Bevy of Urban Bikers Raises Safety, Policing Challenges

IT'S summertime and the bicyclists are out in full force - pedaling along busy highways, coasting down country roads, and crisscrossing city streets. No longer just for children in the suburbs, bicycling has become serious transport for adults and, as a result, a serious traffic concern in many cities.

By the end of 1993, the United States saw 100 million bicyclists, an increase of more than 33 percent over the last 10 years, according to the Bicycle Federation of America in Washington. More than half are adults while 4 million of them used a bicycle for occasional commuting last year.

With more bikes on the roads, motorists are needing to learn to drive more carefully, say bicycling advocates. But are cyclists obeying the rules of the road as well?

The proportion of adult fatalities in bicycle traffic accidents has continued to rise, although fatalities are down overall. ``What we've got on our streets and highways is a hair's breadth short of anarchy. There is no effective enforcement of traffic regulations,'' says Bill Wilkinson, executive director of the Bicycle Federation of America. ``We have bicycles riding the wrong way, no lights at night, going through stop signs and stop lights.''

Generally, bicyclists are required in all states to obey the same traffic rules as motorists. But with little enforcement of bicycle traffic rules, cyclists often ride in whatever manner they please.

In Seattle, the problem is most noticeable among novice urban cyclists, says Capt. John Moffat, police commander of Seattle's traffic division.

``Generally the ones who are kind of oblivious to the rules are the adult novices,'' Captain Moffat says. ``They have a tendency to be a little bit more reckless than other riders.''

For 66 percent of cyclist fatalities involving cars in the US in 1992, police reported one or more errors or other factors due to the cyclist's behavior, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Fewer than half the drivers involved were cited for driving errors.

Messenger bicyclists

In many cities, bicycle messengers are the most egregious violators. Early in June, enough complaints were made in Boston against messenger cyclists for weaving in and out of traffic and upsetting pedestrians that police beefed up enforcement. In Cambridge, Mass., bicycling students and commuting professionals dart freely on major streets, resulting in a 29 percent increase in bicycle accidents from 1988 to 1993, according to police.

Yet, as in many busy city police departments, city police say they have little time to go after unlawful bicycle riders.

``People are being robbed on the street. Can you see us stopping a bicycle for failing to stop at a red light?,'' says Frank Pasquarello, Cambridge police spokesman. ``We just don't have the people to stop every bicycle that goes through.''

While some areas don't have the resources to go after reckless cyclists, others do. In fact, nine states have enacted bicycling helmet laws for children while seven localities have passed helmet laws for all bicycle operators.

In Seattle, officers stop cycling scofflaws and occasionally ticket them. Just the same, bicycle collisions have increased considerably - by 231 percent from 1978 to 1992.

In Marathon, Fla., near Key West, after police started issuing warnings and tickets to cyclists, bicycle-riding behavior changed dramatically.

Compliance with a law requiring cyclists to use front headlights soon increased from 5 percent to 95 percent, says Dan Burden, Florida pedestrian and bicycling coordinator.

At the University of California in Davis, where 15,000 to 18,000 bicycles pass through campus every day, ``bicycle officers'' issue warnings and $27 tickets to traffic violators. Campus cyclists can reduce their fines to $10 if they attend a 1-1/2-hour bicycle-safety class. Bicycle patrolling officers also work for the city of Davis, Calif.

``It's one thing to have the laws and publicize them,'' says David Takemoto-Weerts, campus bicycle coordinator. ``But unless there is some regular enforcement, people aren't going to comply with them.''

Pedaling police

Many cities also benefit from patrolling police officers on bikes. Seattle has a force of 75 bike-riding officers, as does the city of Sarasota, Fla. New York has 265 cycling officers while Boston has 24. These bikers in blue are more apt to pull over reckless cyclists than car- or foot-patrolling officers, says Tim Rahto, information specialist for the League of American Bicyclists in Baltimore.

But enforcing cycling laws isn't easy. Since bicyclists don't need to have licenses to ride on the roads, it is difficult to enforce traffic laws without address verification.

Meanwhile, police resist issuing tickets in general, since a large percentage of cyclists are children. In Scituate, Mass., however, patrolling officers give coupons for ice cream to cycling children who obey traffic laws.

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