SFPD Still Targeting Bike Commuters Rolling Stop Signs on the Wiggle
7:00 PM PDT on October 22, 2013
Bicycle commuters on the Wiggle continue to be confronted by SFPD officers posted at intersections issuing warnings and tickets for what police deem to be dangerous violations of stop sign laws. Police claim they're obligated to respond to complaints from neighbors who apparently see the behavior as a threat to public safety.
But there have been no known crashes on the Wiggle recently. Posting officers there to ticket and chastise bike commuters who slow down and yield to others while not coming to a complete stop is a waste of precious enforcement resources and doesn't make streets any safer.
"Everybody wants to eliminate the about five percent of cyclists who violate other people's right-of-way," said Morgan Fitzgibbons of the Wigg Party, which advocates for environmentally sustainable practices in the neighborhoods around the Wiggle. "Nobody wants to defend those people, but trying to put a constant police presence on the Wiggle to make people follow a law that really doesn't make any sense is not the right way to go about it."
"It will never solve the problem -- it's patently absurd."
As in every state except Idaho, in California, the letter of the law calls for people on bicycles to come to a complete stop at stop signs, just like people operating multi-ton motor vehicles. The application of that law to bikes is so impractical, however, that most people who bike -- including police officers -- treat stop signs by slowing, checking for traffic, and proceeding. Idaho changed its stop sign law 30 years ago to legitimize normal bicycling behavior, and it's not hurting anyone.
To address the issue of bicycle riders who actually violate others' right-of-way, the SF Bicycle Coalition has recently posted up at spots along the Wiggle holding signs encouraging commuters to "bike politely."
"We urge the police to prioritize their limited enforcement resources on the known, dangerous problem areas and behaviors, which means the high-injury collision areas and actions," said SFBC Executive Director Leah Shahum. "The Wiggle is not one of those areas."
Last Wednesday evening, I was bicycling home on the Wiggle when I spotted two officers standing next to their motorcycles on Waller at Steiner Streets, an intersection busy with drivers, pedestrians, and westbound bicycle riders who mostly make a left turn to follow the flattest route. I parked my bicycle and stood between two parked cars to record the scene on video, when officer L. Henderson (who declined to give his first name) told me to get on the sidewalk.
I complied, and then introduced myself and asked the officer for an interview, which he granted. The entire audio recording of the interview is below.
Henderson said he was ordered to target bikes on the Wiggle by Park Station Captain Greg Corrales, who was previously captain of the SFPD Traffic Company for five years.
"I've got an entire community pleading with me to make their communities safer by enforcing existing laws," said Corrales. I asked how targeted bike enforcement on the Wiggle is consistent with the SFPD's "Focus on the Five" program, which focuses traffic enforcement on the top five behaviors that cause traffic crashes and the intersections that have the most crashes -- none of which include bicycle violations on the Wiggle. Corrales said, "We can't ignore other violations."
"It is absolutely the case that traffic enforcement focuses on the primary collision factors," said Corrales, "but the important thing is the word 'focus.' I don't think we have to wait till we have another tragedy like the one we had on Castro."
The case of Castro and Market Streets, in which competitive cyclist Chris Bucchere sped through the intersection last March and killed Sutchi Hui in a crosswalk, was cited by both Henderson and Corrales to justify the targeted enforcement of stop signs on the Wiggle. But these citations are going to bike commuters rolling through stop signs at single-digit speeds. Bucchere flew down a hill while trying to beat a traffic signal and is the second known bicycle rider to have ever killed a pedestrian in SF. Meanwhile, drivers hit 964 pedestrians in SF last year alone, 20 of whom were killed, according to the SFPD.
It's unclear how many Wiggle riders are receiving tickets compared to warnings. In the half hour or so I watched the scene at Waller and Steiner, I didn't see any tickets written -- only scoldings and even some thanks to people who made a full stop. But I receive regular reports from bicycle riders who say they were ticketed for behaviors they felt were safe and courteous.
One man named Tim, who declined to provide his last name on record out of fear for retaliation from police, said he received "a $200 ticket for rolling a stop sign in an empty Wiggle intersection on Labor Day." He explained in an email:
The officer pulled me over at Duboce and Sanchez, but insisted that he had been following me since he saw me roll the stop sign at Page and Pierce. He said he followed me as I ran all subsequent stop signs "without even looking." I challenged him on that statement -- of course I looked -- but he repeated himself even more loudly. He said he was giving me a ticket for the infraction at Page and Pierce, but was "advising" me on all the others, as well as advising me not to wear earbuds. He then insinuated that I "wasn't even wearing a helmet," which I told him was not the law. He wrote every infraction I wasn't being cited for committing on the side margin of the ticket. I presume that was intended to make me look as bad as possible to any judge whom I might come before in any effort to fight the ticket. I have a new job, and can't be taking time off to go to court, so I paid the ticket but I wish I'd been able to fight it.
Needless to say, I don't believe bicycles rolling stop signs in empty intersections deserves such a high fine, nor do I believe these recent harassment campaigns serve any legitimate interest. I see this as part of the pattern of bias the SFPD clearly holds against bicyclists.
"It's hard to see this when just a few days ago, we were having a meeting about the occasional lack of responsiveness to pedestrian and bicycle collisions," said Peter Lauterborn, an aide for Supervisor Eric Mar, who stopped to talk while riding on the Wiggle as I interviewed Officer Henderson. Lauterborn was referring to a recent Board of Supervisors hearing on an apparent pattern of bias against bicycle riders in crash investigations. "There are concerns as to how balanced the enforcement is," he said.
When I pointed out to Henderson that even SFPD bike patrol officers can be seen routinely performing "Idaho stops," as shown in the video below of two cops rolling down Haight Street at a leisurely pace, he said those bike cops could be rushing to save someone's life, and that questioning their behavior was like criticizing a cafe worker for eating a pastry on the job. "You don't know where that cop is going... would you want him to stop at every stop sign if your loved one is in desperate need of help?"
Over the course of our interview, Henderson seemed to relax his stance toward cyclists who slowly roll through stops. In fact, in a video I took after the audio interview (seen at the top of this article), he told me that if riders appear to make an effort to slow down and yield, he'll "give it to them."
After talking with Henderson, I spoke with the other officer who had been posted on the opposite side of the street. Officer Scott agreed that operating a bicycle carries different risks than driving a car "to some extent." SFPD officers may have different views on the issue -- they're just following orders either way.
"If they are going to blindly let citizen complaints dictate their policies," said Fitzgibbons, "we should just complain about the actual dangerous driving behavior of the California stop, speeding, striking and injuring 1,000 people a year."
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