Bike Safety Ed: Learn the Laws Sooner or Later!

Huntington Beach logoYesterday the Los Angeles Times reported on the city of Huntington Beach’s new initiative to offer bike traffic school to people-powered device-using scofflaws in that ocean-side city. The piece, “Huntington Beach Offers Traffic School for Bicycle Lawbreakers,’ is a reminder that running afoul of the state vehicular code has real financial consequences. Run a stop sign, for example, and risk getting a $200+ ticket.

The bike traffic school program [pdf – scroll down to the police section] appears to be a new addition to the juvenile bike safety program in place since the early 1970s. The city’s Police Department says it cites a thousand kids every year for failing to obey the laws, helpfully enumerated on the department’s site, and apparently the tickets are a means to bring some bike safety education to young folks.

Like many cities, however, Huntington Beach makes no bike safety tips available on the city website or even the Police Department’s site. In fact, there is no place to access the bike traffic school information directly from the main pages. It’s the rare city, I’ve learned from my review of city sites, that makes cycling safety info available, and rarer still the city that offers bike safety education.

Can we overstate the importance of bike safety education for adults and kids alike?  When we ride, we put more on the line than risk a citation. There’s bodily injury, for example, and even liability for disregarding traffic controls – even if struck by an errant motorist (as my earlier review of Bob Mionske’s ‘Bicycling and the Law’ detailed).  If we’re able to collect for damages at all, Mionske warns, our award might be reduced proportional to our liability in the accident. Run that stop sign and you may see half your medical costs withheld given your contribution to the collision.

That’s sobering especially because riders are too often unaware of how traffic laws apply to them. How would we know? Cycling instruction often stops when daddy’s hand releases our saddle as a kid. We learned the skill of riding without the knowledge of how to navigate practical aspects of sharing the road with traffic (to say nothing of traffic law).

By the same token, we motorists learn from a flimsy prep book written for the state licensing exam. Judging by the evident lack of discipline as exhibited by drivers – as well as statistics – that’s not been an effective strategy if our goal is to improve road safety. The licensing process hardly screens poor drivers, much less hips new drivers to the law and good practice.

Yet there of course is no periodic, remedial education for any road user. (Um, there is traffic school. But if you’ve clicked though the online version knows that it’s a charade apparently intended to generate fees for courthouses and traffic school entrepreneurs.)

The Huntington Beach bike traffic school program promises something different – a 2-hour class tailored to the specifics of law as it applies to cyclists. Motorists go to traffic school, so why not cyclists? It departs from that model by circumventing the court, in effect, by offering the option to pay $50 to cover the schooling but waiving fees or fines. Compared to the scores of tickets issued in NYC recently, or on an ad-hoc basis in local jurisdictions here, that is a bargain.

But then Huntington is a beach paradise probably unaccustomed to the vehicular cyclists that are the visible face of bike advocacy in the Los Angeles area.

Parity with motorists is an interesting issue because it suggests the complex legalities and relationships that come into play on public roads. Activists John Forester long claimed our place on the road with motorists and famously eschewed any particular accommodations – a view now out of favor.

Attorney Bob Mionske has called for insurance for cyclists (just like motorists) to protect them in case of collision. At present, insurance shields the motorist from the direct (fiscal) consequences of his actions on the road. Cyclists are unprotected yet we disproportionately assume the risks and expenses in case of a collision. Bike traffic school can be seen as a reminder that we must concede something to preserve parity with motorists.

So where do we come down on the bike traffic school? We’ll see whether this remedial program is a model that, in the right hands, and using a good curriculum, could offer the kind of safety education and training cyclists almost never get. It’s no substitution for a real bike safety course, but if it’s not a charade maybe it’s worth something.

Practically, it avoids the cost of the ticket – an expensive sanction too easily handed out to cyclists who never learned not to roll a stop sign. Doesn’t it beg the question as to whether all road users need be on the same page with regard to considerations for unprotected cyclists who share the road with aggressive motorists piloting potentially deadly weapons?