I received an e-mail recently from a Florida cyclist named John, who had been involved in a collision for which he was being blamed. John had been riding in the bike lane when he was passed by an automobile. Immediately after passing John, the driver pulled into the bike lane and came to a stop. John ran into the back of the vehicle, breaking his fingers.
The way the responding officer saw it, John was at fault. According to the officer, the bike lane is considered “the shoulder” under Florida law, and drivers can use the bike lane as a “break-down lane.”
I thought maybe the officer was jumping to the defense of the driver a little too eagerly, but just to be sure, I checked Florida law. And sure enough, the officer was mistaken. Under Florida law, bicycle lanes are not “the shoulder,” they are traffic lanes designated for bicycle use.
Most people wouldn’t begrudge a driver moving his car to the side of the road when he’s experiencing mechanical trouble. But most people would also expect the driver to safely move his vehicle to the side of the road. Passing a cyclist and then immediately pulling into the bike lane and coming to a sudden stop is a different matter. It’s not just discourteous; under Florida law, it’s illegal.
Cyclists encounter this type of police bias in cities across the country, even in locales that are generally bike-friendly. Earlier this year, two San Francisco cyclists were riding home from a Valentine’s Day dinner when they had their own encounter with a scofflaw driver and an even more hostile officer. The two cyclists, Ian Long and Johanna Weaver, were taking the lane, as the law allows them to do. However, the driver following the two cyclists apparently felt they were in his way. First he started laying on his horn. Then he swerved around both cyclists—first Weaver, then Long.
Then, after all three had turned right at the next intersection, the driver pulled the road rage cut-off maneuver that sent a Los Angeles doctor to prison, screeching to a sudden stop in front of the two cyclists. Long crashed into the back of the car, injuring his hands. But unlike in Los Angeles, where law enforcement saw a criminal act of road rage against two cyclists, San Francisco police saw something else—a driver who had been victimized by the cyclist who crashed into the back of his car.
Responding to the crash scene, San Francisco Police Officers Joshua Olson and Melvin Maunu interviewed the driver—and only the driver. That was all the evidence Officer Olson needed to make up his mind that the cyclists were at fault. The injured cyclist attempted to explain his side of what had happened, but Officer Olson interrupted him, threatening to arrest Long for “vandalizing” the vehicle that had just been used to assault him. Several witnesses stepped forward to corroborate the cyclists’ story, but Officer Olson wasn’t interested in hearing anything other than the driver’s account; he even told Officer Maunu to stop taking a statement from Weaver. Officer Maunu then told Weaver that they needed to move their cruiser out of traffic before completing their investigation. But instead of returning to the investigation, the officers left the scene.
Police brass were no more helpful, defending the officers’ behavior with the explanation that “there was just too much information on both sides for them to do anything.” In other words, the Police Department was ignoring all of the eyewitnesses—and letting the driver off the hook for assaulting the cyclists. SFPD Captain Ann Mannix revealed her own bias when she explained the behavior of her officers:
“We go in and we try to find out what happened—is it a traffic accident? Is it a vandalism? Both sides said absolutely the opposite happened.”
OK, both sides said the opposite. The driver said vandalism, the cyclist said road rage. So why did the SFPD only hear “vandalism” or “traffic accident”? Why didn’t they hear the words “road rage” or “assault”? Why were the numerous witnesses completely disregarded at the scene, and not even mentioned by Captain Mannix afterwards?
More importantly, what can be done? These aren’t the first incidents of police bias against cyclists, and they probably won’t be the last. As I explained in Bicycling & the Law, most police officers are motorists, and they see the world from that perspective. And undoubtedly, some officers believe that the roads are for cars, period.
These officers are not just wrong on the law. Their biased enforcement efforts only encourage reckless drivers to continue endangering lives, and detract from the many fair-minded police officers who enforce the law professionally and even-handedly.
To change this, we need stand up and speak out for our rights. Keep cool, gather facts, write to the officer’s superiors, and get your local bike advocacy groups involved. Bring the glare of media attention to the problem. Work with your elected officials and police agencies to provide more bicycle law education for law enforcement officers. The more we can educate our elected officials, our police departments, and the media, the less ignorance and hostility we will encounter from those who serve and protect.
Research and assistance by Rick Bernardi, J.D.
This article, Blaming the Victims, was originally published on Bicycling on April 30, 2012.