Implementing Enforcement Programs Aimed At Bicyclists

Bicycle riders sometimes contribute to their being involved in a crash. Some dangerous bicyclist behaviors include:

  • Riding at night without lights or required reflectors and not wearing visible clothing.
  • Riding in the wrong direction, against the flow of traffic—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.
  • Riding 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.
  • Making sudden or unpredictable turns or failing to signal.
  • Not yielding the right-of-way when required, such as at midblock locations, when turning right or left, or when entering a crosswalk

Many of these issues will require education and engineering action to help teach bicyclists safe practices and ensure that the roadway safely accommodates them, but enforcement also has its place. Below are some common challenges with enforcement aimed at bicyclists and tips for successful enforcement.

Common challenges with enforcement aimed at the bicycle rider

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

  • Pulling the bicyclist over: 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. 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.
  • Dealing with a bicyclist's identification: bicycle riders are not required to carry identification, much less a formal driver's license. This creates a problem. 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 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 law enforcement officer 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. An officer who has reviewed the bicycle and traffic laws should have minimal difficulty with either group.

Tips for enforcement aimed at the bicycle rider

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.

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 law enforcement departments understand bicycle law enforcement issues.

Warning or citation?

There is a place for a verbal or written warning in traffic law enforcement. Where officers are engaged in new or different enforcement activities (and the public finds this unexpected), warnings are a great way to get the word out. Officers should try to give the first warnings through the news media to let people know!

Citations are clearly appropriate in many circumstances, such as where a motorist's or bicyclist's actions place a person in obvious danger, a crash is narrowly avoided, or a crash occurs. Deliberate or reckless violations should also dictate formal enforcement action.

Always keep in mind that minor incidents may escalate out of proportion. Avoid allowing an emotional cyclist to bait you into actions that are unwise. An unpleasant cyclist with no-ID may be a legitimate target for a physical arrest, but a wiser action may be a verbal warning and release. Always keep in mind the final goal: improved safety.


Bicycle helmets are a proven way of reducing the death and injury toll from bicycle crashes. Where helmet laws are in place, officers should participate in the efforts to enforce their use. Where helmet use is voluntary, officers should strongly encourage cyclists to wear helmets. Look at the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) map of bicycle helmet laws to see the laws in each state.

Law enforcement departments should mandate helmet use by bicycle patrol officers. They are of proven value in protecting the officer. Failure to use such safety equipment may lead to denial of workmen's compensation claims made by an injured officer. It is also important that officers act as good role models for other cyclists in their community.