My Crime? Riding A Bicycle On A Public Street
It wasn’t until I stood up and turned around that I realized exactly how crazy things had become. That was when I realized that there were three police cars behind me, with a fourth one pulling up. Meadow Street — normally a quiet, residential street in a small rural town in sleepy northwest Connecticut — had been turned into a 3-ring circus. There were now so many police cars that the road was closed to traffic, and two cops were standing in the middle of the road, discussing the difficult, dangerous situation they were facing.
That situation would be me. A slightly pudgy, middle-aged chiropractic doctor riding a three-wheeled bicycle. You see, I apparently was guilty of having the unmitigated gall to ride my bicycle on a public street, in broad daylight. Which, as I cruised through the center of town, offended the delicate sensibilities of a Connecticut State Police sergeant, and sent him off into what eventually looked like a steroid-fueled rage. And I was apparently so frightening to the good sergeant that he mustered all of the available manpower to make sure I didn’t litter or something while he was giving me a ticket.
It all started shortly after I turned onto Meadow St. I had not even ridden a full block when I saw, in my rear view mirror, the police car’s lights go on. I pulled over. Sgt. Covello got out and walked up to me.
“Let me see your driver’s license!” he growls.
I demurred. The only reason I had gone riding in the first place was ride a quick seven miles to see if the new rack I had installed was rattling. I carried no tools, no wallet, no nothing.
I did, however, have a wrist band with my name and address on it. Called a Road ID, it is useful in the event that first responders come upon your unconscious form somewhere along the side of the road and need to notify your next of kin. My daughters had given it to me for Father’s Day several years ago, little knowing that it would eventually save me from likely arrest at the hands of a cop with what looked like anger management issues.
So I held up my wrist and showed him my Road ID, and told him what is was. Apparently that wasn’t good enough for Sgt. Covello, because he demanded to see some identification a few more times while stalking around my bike before settling for what I actually had, which was the wrist band I had showed him before all the haranguing began.
The preliminaries over, the interrogation began. Now he starts demanding that I agree with him that I needed to have a flag.
Let me step back for a minute, and put his concerns, as wrongheaded as they were, into some context. As I said before, I was riding a three-wheeled bicycle; it is best described as a performance trike, and is different from either the thing with pedals you first learned to ride on, or the Grandma Trike that you see on the sidewalks of Florida. My trike is somewhat low-slung and aerodynamically efficient. Going downhill, it is capable of speeds that would make Lance Armstrong giggle like a schoolboy, but it suffers from a bit of a weight penalty in the opposite direction.
Though it is low to the ground, I have ridden this trike for several thousand miles without ever having a close call because someone couldn’t see me. After all, the trike and I together occupy about the same amount of space as a small refrigerator, and if you can’t see a refrigerator on the road in front of you…well, there might be some other issues going on.
That said, to a lot of drivers, it looks like something that you might have trouble seeing. People have yelled out their car windows at me, shouting “I can’t see you,” which is a bit perplexing, because they obviously see me well enough to yell at me. I even had one driver going the opposite way on Route 202, as I’m winching my way up the hill into town, stop his car in the middle of the road, get out, and start screaming “I CAN’T SEE YOU!!” multiple times. And, of course, there is always the twice-monthly “let’s chuck something at the weird bicycle” exercise. All of which leads me to believe that I am relatively easily seen.
So, at any rate, this cop with his bolts getting more unscrewed by the second couldn’t be blamed too much for thinking I needed a flag, as that his how most people who have no education in cycling safety think. Inasmuch as I am one of only about 3,000 certified cycling safety instructors in the country, I have a somewhat different perspective. Regardless of your opinion, not having a flag on your bicycle is not illegal, but I figured trying to educate a cop in the middle of a traffic stop, especially a cop whose wheels appear to be coming off, is probably a Bad Thing.
Nonetheless, Sgt. Covello’s approach left a little something to be desired. Using the same Intimidating Cop voice, he starts in on me. “Why don’t you have a flag on this?” he demanded. “Don’t you think this thing needs a flag?”
“Uh, no officer, I don’t.”
At this point, he starts circling the trike, looking at it like it was a dog that just crapped on his front lawn. He asks me a few more times if I thought it needed a flag. I keep telling him, no, it doesn’t need a flag. Finally, he points to my rear wheel. “Look at that,” he snaps, his voice rising in anger. “Isn’t that to mount a flag??”
I look. Omigod, he’s pointing to the trailer hitch. If I try to explain to him that what he’s pointing to is actually a trailer hitch to hook up my bicycle utility trailer to my three-wheeled bicycle, and that if someone did try to stick a flagpole in it, the wind shear would snap it off in two seconds, this guy’s one remaining gasket is going to blow. So I just shake my head and say, somewhat wistfully, “No, it’s not officer.”
He tries a few more times to get me to admit that I need a flag, and then gives up and takes a new tack.
“On a bicycle, you’re supposed to follow the rules of the road,” he says.
Yup, no kidding, I teach that to the students in my Road 101 class. I just nod.
“You were riding on the wrong side of the road,” he says.
“No I wasn’t,” I say.
“Yes,” he says, “you were.”
“No I wasn’t.”
It’s important to note here that, even though he was practically yelling at me, I kept my responses very calm and even-keeled.
A couple more rounds of that, and he takes another step back.
“You’re supposed to ride on the right side,” he says. “You weren’t.”
Ah, now I know what happened, though it took a good 10 minutes of lunacy before I got there. Sgt. Chowderhead here was upset because I wasn’t hugging the gutter, like a “good” cyclist should.
Except that is wrong. A good cyclist rides as far to the right as is safe, and no further. Surprisingly to many motorists, the safest place for a cyclist is near the middle of the travel lane. That is where cyclists are seen best by other road users; it prevents cyclists from getting smacked by a suddenly-opened door of a car parked along the side of the street; it prevents motorists from overtaking the cyclist and then making a surprise right turn, effectively forcing the cyclist into the side of their vehicle; and it gets motorists to pass cyclists more safely. Cyclists who ride the gutter are more likely to get hit by an automobile than cyclists using their road space appropriately.
This is what virtually every cycling expert has concluded, and this is what I and other cycling instructors teach.
It is also perfectly legal cycling behavior, though all motorists, most police officers and even many cyclists are unaware of that fact. Sgt. Covello is clearly among the unwashed in this regard, and that, it seems, is the root of the problem. He didn’t like me occupying road space that in his mind was reserved for automobiles, and in all likelihood, he didn’t know the law well enough know he was wrong. Once again, though, I’m not dumb enough to try to educate a guy with anger management issues and a gun.
On the other hand, I’m certainly not about to agree with him.So we once again enter into this little dance, with him making false statements about my cycling, and me politely disagreeing, as the veins in his neck start to bulge out.
At that point, he turns on his heel and stalks back to the squad car to check out my bona fides. I wait for a while, just relaxing, until I realize things have been going on for quite a while. That’s when I stand up, turn around, and realize that the circus has begun, and I’m about to become a YouTube video. Three squad cars, number 4 pulling up, a posse of cops wandering around like it was a free donut festival, and me. It looks like I’m about to go down. Hard.
I grab the cellphone and call my wife the attorney. “Uh, honey,” I say, “I think you need to get down here. Like, now. Like, right now.”
A few minutes later, I see her car come down the corner. She pulls in behind one of the cop cars (you couldn’t get past them at this point), gets out and walks up to the Sergeant.
“What’s the problem officer,” she says.
The sergeant turns on her like she’s fresh meat in the shark tank.
“WHAT ARE YOU DOING HERE?” he screams into her face. Attorney Carr doesn’t even blink; she’s been to a few parties before.
“I’m counsel for Dr. Jenkins. What’s the problem here, officer?”
“YOU’RE NOT ALLOWED TO BE IN THE STREET,” he screams. “IF YOU DON’T LEAVE IMMEDIATELY, I’M ARRESTING YOU.”
After calmly pointing out to Sgt. Covello that, perhaps, it is perfectly legal for a citizen to be in a public place, the good attorney realizes that in all likelihood rationality is not this guy’s strong suit at the moment, and leaves to get a camera.
It’s at that point that I allow myself a grin, because it’s clear to me and everyone else that Things Haven’t Gone According To Plan. Police cars start to silently glide off, because nobody wants to be involved in this swampy mess. And after a couple of minutes it’s just me, the lieutenant, and the dash cam on the squad car, as he hands me my ticket for “Unsafe Operation of a Vehicle.” The fine is $92.
I smile for the camera, tell the Sergeant to have a sparkling day, and get back on my trike. I ride down the road in my lane, as far right as is safe, but no further. Which is to say, near the middle of the lane.
Of course I pled not guilty, and I’m waiting for the court date to be set. But I cannot help to wonder, what if this happened to someone else, without the resources I have? As a younger man, I wouldn’t have had the presence of mind to not get in a fight with the cop. With this Sgt. Powderkeg, that would have been a trip to the station and then probably a trip to the dentist to replace the missing teeth. If I were not a certified cycling instructor, I might not have been as confident in my knowledge of proper cycling practice or legality. And if I didn’t happen to be married to a trial attorney who is frequently compared favorably to a mongoose, my goose might have been cooked.
The fact of the matter is, all of these pieces fell in my favor. But all you have to do is hang out on a cycling forum or read the news, and you will see how frequently police mishandle their interactions with cyclists. Stories like mine, and far worse, abound.
At the same time, the driver who mows down a cyclist gets a free pass by police and the courts alike. A quick Google News search will disclose hundreds of cases where motorists murdered cyclists, and received nothing more than a ticket. All too often, no charges are filed at all. The driver gets a pass, and the family of the cyclist gets a grave.
A standard joke among cyclists is, “If you want to kill someone and get away with it, just put them on a bicycle first.” It is sadly all too true.
There are those who argue that more bike paths, more bike lanes, and more laws protecting cyclists are the answer. I disagree. The answer to safer cycling is better education combined with appropriate enforcement of the existing laws.
And it was no surprise to me, that as I was being handed the ticket, I could count no fewer than 4 cars on that block parked illegally and remaining entirely unmolested.
Dr. Avery Jenkins is a chiropractic physician specializing in the treatment of people with chronic disorders. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or by calling 860-567-5727.