Changing minds…a few at a time

As an avid road bike rider, one thing I began to think more and more about was law: specifically, the intersection between motorists and bicyclists. Then, I joined the League of American Bicyclists and took a course that talked about driving my bicycle. That course codified the need for bicyclists to follow the same principles that motorists follow on the road.

New Jersey law, like the law in every other state, explicitly gives bicycle riders the same rights and responsibilities as drivers of motor vehicles. Many motorists do not understand this. Even most police officers, including those focused on traffic enforcement, have the perspective of a motor vehicle operator. Talking to officers around the state, I learned that many of them do not realize how different traffic appears to a bicyclist. They also did not fully understand the challenges bicyclists face in dealing with motorists.

So, I created a course designed to teach New Jersey law enforcement officers exactly how NJ motor vehicle law applies to bicyclists. I thought at the time that the best way to get officers to understand what it’s like to drive a bike would probably be…to get them on bikes.

The course addressed the “Three E’s of Traffic Safety:” Education, Engineering, and Enforcement, in the classroom. Then, I got them on bikes to practice hazard avoidance drills, and to ride on a variety of roads ranging from low-speed, residential streets to major highways, on roads with and without shoulders so they could understand how roadway design, traffic and road conditions affect bicyclists. I was fortunate to conduct the course in Camden, Essex, Middlesex, Ocean, and Passaic Counties in August and September, reaching 48 officers. I taught it with another League Cycling Instructor, who is also an active police officer and bicycle racer. He was able to provide the police perspective to his colleagues. It also helped that he was up front teaching rather than just some guy (me) trying to tell cops how to do their job…

The dual approach made the program work. Classroom discussion helped officers become more aware of how motor vehicle code applies to bicyclists. The “Aha!” moments started, though, once the officers got out from behind the steering wheel of a police car and onto two wheels.

As the experts on traffic law, officers have an intellectual understanding that bicyclists have the same rights and duties as motorists. But, honestly, getting them on the bikes made the difference. Many of the 48 officers who participated in the course commented on this to me. I heard things like, “I have a new respect for people who ride bikes now,” and “Now I understand what it’s like to try to ride on these roads.” I also heard, “I’m not visible on the bike unless I take the lane and ride in traffic,” and “It really does work better when I behave more like a car.”

My hope is that I’ve planted a seed.

Posted in Law
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