NYPD Crackdown on Cyclists Exposes Misplaced Safety Priorities

Just one week into 2011, motorists on Brooklyn streets have claimed one life and injured four others – one by a hit-and-run driver and three by a speeding driver. That hasn’t stopped the NYPD from, once again, failing to identify the real threats on New York streets that are, as often forgotten, shared by pedestrians and cyclists as well as motorists. As the Brooklyn Paper reported late last week, the NYPD instead has announced a new crackdown on ‘vehicular offenses’ by cyclists – things like failing to obey traffic signals, tailgating, speeding and even turn signaling.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I’ll admit that there are cyclists that don’t obey traffic laws and that stronger bicycle enforcement is designed to protect pedestrians and cyclists. But it only does so as part of a comprehensive campaign that includes enhanced enforcement of all traffic laws – from motorists, to cyclists, to pedestrians. From a larger street safety perspective, this cyclist crackdown make little to no sense at all. It’s disingenuous and wasteful for the NYPD to launch a program to curb violations that rarely cause injury and almost never account for fatalities. Shortsighted and simplistic ‘safety’ policies like this one stem from the public perception that cyclists are a nuisance, as illustrated by the countless news reports and public statements that favor this line of thinking.

While cyclists are most often bear the brunt of swipes by the media and public officials like Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz (see here, here and here, for example), they are often conspicuously silent when a pedestrian is killed by a reckless motorist or when legislation is proposed to initiate measures to curb reckless driving. Simply put, cyclists are the whipping boys of traffic safety rhetoric, and it does very little to serve the greater good and make streets safe for all.

I wonder if the cop that belongs to this car is busy giving tickets to cyclists who ride out of the bike lane he/she is blocking?

In fact, it is motorists that pose the biggest threat to public safety on the streets of New York. Yet rarely, if ever, does the NYPD make a concerted effort to crack down on drivers breaking the laws they are now targeting Brooklyn cyclists for breaking. The numbers don’t lie. As the New York State Department of Health has reported, while there were 155 pedestrians and 12 cyclists who lost their lives in NYC traffic in 2009, bike crashes account for an average of only about one death per year. These lopsided numbers are unacceptable, and they show that a comprehensive effort needs to be made in order to enhance the safety of our streets, regardless of the method in which individuals use them. And as a first step, the public needs to accept that cyclists alone aren’t at fault for accidents that take place.

The ultimate goal here is to bring each of these numbers down to zero. But that will never happen if the NYPD continues to spend precious time, money and personnel targeting a group that accounted for such a small percentage of traffic-related injuries and fatalities. We can only begin to work toward lowering these numbers when enforcement campaigns combat other dangerous behavior as well, such as drivers that speed, fail to yield or signal, swing doors open when parked (forcing cyclists to swerve into traffic), pedestrians that jaywalk, edge out into the intersection before they cross as well as cyclists who fail to obey traffic laws, all of which I have personally seen while cycling around Queens.

As a cyclist, of course I have a vested interest in this particular issue. But as someone who obeys traffic laws only to see drivers and pedestrians abuse my safe behavior by failing to yield, blocking bike lanes, and forcing me further out into traffic in a multitude of other ways, I feel the need to speak up. Only when there is a mutual respect between cyclists, motorists and pedestrians will we enjoy streets that are much safer than we are seeing today.

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