is simply trying to avoid a pothole, dodge a rock or broken glass, or stay away from a crack in the road between the gutter and the asphalt. Cyclists are not required or expected to ride in the gutter, and are not required to get out of the way of motorists. At the same time, a cyclist should not deliberately hold up a motorist when there is space for safe passing.
Areas of Focus for Enforcement against the Motorist
- Driving while impaired by drugs or alcohol
Failing to yield the right-of-way
- When turning left at intersections or at driveways
- When turning right at intersections or at driveways
- When entering roadway
- Speeding, particularly in neighborhoods and near schools.
- Overtaking bicycles in areas where it cannot be done safely
- Failing to use turn signal
Bicycle helmets are a proven way of reducing the death and injury toll from bicycle crashes. Where helmet laws are in place, officers should participate in the efforts to enforce their use. Where helmet use is voluntary, officers should strongly encourage cyclists to wear helmets.
Police departments should mandate helmet use by bicycle police officers. They are of proven value in protecting officers. Failure to use such safety equipment may lead to denial of workmen's compensation claims made by an injured officer. It is also important that officers set a good example for other cyclists in their community.
Conclusion - Saving Lives
A Police Officer is in a unique position to save a life through enforcement of lawful behaviors that could or might just save a life.
It starts with education for everyone - including law enforcement. If law enforcement officers gain a better understanding of bicycle safety and the Rules of the Road, they are more likely to enforce those rules and do so correctly. Not recognizing or ignoring behavior today could mean behavior that could cause a major injury or death tomorrow.