Why cyclists need police understanding, not crackdowns

Kelly O’Mara granted permission to re-post her op-ed on the interplay between bikes and law enforcement. If you’ve ever ridden a bicycle, it rings true.

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Earlier this summer, a number of local police jurisdictions had big crackdowns on cyclists. It was supposed to be a targeted enforcement on lawbreakers on two wheels. Some police departments even focused just on cyclists for a couple weekends.

For a number of reasons — the targeting of a specific segment of the population and the ongoing hostilities towards a group of people on the road who are more vulnerable than others — this really seemed wrong.

I wrote an op-ed about it at the time, which was supposed to run in the paper. But, there were some disagreements.

So, I’m posting it here:

We have a lot of laws. We have laws about not driving while holding pets. We have laws about crossing the street in crosswalks. We even have laws banning smoking at bus stops, which are widely ignored.

What laws we choose to prioritize or actively enforce reflect our choices as a community. While immigrating to the U.S. without proper paperwork may be illegal, regular raids in Marin would likely cause an outcry against the ugly racism inherent in those enforcement policies.

When multiple police agencies in the county make it a public priority to target cyclists, it reflects no different an ugly bias.

It has been argued that Fairfax, San Anselmo, and Sausalito’s decisions to crackdown on cyclists doesn’t target cyclists but only lawbreakers. If that were true, then it would have been publicly announced as a crackdown on all traffic infractions. In fact, it was just the opposite. San Anselmo’s traffic enforcement division focused solely on cyclists one weekend. Evidently, leaving drivers free to do whatever they wanted.

Yes, I bike. I also drive. I even walk.

And, I understand how annoying a group of cyclists racing through town can be. But, the obsessive focus on cyclists coming to a complete stop at every sign, even if no one’s around, is a red herring issue.

We continue to insist on ‘separate but equal’ treatment, repeating that bikes must follow the exact same rules as cars, instead of acknowledging they are different vehicles with different expectations. Truly following the exact same rules on a bike would get you killed and hold up a lot of traffic. Let’s not lose sight of the intent of our laws: to make roads safer for everyone.

There are around 700 cyclist deaths every year. There are over 50,000 injuries. Yes, some of those accidents are caused by cyclists not stopping at stop signs. But, most are caused by simple misunderstandings between cyclists and drivers or by a lack of awareness or by blatant hostility that leaves someone blacked out after a hit-and-run.

Most accidents are caused by an attitude that treats a segment of the population as second-class citizens and targets them based on how they look.

Nearly every cyclist, particularly if they wear spandex, has been sworn at, called names, forced off the road, or been in a crash because a driver didn’t see them or didn’t think they deserved to be there – as if driving to ride a stationary bike at the gym is somehow more worthwhile. Hit-and-run accidents in West Marin are not uncommon and, often, the police either can’t or won’t do anything. Many cyclists who find themselves in the hospital are then faced with another battle that, to the best of my knowledge, has never ended with a driver being charged with anything in Marin.

I hear over and over that cyclists are arrogant and entitled. But, many are just frustrated.

When our police make it a priority to target cyclists they teach the community that it’s ok to target cyclists. When it becomes official policy to go after a segment of the population, it implicitly condones hatred of that segment. In this case, that makes drivers more likely to view cyclists as an annoyance and more likely to take an attitude that puts those cyclists in harm’s way – cyclists who now, more than ever, feel they will not have the support of the very people who are sworn to protect them.

When our police agencies make it a priority to target just cyclists, instead of everyone who make the roads unsafe, it makes the road a dangerous place.

This post originally appeared on Kelly’s blog about just about everything, Almost as Good as TV. She is a freelance writer living in Marin County.

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About David Edmondson
A native Marinite working in Washington, DC, I am fascinated by how one might apply smart-growth and urbanist thinking to the low-density towns of my home.

2 Responses to Why cyclists need police understanding, not crackdowns

  1. Pingback: Today’s Headlines | Streetsblog San Francisco

  2. Pingback: Traffic deaths are down, unless you’re on two wheels. Or two feet. Or driving a big ass truck. « BikingInLA

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