“You haven’t lived until you’ve put on a police uniform and hopped on a mountain bike. My daily commute became four to five minutes faster because drivers fight each other to see who gets to let me in the lane I want. Drivers would sooner cross the yellow line and hit a utility pole than breeze a cop on a bike. I’ve completed centuries and even won races, but this newfound respect is the sweetest cycling experience of all.”
Allan Howard, bicycle patrolman, Dayton, Ohio
I wasn’t planning on blogging today. But then I saw this. This one’s gonna be a bit long, I’ll tell you now. But I hope you’ll stick with me. I believe this is important, and have devoted (and will continue to devote) significant time and energy to it.
Any of you who know me are aware that I have a number of friends who are police officers. Some of them are riding this week in the Police Unity Tour, an annual ride in honor of those who have given their lives while serving. You may also know that I teach a class to law enforcement officers, designed to show them the perspective that one can only see from a saddle: how traffic law applies to people riding bicycles
The perspective that Officer Howard shared is not one that most of us will ever know. As a bicycle officer, his perspective is unique. As someone who understands traffic law from both the motorist’s and the bicyclist’s point of view, the position he occupies is rather unusual. Many police officers don’t understand the viewpoint of a bicyclist, because they, like most people, stopped riding a bike about the same time they learned how to drive a car. Like most people, the security of a metal cage around them creates its own world…a world that is sometimes removed from the environment in which the motorist operates..
And in that world, that “sweetest cycling experience” doesn’t exist. Although most motorists are willing to, and do, “share the road” with bicyclists, there are too many who don’t/won’t. In the classes I teach, we discuss when motor vehicle laws apply to bicyclists (almost all the time, by the way) and when it doesn’t. We talk about the most common infractions committed by bicyclists and by motorists against cyclists. We discuss inconsistencies in laws that make things harder for both bicyclists and motorists, as well as for the officers who are sworn to keep the peace, and keep us safe.
Over the course of a day, we work in the classroom to get an intellectual understanding of all those things, with a focus on how officers can respond to road users in a manner that keeps all of them safe. We also get out on bikes, and that’s when the understanding becomes real, physical, and for some officers, a little scary. Once they’re traveling the roads outside the protection of that metal cage, they begin to understand how and why bicyclists behave the way they do. I see the metaphorical light bulbs switch on as we go through our short rides on the streets these officers patrol. I can almost hear their thoughts: “Oh, wow, I need to turn left here. How in the world can I do that?” “That guy almost hit me!””She’s looking right at me, but I don’t think she sees me!”
In one class, the moment we turned onto the road at the entrance to the police academy, ALL the officers immediately jumped up onto the sidewalk! I made them get onto the street right away, and some of them commented right then and there that they had a better understanding of what it means to ride a bike on the road. Five miles later, when we were back at the academy, some were a bit shaken. I had taken them on a major arterial road with no shoulder – a road that MANY citizens in that town ride on every day. The officers thanked me for making them more aware.
The class has made a difference. I surveyed participants in the 2015 sessions one year later, and found that 100% of respondents used the information they learned in the class to educate both bicyclists and motorists. So my impact on a few impacted others, and the ripples began to spread.
The way I see it, educating bicyclists and motorists one at a time means it will take a VERY long time for the culture to change. By educating those who can impact others, maybe we can get the work done sooner. That’s my hope, anyway. I’ll be working with more officers in coming weeks, in 8 counties in New Jersey. I’m also working towards getting a similar program up and running in Louisiana. It’s taking time to get things moving here, but I’ve got time. And energy.