Over at the Globe today, Peter DeMarco does his usual clear writing on bike issues. The gist is that cops in Boston and other cities around aren’t writing tickets for cycling infractions, particularly running red lights. It seems there are flaws in the laws.
Rather, there are numerous laws that make it clear that under MA law, a bicycle is a vehicle with similar rights and responsibilities for the operator as motor vehicles. (A later post or two will rip into the inane same-road-same-rules chant.) Yet the three-paragraph law (Ch. 85-Sect. 11E) that passed this January gives the cops a weak excuse not to write tickets for bikers.
The ruse is that as there is no driver’s license to suspend or revoke, the constabulary is powerless, powerless I say son, to do anything other than write warning tickets to cyclists. While listening to locals and reading comments on newspaper and websites, you’d believe all drivers are law abiding and all cyclists hellions.The BDP and other cops around feign impotence.
Unfortunately, DeMarco stops with taking them at their word and does not point out the obvious. Nor does the Globe or police or anyone seem interested in a bit of science. Counting and classifying infractions by drivers, bikers and walkers would likely make them all squirm and shuffle their feet.
We really do need to disregard these give perceptions that drive (if you pardon) the related discussions. I’ve done a few short term counts. I think I’ll do some more and publish them. This is a discussion awaiting and some official counter sorts should get involved.
First let’s note some Boston road traits:
- Unlike many cities with long, straight runs of well-timed lights, ours are generally low speed.
- This keeps most collisions to non-lethal levels. While it’s rare to find a local car without dings, we don’t get going fast enough to murder in most cases.
- The sheer number of cars here so vastly exceeds bikes that the numbers of wrecks, hit-and-runs and more commonly moving violations is several orders of magnitude higher for motor vehicles.
- There are virtually no fatalities caused by a bicycle hitting anyone or anything, and numerous ones of car, bus and truck drivers hitting cyclists.
Yet the need of urbanites to identify with fellow drivers and to believe that cyclists are far more likely to disregard traffic laws is terrifically strong. Hence, there is a cry for our cops to crack down on these scofflaws.
Back to my quasi-scientific findings, which I promise to replicate and expand a bit, I went to a few intersections, some with little bike traffic and others with a mix of motor and non-motor. What I found included with the preponderance of cars, trucks and buses, it was extremely rare (under 1%) of traffic lights and stop lights that did not have multiple driver offenses at every light change and every sign stop. These were running the light or sign, not coming to a complete stop, blocking the crosswalk or box, not stopping before the stop line, turning on red where not allowed, speeding, turning or changing lanes without a signal, turning without yielding to pedestrians, and turning from the wrong, marked lane. In general, the law-abiding drivers were the one who were not close enough to commit the moving violations. At nearly all lights, from one to five drivers ran red lights, often tailgating each other through after the change.
Cyclists tended to be guilty most frequently of slowing or stopping for the red light, then proceeding, running the light in vehicular terms. Yet, more and more cyclists are stopping and waiting, including this one. The message seems to be getting through to us. It appears a slight majority do proceed after stopping and before the light changes though.
Of course, cyclists are wont to point out that the risk to anyone from a cyclist stopping and going is tiny contrasted to a motor vehicle driver doing that. It’s still illegal tough. Moreover, it is well to a cyclist’s safety to get ahead of drivers at a light change. Drivers are much more sensible and safe overtaking cyclists where they can see and feel in charge than leaving a light at the same moment. Yet, even starting a second or two before the change to green is still illegal.
The fact seems to be that most drivers who do not also cycle seem to resent cyclists or anyone who might get to do something they cannot. Despite the vast physical differences, drivers seem from their comments to have a puerile reaction — If I can’t, they can’t! It’s not fair!
Then to the cops, let’s be plain about return on their time and effort investment. They roundly hate the $1 MA jaywalking law and the $20 bike tickets. Fair enough for pedestrians, but they know that the bike tickets can be $20 to $50, enough to make it worth the time.
In fairness, we need to be aware that tickets are time consuming, particularly if the receiver fights it and the cop is supposed to appear in court to testify. Understandably, they’d rather not mess with bike and ped tickets. They could enforce these laws, as they have in places like D.C. and occasionally, periodically, in Cambridge.
However, cops may have seen too many police dramas. Talk to a cop and they would have it they are overwhelmed with major stuff. Yet the danger of some loony or criminal shooting at or trying to stab or club a cop are very low in a given year or decade. Some officers go careers without any of that. More importantly, the vast majority of cops are not detectives bringing to the bar murderers, burglars and such. Most cops do pretty mundane looking and other work all day every day.
They largely have time to do for pay what I have done out of curiosity — go to intersections and observe moving violations. The difference, of course, is that they should then write tickets.
Virtually any intersection any day would provide one violation after another. They would quickly:
- Fill up ticket book
- Shock the drivers used to the no-blood-no-ticket attitude
- Spread the word that urban cops were enforcing laws for a change
- Make our streets safer
The pretense that tweaking the new 85-11E would make a difference is absurd. Facts include that cyclists have advantages here. While they are much more likely to be maimed or killed when hit, they don’t have licenses to lose or surchargeable insurance. They don’t have to produce their papers (license) and could give false names and addresses.
In comments on sites, a common call is for cyclists to have operator insurance and some form of license. These too are those shallow, emotional responses to someone having something those commenting do not. Plus, I try to imaging the cry over the expense and new bureaucracy in implementing such changes.
Instead, cops should enforce existing laws for pedestrians, cyclists and drivers. Police departments can make that happen by mandating enforcement and creating policies for their officers in presently iffy situations.
Sure, cops would whine that they’ll spend a lot more time writing tickets and appearing court. I can almost guarantee that this would be only for a few months. When the word got out that the BPD suddenly means to enforce traffic laws, violations will plunge as driver/cyclist/walker behavior changes.
I propose that we measure violations, both by study and by tickets issued. That would certainly take the bluster out of driver’s claims that they are the only ones who obey the laws. We could get a much safer city.
Cross-post: This is both legal and personal. I’ll post in Harrumph and Marry in Massachusetts.