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More education needed to preserve cyclist’s rights

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[Editor’s note: Please read this follow-up comment made by the author.]

Like any emerging issue, bicycling occupies an uncertain and even an unknown territory. In the courtroom yesterday it was clear that the judge, the DA, and most of the police officers present have not been on a bicycle in their adult lives. In fact, everything about the day’s proceedings can be read in light of participants’ understanding, or lack thereof, of the mechanics and practicalities of bicycling.

“The rulings in the majority of yesterday’s cases would have been much different had the authorities involved had a better idea of the differences between bicycles and motor vehicles.”
-Elly Blue

The rulings in the majority of yesterday’s cases would have been much different — in fact, most of these tickets would never have been written — if the authorities involved understood the differences between bicycles and motor vehicles. A lot precious time, resources, and taxpayer money could be saved with a relatively small education effort, and I propose that be embarked on immediately.

To begin with, the original judge assigned on Tuesday was Christopher Larsen. He was nixed by one of the police, reportedly on the grounds that this he rides a bicycle. The police were within their rights to reject him (through the affidavit process), and in fact the defense also rejected two other judges before running out of vetoes at the unlucky moment that Judge Lowe became available.

The point is that the reason stated by the prosecution demonstrates a politicized, rather than fair and impartial, conception of riding a bicycle—after all, as Carl Larson cried when he found out, “Do judges who drive cars have to recuse themselves from auto cases?”

[Sgt. Jeff Niiya with Evan Manvel (BTA) and
Mark Lear (PDOT) in tow]

Case in point: Officer Gunderson, who cited Tori Bortman for failing to turn into the nearest possible lane—albeit that this lane is home to a large pothole and dangerous streetcar tracks—cannot have bicycled very much downtown. He maintained that,

“…she could have proceeded at a perpendicular angle across the easternmost track and then turned right into the area of roadway between the two tracks.”

He was sitting next to me, so after the case I leaned over and said,

“Those tracks can be really pernicious, you know, have you tried riding over them on a bike?”

He certainly had, he said, but it quickly became clear that he meant his motorcycle,

“It’s 700 pounds with small tires. We’re in the same boat as you a lot of the time.”

Certainly that’s a point to keep in mind, but not when it comes to tire width.

Bortman lost her case over a difference in the facts: She recalled turning into the middle lane, and the officer recounted her turning into the far lane, which is illegal. In his ruling statement Judge Lowe said,

“In cases such as this, I must ask myself: Who is in a better position to observe? And 90% of the time it is the police officer.”

More specifically, he claimed to base his judgment on the fact that Bortman turned right after stopping at a red light—an uncontroversial maneuver in this instance, and not one she was charged with, but the combination of a cyclist in funky attire and a red light painted an association that the judge, whether consciously or not, clearly found compelling.

Speaking of clothes, it was pointed out by a commenter on this blog that the only two defendants to be cleared of all wrongdoing were also the only two who had any appearance of being used to wearing collared shirts (in fact, both work for the City). Who’s to say what’s cause and what’s effect, but this observation accurately captures the dynamic of another major prejudice against cyclists.

In the future the Legal Defense Fund proposed by Dat Nguyen (one of the defendants whose case was dismissed) ought to include a provision for connecting desirous defendants with creased slacks.

“The police have made admirable efforts to educate themselves about bicycling…but there is a long, long way to go”
-Elly Blue

In the case against Jeff Smith, the opinion of the room was divided between people who have bicycled westbound on SW Main and those who have not. Proving the case was a matter of turning a bicyclists’ practical necessity into courtroom analytical logic, not an easy task without Roger Geller’s sensible explanation.

Alarmingly, the judge, without first-hand experience, still had difficulty with the decision. The City Attorney had come out to watch the ending of the case, and I asked him what he thought, expecting him to disagree with the judgment. But it turns out that he is a bicyclist himself, has experience with that stretch of road, and saw the reasonableness of Smith’s maneuver.

The judge, the DA, and the police officers I heard testify all demonstrated a very limited knowledge of how bicycles are operated and provided for. First there was the confusion about the tracks, and then Officer Clary testified against Jeff Smith alternately that he had left the bike lane and the bike path. Gearing mechanisms are also difficult to understand, and Carl Larson did a good job explaining the consequences of this in the afternoon cases.

The police, particularly the traffic division, have made admirable efforts to educate themselves about bicycling. Two years ago, the bicycle officers patrolling Critical Mass did not even have lights on their bikes, and now they are versed in the basics of the law. And it is heartening that the legal grey areas which come into contest here in Portland are as complex as we saw yesterday—at least our right to ride on the road at all is secure. But there is a long, long way to go.

We’re lucky in a way that the bicycling population has become large and visible enough that an awareness is growing—not least among cyclists—of our grossly unequal share of safety, mobility, and justice on the public roads. One important step is an outreach and education effort to improve the relevant public employees’ understanding of bicycling so that they can make well-informed enforcement decisions and legal judgments.

It’s important for these folks to know the law, but all their logical understanding will do them no good without a conception of what it’s like to ride a bike, and a respect for bicyclists’ right to be on the road. To this end, City Hall, the Police Department, the Judicial Department, and the Bar Association need to meet with the BTA and other interested parties to produce a plan to move forward. Otherwise, bicyclists will always be second-class citizens on the roads and in the courtroom.

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