Educating enforcement

After my own crash a few years ago, I decided that I had to figure out a way to expand my reach in educating people about “smart cycling,” as it’s called by the League of American Bicyclists. I enjoyed (and still do) seeing the “Aha!” moments when riders, both new and experienced, begin to understand how to make themselves better bicycle drivers. But I wanted to impact more people.

I started looking around, and found one way to do that. I started working with police officers, talking about the application of motor vehicle law to bicyclists.

Now you’re thinking, “But wait. These people know motor vehicle law! What can you teach them about it that they don’t already know?”

When you drive a car, you see “traffic” as motor vehicles. You probably don’t think of bicycle drivers as part of traffic. From behind the handlebars, traffic looks a whole lot different:

  • motorists often aren’t even aware that you’re on the road
  • some motorists will actually create dangerous situations meant to frighten or hurt bicycle drivers

Patrol officers working in traffic often share the same perspective as other motorists. They may or may not be aware that people riding bicycles have all the rights and all the duties of drivers of motor vehicles. Even if they are, when it comes to enforcement, it’s hard to shake the perspective that they get from inside a metal box weighing a couple of thousand pounds.

That’s where my effort comes in. I put together a class that brings officers together to try to change that perspective. We spend a half day in the classroom, going through the “three E’s:” Engineering, Education and Enforcement. In those sessions we talk about road design/infrastructure, education (of the public at large – and meanwhile, we’re giving them a lot of the same information!) and equitable enforcement of the law.

Then we go ride bikes! First, we teach the same avoidance drills that we teach to the public. Then we go for a ride, incorporating all the principles we discussed in the classroom. We ride on as many types of roads as we can: narrow, wide, busy, quiet. Roads with bike lanes, shared paths. Major highways and residential streets. In other words, all the roads that the public uses to ride bicycles.

That’s when the “Aha!” moments happen. Officers who have never spent any time on a bicycle suddenly feel vulnerable. They begin to understand why bicyclists will take up lane positions that, until that ride, seemed crazy. And many of them will begin to understand how driving a bicycle like a car leads to more effective, confident and visible bicycle driving.

I’ve heard comments like:
“I have a lot more respect for people who ride bikes now.”

“It actually feels more comfortable when I’m riding in the middle of the lane instead of up against the curb.”

“Until I started riding, I never would have believed that drivers would actually try to use their cars to assault me.”

So at the end of the day, I have a small group of officers with a bit of a different perspective on all those people on bikes. How does that meet my goal? My hope is that those officers will take that perspective out into their dealings with bicyclists and motorists. I’ve learned that this is happening: Feedback from participants in the last series of classes indicated that they are looking at things differently! In fact, officers responded that they are using the information from the course to educate motorists and bicyclists. Mission accomplished.

I also hope that they will go back to their departments and share what they’ve learned with other officers. I don’t know whether this has happened.

I’ll continue to offer this training. Eight more sessions will be offered in New Jersey in 2017, and I’m really close to getting it started in Louisiana, too.

Slowly but surely, we’ll change the way people react to bicyclists.


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