Enforcement

The Rules of the Road

DSC03341It can be hard to figure out what the hell you should be doing out there in the vast wilderness of traffic. People get angry about pretty much every behavior. Someone will get mad at you for following the law precisely, while someone else gets mad that you harmlessly break the law. Car-driving commenters love to rail about how bikers break the law and use that as an argument for why we shouldn’t invest in bike infrastructure or encourage cycling. Bike-riding commenters complain about drivers parking in the bike lane or pedestrians walking on bike paths. It’s all a hot mess. To help bring some clarity to the conversation, here are critical rules and behaviors for navigating urban streets no matter what mode you’re using. Some of these rules are not actually legal, so follow them at your own risk.

Bikers

  • Idaho stop: The Idaho stop is a law which allows bikers to treat stop signs as yield signs and red lights as stop signs. I advocate for this approach, since it helps people biking establish themselves in the road. The authors of one study stated “stopping discourages bicycling, substantially increasing time, energy expenditure, discomfort, risk of collisions and risk for strain and overuse injuries.” They went on to write that, “Bicyclists enjoy vastly superior abilities to perceive and execute a safe yield at a stop than other modes, and great incentive to do so safely.” The study found that bicycle injuries decreased by 14.5% the year after the law was implemented. Whether or not the Idaho stop is officially canonized into law, we shouldn’t ticket bicyclists for running red lights or failing to stop at stop signs when this behavior can improve their safety and comfort. This is not a full license to blow through a red light. But if you come to a stop (or significantly slow down even if you don’t put your foot on the ground), look both ways, and make sure it’s safe to proceed, then go ahead.
  • Don’t bike fast like a jerk: If it’s a Saturday afternoon and you wanna cruise 25mph down the Greenway unimpeded, just stop. That’s not going to happen. If you try to zip down the Greenway and get frustrated every time someone is in your way, it’s your own fault for having unrealistic expectations. If you want to bike fast and unimpeded, bike in the street with the cars. You do not own the path any more than anyone else. This means that if you yell, “On your left,” from two blocks away and people don’t hear you, you’ll have to slow down, repeat yourself, and pass once they move over.
  • Biking on the sidewalk: Biking on the sidewalk is dangerous. A study in Minneapolis by Bike Walk Twin Cities found that 39% of motorist-bicyclist crashes occurred when bikers were entering traffic from a sidewalk. Sidewalk biking may feel safer to you, but it’s actually one of the most dangerous things to do on a bike. If you’re afraid of biking in heavy traffic, find quiet side streets to bike on. For example, in my neighborhood many people bike on sidewalks along Lyndale Avenue to avoid heavy car traffic. If they biked just one or two blocks off Lyndale in either direction, they’d find quiet side streets where there’s less traffic and slower moving vehicles. This is a better option than sidewalk biking. If you insist on sidewalk biking, realize that it’s your responsibility to yield to pedestrians, to take extra caution at all intersections, and to be aware of your surroundings.
  • Don’t pass on the right: There is no need to pass on the right. Other bikers aren’t expecting you there and if they’re about to turn right, they’re going to turn right into you causing both of you to crash. If you’re trying to pass on the right because it’s not clear to pass on the left, that means it’s not clear to pass at all. Just wait a second already!

Drivers

  • Slow down: Speed is dangerous. Driving faster increases the likelihood that you will kill a person walking or biking if you hit them. If you’re driving at 20mph and hit someone, the chance that they’ll die from their injuries is 5%. If you’re driving 40mph and hit someone, the chance that they’ll die from their injuries sky rockets to 85%. If you’re in a crowded pedestrian area or on a residential street, 25mph is plenty. Driving slower means you’ll have more time to respond to someone in the street and will be less likely to seriously injure or kill someone if you do hit them.
  • Stop for pedestrians and bikers: Did you know that in Minnesota, walkers have the right of way at every corner? Every corner where two roads come together is an unmarked crosswalk, which means you should be stopping when you see someone waiting or starting to cross. It’s a law that most drivers ignore and most pedestrians are too afraid to take advantage of, so the norm is that drivers don’t stop at unmarked crosswalks and barely stop at marked ones. You can and should change this norm by respecting walkers and bikers who are trying to cross the road.
  • Move over: If you are passing someone on a bike, you must give at least three feet when overtaking them. This is to avoid sideswiping them or hitting them if they swerve to avoid debris in the road. This is not a simple courtesy, it is a matter of life and death. You will probably have to cross the center line to pass a cyclist safely, and that is okay. If you can’t change lanes or there’s oncoming traffic that prevents you from crossing the center line, then just wait. It’s common sense. Don’t put someone else’s life at risk just because you’re impatient.
  • Don’t honk, seriously: It’s loud. Honking is illegal unless you’re in imminent danger. Honking is scary for people outside of a vehicle. If you’re honking at a person on a bike, you might cause them to lose their balance and fall over right in front of you. Just don’t do it.
  • Don’t give up your right-of-way: I know you’re trying to be nice when you give up your right-of-way and wave a biker through a stop sign, but you’re making things worse. Imagine being at an intersection where another vehicle has clearly gotten there first, as often happens to me when I’m on my bike. I sit and wait for them to go. They sit and wait for me to go because I’m on a bike, and they’re confused or trying to be courteous. Sometimes they’re waving me through, but often I can’t see the driver due to windshield glare. Then after we’ve been stuck in a stalemate for far too long, I eventually go. If drivers would just go in the correct order, we’d avoid a stalemate and I might not even have to put down my foot because I’d be able to time my approach to the intersection to arrive after the car has proceeded through.
  • Right turn on red: Right turn on red is dangerous, many pedestrians are hit, injured, and killed this way because drivers only look to the left to ensure they are safe to move into traffic and do not look to the right to avoid hitting pedestrians in the crosswalk. If you’re going to turn right on red, do not move into a crosswalk until you’re pretty certain you can move out of it quickly. Before turning right into traffic make sure you look right to ensure you’re not going to run over a pedestrian. If you don’t have a clear sight line to oncoming traffic, or would have to block a crosswalk for a significant period of time to get one, just wait. Red lights don’t last that long.
  • Don’t park in the bike lane: The bike lane is not there for you to park in. There is no excuse for parking in a bike lane ever. Figure out some other place to stop or park your car that is not endangering the safety of bikers.

Pedestrians

  • Don’t walk on bike paths: If there’s a bike path and a walking path and you’d prefer to walk on the bike path, just stop. The reason there’s a bike path is so people can ride their bikes on it; the reason there’s a walking path is so people can walk on it. These are two different groups that move at different speeds, it makes sense to keep them separated. In the winter when walking paths aren’t plowed, the bike paths essentially become shared use paths, so see below.
  • When you’re walking on shared use paths, stay right and stay alert: It’s great that you’re out walking your dog, but other people want to use the path too. Don’t take up the whole thing because your dog’s leash is way too long and he’s curious about those smells over there. Pay attention to your surroundings. If you’re on a shared use path, stay to the right and stay alert. Be ready to move over when people jogging, rollerblading, or biking want to pass you. It’s only polite.
  • When someone says “On your left” trust that they’re passing on your left: This means you need to know left from right and be ready to move over if someone’s coming. Please pay attention.

Everyone

  • Don’t use your phone while you’re moving: Even if you’re walking. Pay attention to where you’re going. If you must use your phone, pull over to the side of the road or walk over to an unused part of the sidewalk. Don’t block traffic, watch where you’re going, and avoid hurting or killing people.
  • Be courteous and patient: No matter how many people behave well, there will always be a contingent of people who are gonna act like assholes. Accept this. Don’t go fuming into a rage anytime someone on a bike blows through a red light. They’re one person, they’re not an ambassador for everyone who rides bikes. If a walker on the bike path is taking up all the space and not paying attention, realize that it’s not a personal affront against you or a reason to treat other walkers like enemies. If a driver cuts you off, try to let it go without escalating the situation or cutting off the next driver you see. There are lots of careless mistakes that happen in moments of confusion, they’ve happened to me and they’ve happened to you. The best we can do for ourselves and for others in our community is to assume that other people are just trying to get somewhere doing the best job they can.
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The problem of enforcement

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It was a beautiful September day, and Eric Nelson, a 43-year-old Minneapolis lawyer, thought spending the afternoon on the shore of Lake Calhoun was the perfect way to say goodbye to summer. So Nelson, who lives car-free, hopped on his bike and headed west on Lagoon Avenue.

But just as Nelson was preparing to cross the busy Hennepin Avenue intersection, a blue Ford Escape zipped out of the left side of his peripheral vision and made a right turn in front of his bike.

“I didn’t see the car at all until it was turning into me,” he said.

Unable to brake fast enough to prevent a collision, Nelson says he smacked into the back passenger side of the vehicle and fell over, shaken and hurt. Two men sitting outside of William’s Pub and Peanut Bar witnessed the incident and rushed to help the fallen cyclist off the blacktop.

Meanwhile, Nelson says the driver of the Ford slowed down briefly, then drove off, northbound on Hennepin.

One of the witnesses called 911. The operator sent an ambulance, but not the police. The paramedics who arrived checked Nelson out, and though he was sore from the crash and sported torn pants, a scraped elbow, and cracked glasses, he declined transportation to a hospital due to cost concerns.

The next morning, Nelson says his shoulder was causing considerable pain, so he went to the doctor, who performed X-rays and discovered a shoulder separation. Later that day, he headed to the Minneapolis Police Department 5th Precinct to report the crash.

“They didn’t seem to be too interested in it,” Nelson says. According to Nelson, the desk sergeant asked skeptically why he’d waited a day to report the crash.

He pushed the issue and finally the police took down all his information. With two independent witnesses, documented injuries, a license plate number, and what appeared in his own legal judgment to be an open-and-shut case of hit and run, Nelson was optimistic that justice would be served.

But justice, according to Nelson, was not served. A few weeks later, he received a letter from the MPD that told him that, though Nelson was free to pursue damages in civil court, no criminal charges would be pursued against the driver.

Nelson’s experience with car violence and his frustration with law enforcement’s lackluster response are hardly unique among Twin Cities cyclists – and with the percentage of Twin Cities workers who commute by bike more than doubling in the last ten years, that has many concerned.

Tyler Suter, a bike commuter from South Minneapolis, was carefully navigating the icy surface of 36th street, westbound on a wintery commute home from work, when a tailgating driver laid on the horn behind him, gunned his engine, and sideswiped Suter, slamming him to the curb.

A shaken Suter called 911 and reported the driver’s license plate number. Upset but not seriously injured, he declined an ambulance. The emergency operator said she would pass the driver’s description and plate number on to the cops in case the perpetrator was still in the area. Suter assumed the cops would follow up with him for more information.

When he hadn’t heard anything after two weeks, Suter called the police. Not only had a report not been filed, but it took three days to convince the cops to send an officer to take his report.

When the officer arrived, Suter says he was anything but sympathetic.

“The first thing he said was, ‘I really hate it when I’m walking on a path and some jerk on a bike passes me without even ringing a bell,’” Suter.

Although he hoped the cops would at least pursue the matter (they did not), ultimately Suter says he just wanted a report filed. With no witnesses and only a license plate and vehicle description, he didn’t necessarily expect an arrest in his case.

But the officer’s attitude soured him towards the MPD.

“It feels like cyclists are a nuisance, Suter says, “like we don’t also pay their salaries.”

Lackluster enforcement

According to many Twin Cities cyclists, law enforcement response isn’t only lackluster in cases where a collision occurs. It’s deficient when it comes to prevention as well.

Scot Moore bike commutes every day between his home in the Whittier neighborhood and downtown Minneapolis, only a mile and a half each way. But despite the short ride, he says he experiences close passes every day.

Under Minnesota law, a pass is illegally close when an overtaking driver leaving any less that three feet between the passing vehicle and a cyclist, even when the cyclist is in a bike lane. Close passes can be terrifying, especially for less experienced cyclists.

“I don’t want to be desensitized to it,” he says. “But honestly I’ve come to expect it.”

Close passes aren’t just scary. They can also lead to serious injury and death. Last month, four cyclists riding single-file along a two-lane road in Angier, North Carolina, were all struck and injured, two critically, when a driver tried to squeeze by them in the face of oncoming traffic.

But despite the danger close passes present to cyclists, and the frequency that Minneapolis cyclists say they’re passed illegally by drivers, only 10 citations for violating the safe passing law have been issued in all of Hennepin County in the past five years.

Taking it seriously

Ethan Fawley, executive director of the Minneapolis Bike Coalition, acknowledges that many Minneapolis cyclists have a low opinion of law enforcement’s commitment to keeping cyclists safe.

“It’s common for cyclists to be frustrated by what they perceive as cops not taking it seriously when cyclists are hit and injured,” Fawley says, “[The police] often question whether the victim was wearing a helmet, and they’re quick to call something an ‘accident’ rather than a violation.”

Sergeant David Hansen, Bike Patrol Coordinator for the Minneapolis Police Department, says that the MPD is doing an adequate job protecting the safety of cyclists and that negative experiences like those of Nelson and Suter are the exception to the rule.

“All it takes is one negative interaction, or one perceived negative interaction, and that spreads like wildfire in the community,” Hansen says. “That sways their perspective.”

Hansen is also quick to point out the safety problems he sees within the cycling community.

“The cyclists are as much in need of enforcement as motor vehicles are,” Hansen says. “I see as many cyclists putting themselves in danger as I see motor vehicles putting them in danger.”

Still, he admits that 10 citations for passing a cyclist too closely in five years seems low.

“Is that happening more often than 10 times? You and I know it is. It’s fair to say that law could be enforced more than it is,” Hansen says. “I think that’s a direct result of lack of knowledge by the the officers.”

According to many Twin Cities riders, that’s precisely the problem. They say it’s not just about what they see as law enforcement’s dismissive attitude towards cyclists, but also a serious lack of bike knowledge in the MPD.

Renee Hoppe, who races for the the Koochella Racing team and commutes regularly by bike, says many officers haven’t got a clue what it’s like to cycle in the Twin Cities, or how to keep cyclists safe.

“They don’t know the bike laws,” Hoppe says. “For example, they’re not aware that bikes can legally take the full lane, that it’s often safer if they do.”

She adds with sarcasm, “And, I have yet to experience a cop coming to my rescue when someone almost hits me on my commute.”

Hansen admits that though the bike cops he supervises go through a 40-hour International Police Mountain Bike Association certification program, most patrol cops aren’t given any specific training on bicycle law or safety.

An enforcement policy

The key to the problem, according to Fawley, is that Minneapolis lacks a city-wide, comprehensive traffic enforcement policy. The question of which traffic laws to enforce and when is mostly left up to individual cops, and he says that’s a problem for cyclists, drivers, and pedestrians, a problem that thus far has remained largely ignored by both police and bicycle advocates.

“It’s not an issue that’s risen to the fore locally,” Fawley says. “Enforcement is an important part of the equation for having a city that’s safe and comfortable for people getting around, and I think that’s a discussion that’d be valuable to have coming up soon.”

One of the reasons tackling the enforcement problem is important, Fawley stresses, is because a comprehensive traffic enforcement policy is one of the requirements for earning Minneapolis a platinum-level certification from the League of American Bicyclists. Currently, only five American cities hold the coveted certification: Boulder and Fort Collins, Colorado; Davis, California; Portland, Oregon; and Madison, Wisconsin. Minneapolis is a gold-certified city. This certification validates the hard work cities have put towards becoming more bike-friendly, while outlining where they lack and helping them fill gaps.

“The goal is to have improved traffic safety whether you’re driving, biking, or walking, and what are the ways we get to that outcome?” Fawley says. “I think that more should be done, and I think it needs to be more strategically thought out.”

A big challenge to developing that strategy, Fawley says, is the diversity of opinions on enforcement within the cycling community. Some cyclists want the cops more involved, some less, and he says the community is more splintered on the topic of enforcement than on the topic of bike lanes, a famously divisive issue within the cycling community nation-wide as well as locally.

Another major tangle in the enforcement-policy thornbush, according to Fawley, is the question of racial equity. A study performed by the ACLU found that between 2012 and 2014, black residents of Minneapolis were almost nine times as likely to be arrested for low-level offenses than were white residents. There’s concern within the cycling community that asking for stronger enforcement will perpetuate these statistics.

“In other places there’s evidence of racial profiling in enforcement with bicycle issues,” he says. “It could be an issue locally, and we think that’s very important to keep in mind when we design an enforcement program.”

The Coalition has volunteers doing research into the profiling issue, Fawley says, and their findings will inform the organization’s recommendations on enforcement.

“We’ll have to have some kind of strategic effort around enforcement that does take into account concerns of profiling,” he says.

Ken Paulman, a year-round bike commuter, agrees. After he was the victim of bullying by a Jeep driver a few years back, he was shocked the attitude of the cop who responded to his 911 call.

“He told me, ‘There’s no way I could do what you do,’” Paulman says. “That’s always stuck with me. That’s alarming. That’s a guy who puts on a bulletproof vest for work and he’s afraid to ride a bicycle in his own city.”

Ward Rubrecht is a Minneapolis-based storyteller, journalist, and bicycle activist. He is the founder and moderator of MPLS Bike Wrath, an online community for sharing information on Twin Cities drivers who put cyclists in danger.

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