Wednesday, April 11, 2012

What About When the Cops Don't Know the Laws?

*Before reading, if you’d like to read up on the laws for bicycles in the state of Louisiana, here are a couple links:


Riding a bike is one of the most important things in my life.  It keeps me healthy; aside from the obvious benefits to physical health, cycling has done wonders for mental and emotional well-being.  Also, it saves me a ton of money that would otherwise go to gas, insurance, and car payments, so it allows me to live a better lifestyle than would otherwise be possible for someone with my salary.  But perhaps the best thing about cycling is that it is fun.  Pure, unfiltered fun.

Yet, as fun as it is, there is one thing I don’t like about it:  every now and then, there are some assholes in cars that make it unenjoyable.  It doesn’t happen every time I ride, but I’ve been subjected to more than my fair share of verbal abuse, harassment, threats and honked horns.  When I do have a run-in with an ignorant motorist, I comfort myself by knowing that the law is on my side, and that my right to the road is protected by numerous pieces of legislation.  Once, during an argument with a driver, I even said, “If you’ve got a problem with my bike, I’d be happy to call the cops and have them explain the law to you.”  Well, as it turns out, the police can also be ignorant of the laws in place to protect cyclists.  I found that out today, the hard way.  As of today, I’m the proud owner of traffic citation, my first since 2007.

It’s been so long since I’ve had the displeasure of hearing a police siren behind me that at first I couldn’t believe I was the intended target.  Surely, I thought, he must be intending to pull over the vehicle that had just flown past me at well over the speed limit.  Nope.  It was for me.

After pulling to the side of the road, I was told that I was being cited for “not riding on the sidewalk.”  As politely as I could muster, I replied that there was no law requiring me to ride on a sidewalk, but the officer didn’t believe me.  At some point, I guess he called his boss, because another car pulled up, and the two officers started talking.  They then pulled out the biggest book I have ever seen and went about flipping through the pages.  About ten minutes later, the boss-cop approached me and said that I was right, there was no law, so he was instead ticketing me for obstructing traffic because of my slow speed.  At this point, I had nothing left to say but “see you in court.”

For those who don’t know, Louisiana state law grants full use of all roads—except interstate highways—to cyclists.  In return, cyclists are required to follow all rules of the road, including signaling turns, stopping at lights and signs, and using lights at night.  I do all of this every time I ride.  At this point, I think it’s important that I say that I am not saying cyclists shouldn’t be ticketed, ever.  If I run a red light, I fully acknowledge that I can and should be ticketed.  If I am caught speeding, unlikely as that is, I will not for one minute argue the ticket.  But the fact is that I was ticketed for something that is absolutely not against the law.  According to the law, bicycles fall under the category of “slow-moving vehicles” and are not subject to minimum speed regulations.  This is the same category that tractors, combines, and other farm vehicles fall into.  In fact, on several occasions I have seen tractors on this particular road not a half-mile away from where I was pulled over.  These tractors are barely capable of 20 M.P.H., yet I doubt any of them have ever been ticketed for “obstructing traffic/slow speed.”

Furthermore, even if I did want to ride on the sidewalk, on this route it would not be an option.  The stretch of Airline Drive between Shed Road and Viking Drive in Bossier has a very incomplete sidewalk.  It starts and stops at random, disappearing for blocks at a time, only to reappear on the other side of the road.  At every driveway that it crosses, the sidewalk is at least two inches above the road grade, creating a large curb that would be hell on my tires.  The sidewalk is also pockmarked with potholes, uneven segments and drainage grates that would swallow a bike tire and send the rider straight to the ground.  When I pointed this out to the officer, he suggested I “find another route.”  Well, anyone who knows Bossier City knows that the ONLY North-South routes in town are Airline Drive and Benton Road, and no one could argue that Benton Road is more suitable for bicycle traffic.

The thing that upsets me most about this experience, though, is that I’ve been expecting it ever since I moved to this land of Philistines.  Truth be told, I’m actually surprised I haven’t gotten this ticket already.  I’ve read a post from another Shreveport cyclist—an attorney—who advises cyclists to carry a printout of the cycling laws.  I always thought that might be a bit unnecessary, but I can see now that it’s not the case.  I’ll be printing the laws today and putting them in my bike bag.

In the years since I’ve stopped driving, I’ve found that my attitude towards police officers had changed from negative (when I was a driver and had to follow speed limits) to positive (as a cyclist, counting on the laws to keep me safe).  I’ve argued with my driving friends several times when they complained about getting a ticket they felt was unwarranted.  As a vulnerable road user, I rely every day on the police officers enforcing the traffic laws that help to keep me safe.  On June 25th, I’ll have my day in court.  I’m going to avail myself of the justice system that I’ve been defending for years (and, as a pre-law student, hope to one day be employed by).  I’m confident that I’ll win my case, but I have to wonder what good it will do.  Because when even the cops don’t know the laws—or, even worse, when they look up the law and disregard it—what hope do cyclists possibly have?