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FHWA bicycle safety education resource center

The Bicyclist

Bicycle riders sometimes contribute to their being involved in a crash. Some ride at night without lights. They may make themselves more difficult to see by wearing dark garments. They may ride the wrong direction in the traffic lanes. Even if they ride on the sidewalk, traveling counter to the traffic lane on the adjacent street might result in them surprising a motorist who is often looking only for slow moving pedestrians and searching for cars.

They may drive through stop signs and red lights. Sometimes they may be dealing with a signal that won't detect a bicycle, or a stop sign placed at the bottom of a long hill that the cyclist would just as soon attack without losing momentum they've built up. Regardless, the sudden appearance of the bicyclist can surprise motorists.

Some bicyclists make sudden or unpredictable turns. Others may not yield the right-of-way when required.

Problems with Enforcement Aimed at the Bicycle Rider

Stopping bicyclists and taking enforcement actions against the rider can be a problem for a police officer who has not thought through the process.

Highly mobile: bicyclists are highly mobile and can be difficult to overtake, signal and actually stop. The best tool for doing this is another bicycle and voice or whistle commands. Pursuing a bicyclist by chasing with a motor vehicle can appear heavy-handed and out of proportion. Once stopped, bicycle riders feel exposed and can't shrink down in their seat and "disappear" like a motorist might.

Dealing with a bicyclist's identification: bicycle riders are not required to carry any identification, much less a formal driver's license. This creates serious problems. The bicyclist may give a fictitious or altered name. The officer may have identity questions under any circumstance.

As in any traffic stop where the violator has no ID, the officers should take detailed notes of the identity information given. After it is all collected, ask for a repeat. Keep companions separate and then ask for them to verify the information. Carefully study how the violator begins to sign their name. Frequently, a violator will give a fictitious name but begin to sign their true name, since the signature is largely an automatic function! They will usually freeze after signing a few letters. By then it is too late. On the other hand, someone slowly laboring through a signature may be writing an unfamiliar (and false) name. When a cycle messenger is involved, requiring them to call a supervisor to identify them has proven effective.

Dealing with children: many bicycle riders are young children. In most states, children under age eight are considered incapable of committing an offense and cannot be cited. Under these circumstances the officer should call the attention of the parent to the problem.

Dealing with an anti_automobile or anti_authoritarian bicyclist: an occasional bicyclist will take strong exception to the police challenge to their behavior. They may verbally abuse the officer. Some of these riders will be strong advocates of cycling and have strong emotional attachment to their way of doing things, legal or not. Some will have anti-automobile and anti-authoritarian ways. A cop in a car will represent both evils. Officers should not debate such issues but should focus on the specifics of the violation observed.

Pulling the bicyclist over: more than half of bicycle crashes are caused by falls. The cyclist is riding too fast for conditions and goes down. Bicyclists also run into dogs, other cyclists and pedestrians as well as automobiles.

The best approach is a soft one. Ideally, a bicycle officer can ride along with the cyclist and ask them to stop. An officer in a patrol car can follow until a cyclist pauses or stops in traffic and then address the rider verbally.

An officer who has reviewed the bicycle and traffic laws should have minimal difficulty with either group.

Areas of focus for enforcement at the bicyclist:

:: Driving at night without lights or required reflectors
:: Riding the wrong way in a traffic lane or on the wrong side of the road
:: Running a stop sign or red light
:: Failing to yield the right-of-way
    - Riding out mid-block
    - While turning right or left
    - Abruptly entering a crosswalk, too fast for the approaching motorist
:: Failing to signal an abrupt turn.

Some communities have periodic enforcement blitzes, and others may
concentrate enforcement efforts on particular intersections and behaviors in order to have the maximum impact.

University campuses are frequently the target of enforcement campaigns, and many campuses have extensive bicycle training and safety programs that include an enforcement element.

Cornell University, Ithaca, New York:

University of Colorado, Boulder:

For communities considering a more aggressive approach to enforcing bicycle traffic laws, the International Police Mountain Bike Association ( and a growing number of consultants offer training to help police departments understand bicycle law enforcement issues.