My Crime? Riding A Bicycle On A Public Street

This is the law. State police should know it. (courtesy Stranger1970/flickr)

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.

The modern trike is a fast, aerodynamic machine.

“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 alj@docaltmed.com or by calling 860-567-5727.

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32 thoughts on “My Crime? Riding A Bicycle On A Public Street

  1. Wow, this is almost exactly the same kind of thing that happened to me today. Riding in the center of the lane because it was quite narrow, cop comes up behind me repeatedly telling me to move over to the right of the lane. Of course I didn’t as it was unsafe for me to do so.

    I think I’ll write to my police department and use this article in it. :)

  2. way to go Avery, as a fellow cyclist, I understand these concerns, comments, etc. Well spoken, OHS Class 76

  3. I sincerely hope that you contacted the commanding officer. It’s terrible that you would have to deal with that on a relaxing ride, and I can’t imagine how this officer deals with the situations that should be the stressful parts of their job! This guy needs anger management because he’d be one to shoot a psych patient for standing up too suddenly.

  4. Well written and informative article. Thank you.

  5. In Los Angeles, the cycling community has set up a regular meeting with the police department that has helped to (slowly) change things there. It took a lot of grass roots organizing for the police to care enough about the bike riding community, but once you are a political factor the authorities can, and do, change their tune.

  6. Thank you for the story. It certainly was fortunate you had everything on your side, including status (a doctor, yes, it helps), being a cycling instructor, and having an attorney in the family. I hope you post the results.

    How about a dozen trikers staging a drive through to raise awareness?

  7. Great story telling. I wound up on you’re website via a Bob Mionske Facebook posting so America’s bike lawyers are definetely following your case. I hope the Court session is video taped too!

  8. Hi Avery, I live in your town and want to commute to work on my bike more often. I think I need to take one of your classes so that I really know the rules of road. When is your next Road 101 courses?

  9. Hi James,

    I don’t have one scheduled currently, but you might get in touch with BikeWalkCT to see if they know of any. Or, if you want to rustle up 4-5 people who are interested, I’ll find a place and we can do a class. Road 101 is an all-day thing, and it includes classroom instruction, skills drills and road work. A lot of fun, actually.

  10. I look forward to hearing the out come and I very much like the idea of a dozen or so bents taking a spin through your town.

    I have a Velomobile. It’s a bright yellow 9.5′ long, 3′ high at it’s highest point and 30″ at it widest point. It’s a very fast three wheeled recumbent human powered vehicle built into a monocoque body. Pull all the bike parts out and you would end up with a pile of unrideable bicycle parts and an empty shell. I’ve been pulled over by the cops 8 times. They are looking for a license and registration because they can’t under stand how I can go so fast with out a motor. The worse stop was in Sandwich MA on Cape Cod. I was on 6A when I rode past the Sandwich Police Station. A cop came right out and got me. He asked for license and registration. I told him they were not required because this is considered a bicycle. He then asked for my license. I told him again that one is not required. He then asks for I.D.
    I tell him that under Massachusetts General Law I am not required to provide an I.D but I am required to give him any pertinent info and that if it proves false I could be subject to arrest. I give him my name and spell it. I give him the name of my town and spell it. Then I gave him my date of birth. He’s gone back to his cruiser for a good 10 minutes and traffic has come to a halt with people taking pictures and filming the whole thing. He comes back and asks how to spell my name again how to spell the name of my town which he mispronounces. He’s gone for another 10 minutes and the traffic is still ground to a halt. He comes back and asks if there are any wants of warrants out on me. I ask him what he had been doing all this time. He’s getting pretty pissed at that point and asks me again. I tell him not that I know of. He then tells me that I am obstructing traffic. I point to the gridlock around us and tell him that “this is not my doing.” I then ask him what is the speed limit is and then how fast I was going when I went past the station. He finally says, “OK,OK, You can go, you can go.” As a closing shot he says that I need a a flag. I ask him if he is having any trouble seeing me in my bright yellow Velomobile. He says that he is glad that he has sun glasses on.

  11. Quite a story, friend Avery, can’t believe this happened in our Town….no…., yes I can….sure would love to see the Video….let me know when the Court case comes up…Would love to be there…

  12. This is pretty much my day to day routine where I live, sans police interaction. I’m sure that will come soon enough as I’ve stopped riding in the gutter.

  13. Dr. Jenkins;
    I enjoyed reading your episode with the police. I, too, have a recumbent trike similar to your make and model. And I also have had people routinely ask if I need a flag on my trike. I do not because many times I shoot video while riding and the flag would interfere with my shots. Likewise, I have no problems with being visible as I make myself visible to other drivers as much as I can solely so I can see them and their intentions as well. And by comparison, my trike seat is only one to two inches lower to the pavement than many compact cars so my eyes are pretty close to driver eye level. I would be interested to read how the outcome of your case turns out.

  14. The only comment at this point is that while indeed cyclists have long stated “If you want to kill someone and get away with it, just put them on a bicycle first;” it turns out that putting them in a car or just having them walk across the street also works. In few cases is a motorist ever charged with killing another human being… it is typically chalked up as an “accident.”

    However rarely is it really an accident, someone has violated some law somewhere in order for a collision to occur… but society just chalks it up as an “accident.” Part of the price we pay for people to poorly drive about in heavy machines.

    About the only time someone gets convicted of killing another human with a heavy machine is if alcohol is involved… otherwise drivers tend to just get away with “murder.”

  15. It seems we have the same situation! I had it two weeks ago! will call you about it!

  16. Funny, heartening, and hats off for staying cool under pressure. But. “The answer to safer cycling is better education.” OK. How? Precisely how can we get how to drive a car in the vicinty cyclists onto the driver’s education curiculum and onto the drivers’ exams?

  17. The best way to educate all road users is to do it as part of public school curriculum. “Road use” should be the 4th R. After all people are far more likely to be using the roads either by driving or biking than they are to use Algebra in their future (engineers excepted).

    Early training should be about bicycle safety and basic rules of the road, and later classes should build on this and teach Road Ethics and Responsibility with the use of the Motor Vehicle.

    Certainly “Lt. Chowderhead” should have known the laws better, but the fact is that he did not, and many times that is the case for both LEOs and Judges… not to mention the general public… who often make up rules on the spot as they see fit.

    Until the roads are filled with robot cars that dutifully obey the laws, we need to educate the human road users far far better.

  18. Avery, nice story telling. I’m really excited to hear how it goes in court. It would be good to see how a judge percieves his actions on the video. My guess the officer won’t show up and the charges will be dropped. His attitude really needs to be addressed with the police department.
    Ride on.
    Denny

  19. What did I read the other day? “Why don’t people obey the law that I just made up?” Reminds me of the time long ago that I was asked to pass the basics of bicycling–like riding with traffic, not against–along to a grade school class and got contradicted, in front of the class, by the teacher. It took a certain composure not to switch the topic to boxing.

  20. Wow…reading this brings back a bunch of memories. I rode with Avery and others at a ‘bentride. And, David and one of his daughters rode Boooger while my daughter and I were on our EZ-Tandem.

    Great reading your work Avery…I’d love to ride with you again, too.

  21. Great story, but dude, you need a flag in a vehicle of that height. It may not be the policeman’s business, but that’s just common sense. It’s your life… except of course for the guilt your being smashed into pieces will cause some motorist if it ever happens. So, let’s say it’s mostly your life, but not entirely. It’s also your relationship to the motoring public, your responsibility to those who love you. So, in fact it’s a lot more than just your life isn’t it?

  22. Avery, first of all: Good to hear you are doing well, second: That mike above my post is obviously blind and runs over curbs, potholes and can’t see a small child if it ran out in front of him while he was driving.

    I would love to hear the results of your trial.

  23. Glad you’re ok, and that Lt. Chowds didn’t die of an aneurism. I’m sure you would have been charged with homicide.

    Where I ride there’s little shoulder, and I ride everywhere. I sold my vehicle. I have two flashing Cygolight rear lights at different sequences, as well as a headlight. I routinely have cars honk at me in agitation. So sorry, guys, for taking up your road.

    Hope all goes well!

  24. Good work. I would certainly have a hard time staying calm in that situation, though it’s clearly the rational and correct thing to do.

    In your last paragraph, you make the comment “There are those who argue that more bike paths, more bike lanes, and more laws protecting cyclists are the answer,” and I just want to quibble a bit with you on that. I don’t think anyone believes that these things are a replacement for good education of motorists and police, and when they’re unsafely placed in door zones can make it worse (as in “you’re supposed to be in the bike lane” when it’s clearly not safe to do so). But those of us who advocate for these facilities do this in the interests of increasing the number of cyclists – a different concept entirely – which is related to the perceived safety of these facilities rather than their actual safety.

  25. Wow…. your calmness under fire is awesome. You handled this soooo well.
    Perhaps you can convince the police department to undergo training in bicycle matters. I know of numerous bicycle training programs for law enforcement. You probably do too, but in the unlikely event that you need my help on that score, write to schubley[at]all[dot]com

  26. that’s a lot of fun. i was once sopped for not have both hands on the handle bars…which actually IS a law in CT.

    this guy sounds like a lot of fun. we as cyclists are usually hyper vigilant about cars and making sure they see us or we avoid them. at least i am. i do it when i am driving a car too. far too often too many oblivious drivers pose so much danger.

    i am curious though, if you were coming down thru the center on west st…are you a little bit concerned about being so low that people backing out of a spot won’t see you? again, i know YOU are on high alert looking for sudden reverse lights, etc…but…they are not looking for you. you may disagree, but i think flags on recumbents actually do make a LOT of sense. i run wildly bright lights even in the daytime and people STILL don’t see me…i cannot imagine being that low to the ground and fighting with traffic. it would scare me and i would want every item available to make me more obvious. :)

  27. Amazing how things work. I have found they key to not getting tickets for cycling legally is to carry a copy of the Ohio Revised Code, a tape measure, a copy of my dismissed ticket, and a card from Bike Lawyer Steve Magas on my bicycle. It really was crazy to be ticketed on “Bike to Work Week” in supposedly ‘bike-friendly” Columbus, Ohio. The Bikes May Use Full Lane sign I donated to the city is gathering dust in some office….

  28. Every time I read a story like this, my heart rate and blood pressure go through the roof. Police officers, more than almost anyone else in our society, need to be competent and rational. Please let us know how this all turns out.

  29. I am also curious how this turned out. After 5 months, I would think that your court date has happened.

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