Let’s Focus Traffic Enforcement on Dangerous Behaviors, Not Minor Bike Violations

Recently, the San Francisco Police Department began focused bike enforcement along the “Wiggle,” a popular and important bike route connecting the Panhandle to Market Street. Cyclists have been cited for a variety of infractions and particularly for failing to obey stop signs. This focused enforcement has caused significant controversy, including a protest during which a large number of cyclists came to complete stops at all intersections, leading to significant traffic snarls.

In my view, traffic enforcement should focus on dangerous traffic behaviors — which are largely by motorists — that lead to deaths and serious injuries on our roads. Regarding bikes, police absolutely should enforce against cyclists engaging in dangerous and reckless behavior , for example, blowing through stop signs without slowing down, violating the rights-of-way of other road users, biking on sidewalks, and speeding . However, enforcing against cyclists for minor violations — such as slowing down at a stop sign, cautiously and safely entering the intersection, and not violating anyone’s right-of-way — is not a productive use of scarce traffic enforcement resources. Enforcement against minor bike violations won’t make our streets safer but will make it a heck of a lot harder for people to bike. Let’s focus our enforcement resources on the behaviors that are actually killing and injuring people, not the behaviors that, while technically violations, aren’t harming anyone.

(Cyclists lined up at a stop sign by Duboce Park during Wiggle protest. Photo by CBS.)

The police department’s focused bike enforcement comes on the heels of San Francisco’s broad adoption of “Vision Zero,” a policy goal of eliminating traffic deaths within a decade through physical changes to streets to make them safer, increased traffic enforcement with a focus on the most dangerous locations and the most dangerous traffic movements, and education of all road users about safe driving, biking, and walking on our streets.

Vision Zero is intensely data-driven. The program’s goal is to move away from stereotypes and assumptions about what kind of street usages are causing traffic injuries and deaths and instead focus on the locations and behaviors that are having the most negative impacts. For example, 70% of severe and fatal collisions in San Francisco occur on just 12% of our streets. In addition, historically disadvantaged communities contain less than one-third of our streets, yet nearly half of San Francisco’s high-injury street network is in those neighborhoods.

Using this data-driven approach, Vision Zero identifies the five traffic behaviors causing the bulk of San Francisco’s fatal traffic collisions, all of which pertain to cars. (60% of traffic fatalities in our city occur due to the fault of the driver of a car.) These five behaviors are running red lights, running stop signs, violating pedestrian right-of-way, turning violations, and speeding. Cyclist violations — cyclists being at fault for 7% of traffic fatalities — did not make the list.

(The Wiggle)

To make our streets safer, we need to focus our limited traffic enforcement resources — and, due to police under-staffing, our police department engages in far less traffic enforcement than we would like — on the driving behaviors that are causing the most traffic fatalities and serious injuries. Minor bike violations, such as slowly and carefully rolling through a stop sign without violating another user’s right-of-way, certainly do not fall in that category.

In California, as in most states, the law technically requires cyclists to come to a complete stop at every stop sign. In practice, however, coming to a full stop at every stop sign isn’t realistic for cyclists. Doing so requires significant energy to start up again after a full stop and means that the cyclist will move through the intersection very slowly. This is particularly the case on hills. Requiring all cyclists to come to complete stops at every single stop sign, regardless of the circumstances, makes it much harder to bike and increases traffic congestion as cyclists take longer to clear intersections, all with little or no safety benefit.

Having more people bike in San Francisco is a good thing. Every person on a bike is a person not in a car and not crowding onto transit. If you’re driving down the street in a car or riding on a bus and there are ten cyclists riding in the bike lane, those are ten fewer cars you have to wait behind or ten fewer people taking your seat on the bus. To get more people biking, we need better street design and a safer atmosphere on our roads, and we also need to be realistic about how people can effectively bike in our city.

To be crystal clear, I am not in any way condoning dangerous biking or suggesting the police should ignore serious bike infractions. If a cyclist is violating the speed limit, violating the right-of-way of another user, riding on the sidewalk, or blowing through a stop sign without slowing down and carefully entering the intersection, that cyclist should be cited or at least warned. Our streets are no place for dangerous behavior by any user, whether a motorist, cyclist, or pedestrian. But, let’s not allow that appropriate enforcement to bleed over into overly aggressive enforcement against minor cycling violations that endanger no one.

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