If Tucson police are becoming more bicycle-savvy, drivers certainly aren't

When I saw a flurry of e-mails among fellow bicycle commuters a few weeks ago warning of police stakeouts and mass citations, I muttered to myself, here we go again. Then a news item announced a $45,000 grant from the governor's office to the Tucson Police Department for bicycle enforcement. Nice to know that a state that doesn't have enough money to let you pull over and take a crap in a rest area still has plenty of money to harass bicyclists.

It's an annual ritual. In the officially stated pursuit of "bicycle safety," officers sit at four-way stop signs and bust bicyclists for rolling through without stopping. I liken this activity to ticketing joggers for running faster than the speed limit. Inasmuch as bicyclists operate at relatively slow speeds and with unobstructed lines of sight, it's usually quite easy for them to determine that no cars or pedestrians are present without coming to a complete stop. Indeed, in some cities stop signs are legally considered yield signs for bicycles. Considering the inherent safety incentive for cyclists in this situation—avoiding death or serious bodily harm—I can only view this bicycle safety enforcement strategy as a total waste of resources.

However, the news item also said that this year's program would be different—supposedly the cops would target truly dangerous behaviors, like riding on the sidewalk, or against traffic. I found this difficult to believe, so I called Erik Ryberg, a local attorney with years of experience in the bicycle trenches. He agreed that things might actually be changing and mentioned that the cops seemed to be more open to communication with the bicycle community.

That alone is a Great Leap Forward, since illogical stop sign enforcement is just one facet of a problematic lack of bicycle sense within police ranks. After trading outrageous anecdotes about cyclists getting creamed by cars and then unfairly blamed for their own misery, Erik pointed me to a study that analyzed several years of TPD collision reports, 20 percent of which were found to have incorrectly assigned fault to bicyclists. Some of these errors were caused by the officers' lack of understanding of bicycle laws, but others were clearly a matter of bias.

Fired up and ready to contribute to the dialogue with something other than my middle finger, I decided to collect some data of my own. I staked out the intersection of Mountain Avenue and Grant Road at rush hour to observe the interactions between bikes and cars. With its wide bike lanes and obvious signage—"Yield to Bikes," "No Motorized Vehicles in the Bike Lane"—Mountain is considered one of the most bike-friendly routes in our city, but my observations stunned even this militant bicycle avenger.

For a solid hour, I watched an aggressive automotive free-for-all that nearly cost half a dozen bicyclists dearly. I counted 46 cars entering the bike lane illegally for various reasons. Many of the transgressors used the lane to make right turns, often to bypass traffic in the car lane. Others impatiently swerved into the bike lane to get around morons who were clogging traffic flow by making left turns, which are prohibited during rush hour. Several motorists made right turns directly in front of bicyclists riding parallel to them, causing near-collisions. In general, at least half of the motorists seemed oblivious to the obvious signage and the numerous bicycles around them.

In that same hour, I saw exactly two bicyclists break the law. It strikes me that if you really want to enhance bicycle safety, you might try ticketing some of the menaces that careen around carelessly in behemoth Death-UVs while yakking on their cell phones and ignoring bicycle laws, rather than blaming—or ticketing—their potential victims.

I shared my data with TPD and encouraged them to further modify their enforcement strategies. The congenial officer was very interested, and eventually assured me that they would check out the situation. I would be very appreciative of that and curious to see the results of such an expedition, as well as an overall accounting of citations issued when the program concludes in a month.

In the meantime, in pursuit of peace between bikes and cars, I pledge not to flip anybody the bird while riding my bicycle, even when they try to kill me. Instead I'll attempt to engage them in calm, edifying conversations about bicycle laws and how my life is not less important than theirs just because I'm on a bicycle.

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