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Thursday, January 13, 2011

Let’s Take Bicycle Scofflaws to School, not the Woodshed

First published in the Fort Collins Coloradoan Dec. 6, 2010

My friends at the Poudre Wilderness Volunteers use a technique described by CSU Professor George Wallace as “calling on the authority of the resource” to try and convince people to respect the environment.  A similar strategy might work to get scofflaw cyclists to respect the rules of the road:  passers-by in Old Town could advise them that riding their bike on the sidewalk is inappropriate, or law-abiding cyclists could remind wrong-way riders that “we just don’t do that” in Fort Collins.

The problem is that unlike an encounter with a hiker on the trail it’s hard to have a quiet conversation with a scofflaw bicycle rider. So we need to get those bicyclists into a room where we can talk to them.  How do we do that? 

Most adult bicyclists are also motorists.  They know to stop at stop signs, obey the speed limit and not drive down the street the wrong way.  But just as some motorists roll ever-so-slowly through stop signs on quiet neighborhood streets, most cyclists are lax about respecting the rules of the road.  They think that some rules aren’t really important, that they don’t apply to them at that particular moment and that the consequences of disobeying the law are minimal (which is often true).

So all we need to do is enforce the law, right?  Unfortunately that’s not likely to happen under the current system.  Over a six-month period ending in September Fort Collins police issued 176 citations for bicycle violations.  Roughly half were for riding on the sidewalk in Old Town and most of the others were for running stop signs and lights.  Three tickets were for riding without lights at night after the cyclist was already stopped for running a stop sign.   Even if we increased these numbers ten-fold we’d collect enough in fines to hire half of a police officer and we would have alienated a lot of cyclists.

A “diversion program” for bicyclists who get tickets might be more effective.  Tempe and Tucson, Arizona have done this as have many university towns in California.  The idea is to “divert” scofflaws with tickets from the court system by putting them into a classroom.  As explained by the highly respected Victoria Transport Institute “such programs are popular because they emphasize safety rather than punishment and help develop cooperation among police, parents, and bicycle safety advocates. Scout troops, school groups and parents often voluntarily attend the safety workshops.”

Diversion programs are often operated with increased police surveillance for a brief period, as at the beginning of the CSU semester in August, when several hundred tickets might be issued.  The ticket is waived when the bicyclist attends a two-hour bicycle safety class.  Such a program might be just what we need to get people talking about how to be safer bicyclists and better community members.

Rule of the week:  Use the right-most lane that serves your destination.

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