Implementing Enforcement Programs Aimed At Motorists

Few motorists go out of their way to deliberately hit or frighten bicyclists. However, an equally small number really appreciate the impact they can have on the safety and comfort of more vulnerable road users such as bicyclists and pedestrians. Some common mistakes motorists make include:

  • Speeding through neighborhoods
  • Not paying attention or looking for cyclists or pedestrians around them, especially when making turns
  • Overtaking a cyclist too closely, or without waiting for a gap in traffic before pulling out and safely passing a rider
  • Cutting of a bicyclist to turn right or left

EVERY patrol officer should watch for these violations while on patrol and take enforcement action when they observe them.

Challenges with enforcement aimed at motorists

Unfortunately, the law enforcement officer is most likely having to make up for the failure of traffic engineers to properly accommodate bicyclists in roadway design, or for our failure to train motorists to deal safely with bicyclists, or for a lack of bicyclist education. If a bicyclist is "holding up" a motorist by riding in the middle of the travel lane, the chances are the bicyclist would be more than happy to be riding in a designated bike lane or on a paved shoulder, but none exists. Many motorists are uncomfortable passing a cyclist because they were never really taught how to deal with that situation when learning to drive.

Bicyclists are often held in quite low esteem by other road users-the image of an errant cyclist running stop signs and red lights is common. Thus, stopping a motorist to cite them for a traffic violation involving a cyclist is, on the face of it, going to win the officer very few new friends. Indeed, many motorists will be completely unaware of what they have done wrong even after being pulled over. The first task for the officer, therefore, is to make sure the motorist does understand and appreciate the impact of behavior that causes danger to a bicyclist. If the motorist seems to get the message, a warning may be all that is necessary.

Some motorists, however, won't get it. They will steadfastly refuse to accept that a cyclist-any cyclist-should be on the road, particularly that road, in front of them. They may even claim to be acting in the cyclists' best interest in telling them to "get off the road" for their own safety. Even if the officer wouldn't ride on that road themselves, they should help the motorist understand that the cyclist has a legitimate right to be on the road and that riding in the gutter or on the sidewalk (assuming one exists) is likely much less safe. If the motorist still fails to see the light, a ticket may be the only option.

Officers should beware of the defense that "the cyclist was all over the road". Certainly some cyclists do weave around and are unpredictable. More often than not, the cyclist is simply trying to avoid a pothole, dodge a rock or broken glass, or stay away from a crack in the road between the gutter and the asphalt. Cyclists are not required or expected to ride in the gutter, and are not required to get out of the way of motorists. Equally, a cyclist should not deliberately hold up a motorist when there is space for safe passing.

Areas of focus for enforcement aimed at motorists

Law enforcement officers should focus on behaviors that are most threatening to bicyclists' safety. These include:

  • Driving while impaired by drugs or alcohol
  • Failing to yield the right-of-way
    • when turning left at intersections or at driveways
    • when turning right at intersections or at driveways
    • when entering the roadway
  • Speeding, particularly in neighborhoods and near schools
  • Overtaking bicycles in areas where it cannot be done safely

Law enforcement would have a stronger case if driver educational materials, including licensing manuals and tests, incorporated information to educate motorists about properly and safely sharing the road with bicyclists. Model driver handbook materials prepared for the National Cooperative Highway Research Program include information States could adapt for use in State driver handbooks on Sharing the Road with Bicyclists.

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 the final goal: improved safety.