Complaints about bad bicycle behavior almost always get a response from the police. Compare this to the many times pedestrians, bicyclists or motorists complain about bad driving; it rarely results in any action at all.
In many places, Boston included, drivers are expected to drive erratically. Dangerous driving is the norm and rarely do the police attempt to do anything about it.
Instead, many police departments around Massachusetts, and in many other places around the U.S. — where drivers may be as reckless as Massachusetts drivers or not — use bad driving as an excuse to generate revenue. Officers park in places where they are hidden from the view of approaching drivers for the sole purpose of nabbing as many as they can in order to issue speeding tickets.
While this does generate revenue, it does little to deter bad driving. The worst offenses, in terms of endangering other road users, usually occur at traffic lights and other intersections.
Running red lights, turning when pedestrians are crossing the street and suddenly changing lanes turn left or right at an intersection are common ways drivers cause crashes. Rarely are police officers present at such times. This is why so much lying takes place when the police show up to take the accident report.
Unless a traffic camera is present, it is one driver’s word against another’s. Witnesses may be of some use. But traffic crashes happen so unexpectedly that the witnesses may not know exactly what happened.
Contrast this scenario to complaints about bad bicycle riding. Almost every major city with more than a handful of cyclists has set up a sting operation with the sole purpose of stopping and ticketing bike riders who violate traffic laws.
So, oddly, while police do agree to do something about “those pesky bike riders,” they do it in the strangest ways. Again, a couple of days ago, a local newspaper wrote a story about a planned bicycle sting. This time, the sting was located in Santa Barbara, California.
Thanks to the wonders of the Internet, a Boston-based bicycle blogger like myself was able to read all about life in sunny California. The article was entitled “Bike Sting in Downtown Area.”
The article starts out by explaining what a nuisance bike riders are.
“In response to concerns about bad bicycling behavior and a need for greater public safety, the city Police Department will conduct two days of targeted enforcement in the downtown Santa Barbara area on November 11 and 12. Among the state vehicle codes and city ordinances frequently abused, said Ed France, executive director of the Santa Barbara Bicycle Coalition, are the prohibitions against riding on the sidewalks and running red lights, and failing to stop completely at signed intersections or give pedestrians the right of way.”
Oh those awful cyclists; they run red lights and fail to stop completely at signed intersections or give pedestrians the right of way. Of course, drivers never do these things.
What’s ironic about this complaint is that there is a slang term referred to as the “California stop.” It is defined as “not coming to a full stop at a stop sign or running it all together .” So, in California, of all places, where drivers are notorious for not stopping at stop signs, they felt it was necessary to crack down on cyclists for engaging in this behavior.
It is also mentioned in the article that this will, to some extent, affect drivers and pedestrians who will have to behave themselves while the police are present. This assumes that the police will have the ability to stop them at the same time as they are targeting cyclists. After all, police can’t deal with everyone simultaneously, so some offenders will escape while others are being detained.
Nonetheless, despite this targeting of cyclists, we must ask ourselves one question: Is a bicycle sting that is published in the local newspaper two days in advance of the “sting” really a sting?
This all depends on whether local cyclists read that particular newspaper or whether they have cycling friends who read it. If the article tips off one cyclist, others can be tipped off by word of mouth. So, what exactly is the point of these stings?
Perhaps the police or other local authorities know, on some level, that they are discriminating against cyclists by singling them out for traffic violations. In an ideal world all road users would be treated the same. No one group would be accused of acting any worse than another and targeted accordingly.
In some ways, this is like racial profiling without the racial bias. Instead, it is bicycling bias. All people who ride bikes are assumed to be a threat and therefore are targeted for scrutiny in case a few of them misbehave.
American society has reached a point where most citizens see racial profiling as wrong. Still, they do not see bicyclist profiling as similarly wrong.
Bicycle advocates, and bicyclists themselves, will have to speak up on this topic. It is really not OK to target one group of people for different treatment because some of them disobey the law.
It took years for people to see this with respect to racial profiling, and since many drivers see bike riders as a nuisance, it will probably take longer to recognize that every bike rider is not a scofflaw. Good behavior on the part of the majority of cyclists should help to change public perceptions, and perhaps a little good old protesting will put an end to advertised stings designed to get cyclists to fall into line.