The Role of Law Enforcement

Law enforcement officers are the only ones who can enforce laws for pedestrians, bicyclists and motorists to improve pedestrian and bicycle safety. However, law enforcement alone will not make walking and bicycling as safe as they can be. The most promising way to reduce deaths and injuries to pedestrians and bicyclists is through a combined approach of engineering, education and enforcement. If facilities have been properly designed and built and effective education programs implemented, then enforcement can help address the small percentage of people who choose to operate outside of the desired and expected norms.

Knowledgeable law enforcement officers have the opportunity to educate people who are unaware of the law and proper pedestrian/bicycle/motorist interactions. They have the power to stop those who choose to violate laws and endanger others. Law enforcement officers can also play a valuable role by working with planners and engineers to build better pedestrian and bicycle facilities. Further, they can be partners with the broader community to support other educational efforts.

Common goals for law enforcement, as described in the "Highway Safety Triangle" chapter of the New Orleans RPC Enforcement for Pedestrian and Bicycle Safety Course include:

  • Improve voluntary compliance with the laws
  • Identify and correct violator behavior
  • Affect a behavioral change in the community
  • Reinforce education efforts
  • Reduce the number of crashes, and the consequences resulting from these crashes

Understanding Law Enforcement Officers

The section below has been adapted from the "Highway Safety Triangle" chapter of the New Orleans RPC Enforcement for Pedestrian and Bicycle Safety Course.

Believe it or not, most cops did not get into law enforcement to make the world a safer place for pedestrians and bicyclists. Enforcement for pedestrian and bicycle safety doesn't always fit in with their vision of what real cops do. However, most cops did get into law enforcement "to help people". And, everyone knows that traffic enforcement is part of the job. What is missing in law enforcement culture is the connection that pedestrians and bicyclists are legitimate parts of "traffic" and need law enforcement's protection. In fact, pedestrians and bicyclists are the most vulnerable components of traffic and the ones who benefit the most when traffic laws are enforced and followed.

Law enforcement officers who have received quality pedestrian and bicycle training know how pedestrian and bicycle crashes happen. They know the role engineering, education, and enforcement can and should play in improving pedestrian and bicycle safety. They know which laws to enforce for pedestrians, bicyclists, and motorists to improve pedestrian and bicycle safety and they are willing to enforce these laws.

Lack of law enforcement officer training is certainly a barrier to successful enforcement for bicycle safety. Below are some other common barriers and ways that they can be addressed.

Why don't police enforce pedestrian or bicycle laws?

(Table adapted from: Bicycle and Pedestrian Enforcement Issues. Presented by Coon Rapids, MN Officer Kirby Beck at the 1994 Wisconsin State Bicycle Conference.)

Barrier Common Excuse or Rationale Excuse or Rationale Busters
Peer Pressure "Pedestrian and bike laws aren't important enough."

"They're not real crime."

"Are you afraid to do real police work?"
Few police envision enforcement for pedestrian and bicycle safety as part of their role-it does not fit with their stereotype of what the job is. Many officers don't know or care that enforcement is a powerful tool in preventing crashes, injuries, and deaths. Many don't realize that law enforcement with pedestrians, bicyclists and motorists shapes future motor vehicle driving habits. Society and its police may have developed a "tolerance" for pedestrian and bicycle crashes until it affects someone they know or love.
Social Pressure "Why aren't you out catching burglars?"

"Why don't you pick on someone your own size?"

"Don't you have something better to do?"
Do you let what others say affect your enforcement activity? Name one other program or activity to protect people, especially children, that your community has opposed. How many times have you heard a motorist complain about those "crazy walkers or bicyclists?" Pedestrians and bicyclists complain about motorists, too. If the police don't enforce the laws, WHO WILL?
Police Administration "My chief (or Sgt.) wouldn't want me to make a pedestrian or bicycle stop."

"Not a department priority."
Administration officials are affected by the same stereotypes and may need education as well. Chiefs generally support the realistic demands of the community they serve. Most chiefs support programs that benefit citizens, especially children, and are popular with the community (DARE, McGruff Houses, fingerprinting, etc.). While there are undoubtedly exceptions, are you sure your chief won't support enforcement for pedestrian and bicycle safety if well-planned and professionally presented and conducted?
State's Attorney (Prosecutor) "This matter is too petty."

"My calendar is crammed, and you bring me this?"

"Does the prosecutor even know the laws or how to handle one of these cases?"
Enforcement can still be effective without sending people to court-citations are but one option. Do you agree with every decision your prosecutor hands down? Do you quit doing your job simply because the prosecutors don't or won't do theirs?
Courts Same reason as prosecutors, who often repeat what the judges told them. Same as above. Remember, judges and prosecutors can be swayed by a vocal minority of reasonable, knowledgeable people (e.g., MADD).
Fines "Too high."

"Too low."

"It doesn't go on their record."
Pedestrian and bicyclist's fines are usually less than those issued to motor vehicle drivers for the same offense. These violations rarely, if ever go on a driver's record. Do fine schedules ever make all of the police happy?
Time "I don't have time for trivial matters."

"I only have time for 'real' crime."
Do you have time for other self-initiated traffic enforcement? Do you have time for more important citations like expired registration, parking violations, or equipment violations? Do these more important violations have the potential to save a life, or do they just fit more into the stereotype of what a police officer does? If you are busy, you can always give a verbal warning over the P.A.
Remembering Own Childhood "Cops never stopped me for riding my bike or crossing the street wrong."

"That's not what police do."
What you remember from your childhood has a name-history! Equipment and technology are different. The way police operate is different. Years ago, you rarely saw a police officer in school. Today they are commonplace. Society has changed. Highways are crowded, people are in a hurry, tempers are short, and violence over minor traffic squabbles-road rage-is increasing. As times change, so must the police. As the job changes, old stereotypes must go out the door!
Communication With Children "Not comfortable talking to kids."

"Don't like kids."

"Don't want to scare them or make them cry."

"Don't want to give them a 'bad' image of the police."
How many times during your shift do you deal with juveniles? Do you treat them any differently than adults? Do you not take action simply because they are juveniles? Treat them as responsible or potentially responsible people; don't "talk down" to them.
Waiting for THE BIG ONE "If I tie myself up with this minor stuff, I won't be able to back my partner or respond to an emergency." What officer has never had a car stopped when an emergency came out? Figuring out how to clear is rarely a problem!
They Will Only Hurt Themselves "Look at that idiot. Fortunately, he will only hurt himself if he gets run over." Physically this maybe true, but not emotionally, civilly, or financially. Even "innocent" drivers experience anxiety and stress when they are involved in a crash, especially if it's a fatality. Many drivers carry emotional scars forever. Civilly, totally faultless drivers can be sued and incur costs for lawyers, deductibles, increased rates, etc. Have you ever had to make a death notification to the loved one of a pedestrian or bicyclist killed in a traffic crash? But they only hurt themselves!

Understanding and addressing the barriers to law enforcement in your community is a big first step in improving and building a successful law enforcement program for bicycle safety.