How can law enforcement improve conditions for bicyclists?

Clearly enforcement has a role to play in helping to reduce the numbers of bicyclists and other road users killed and injured in traffic crashes. Bicyclists and pedestrians are particularly vulnerable to crashes with motor vehicles. National traffic statistics (Bicyclist Traffic Safety Fact Sheet) indicate that the long-term downward trend of traffic fatalities and injuries (of all modes) has reversed in recent years. Determining the most appropriate enforcement actions to improve bicyclist and traffic safety may seem daunting, but should be part of every community's safety efforts.

Officers may need training to understand how traffic laws affect bicyclist safety and that bicyclists have both the same rights and responsibilities as motor vehicle drivers. Traffic offenses such as speeding, signal violations, failure to yield, and improper passing put vulnerable road users at increased risk. Additionally, certain types of violations that are not perceived as being especially dangerous to other road users may be especially risky to bicyclists. An example is a motorist opening a parallel-parked car door in front of traffic, which may seem to be risky primarily to the perpetrator. To a bicyclist traveling in the traffic stream, a car door is a serious threat. Other types of driver actions also occur in relation to bicyclists that do not typically affect motorists. An example is a 'right hook,' when a motorist passes a bicyclist traveling straight along the right side of the roadway and then quickly turns right in front of the bicyclist. Both right- and left-turning motorists often fail to yield to bicyclists. Training of law enforcement officers, providing educational material in licensing manuals, and other efforts may help to focus attention on how enforcement and reinforcement of traffic laws will do most good to improve traffic safety for bicyclists.

Bicyclists should also be expected to follow traffic laws and rules of the road, but bicyclists occur in all varieties, including children, and enforcing traffic laws among bicyclists, who are not required to be trained or licensed, may seem problematic. Enforcement does not, however, have to involve citations or necessarily be punitive. A simple interaction where the officer points out the error and offers correction may help to reinforce the responsibilities of bicyclists to obey traffic laws. Other methods such as traffic diversion programs or educational programs may be options for offenders or repeat offenders, particularly in defined community settings such as schools or college campuses. See the Law Enforcement section of the BIKESAFE: Bicycle Countermeasure Selection System and our Education & Enforcement sections for more information on enforcement for bike safety.

Drivers also have a great responsibility drive carefully and responsibly. Unlike bicyclists, motorists are required to be licensed and pass certain tests and other requirements. Another important consideration is that by generally enforcing the traffic code for motorists, police also remind drivers of the importance of obeying traffic laws. If there is little evidence of enforcement, the traveling public may conclude that obeying the law is not expected. A supporting public information campaign may be one of the most important components of successful enforcement programs -- ones that reduce crashes and injuries. Research has shown that public perception that traffic laws are being enforced is a key to successful traffic enforcement programs. Even the most intensive enforcement can only ticket a small portion of offenders and potential offenders. Combined with a well-crafted public relations and education program, the amount of sustained enforcement needed to create the impression that 'enforcement is on the job' may not be as great as might be expected and thus be more sustainable -- also a key to successful crash reduction. Proper enforcement will, however, also provide for other, perhaps more stringent measures such as warning letters, additional training and testing of licensees, and even license suspensions for egregious cases, in efforts to decrease dangerous driving and risks to other road users.