The story was given the headline of “Are brakeless bikes safe to ride?”. Of course “brakeless” bikes are not safe. But are fixed-geared bikes technically brakeless? That depends on your definition of brake and it seems to me that the issue should focus on whether or not someone can safely stop their vehicle (a standard that is laid out in the law), not on what type of brake is used.
KATU unfortunately makes this into yet another story where people who ride bikes are portrayed as dangerous scofflaws who are just trying to “stick it to the man” (a phrase which was uttered by the KATU reporter in the story).
[Background: This issue of Portland police officers ticketing fixed-gear bike riders began back in July of 2006 with the court case of messenger Ayla Holland. Holland was found guilty of a bicycle equipment violation because her bike was a fixed-gear and the judge ruled that a fixed-gear bike does not technically have the legally-required “brake”. A few months later a different judge ruled that fixed-gear bikes were OK, thus putting the whole issue into legal limbo (but that didn’t stop police from issuing tickets). A bill that would have specifically legalized fixed-gear bikes nearly became Oregon law, but was modified at the last moment (see more on that below). I’ve written over 20 articles on this, you can read it all on my special coverage page.]
As of January 1, the bicycle brake equipment law will state that, “a bicycle must be equipped with a brake that enables the operator to stop the bicycle within 15 feet from a speed of 10 miles per hour on dry, level, clean pavement.”
So, just what exactly is the problem? Here are few things that come to mind:
- People riding fixed-gear bikes (without a hand-brake) continue to get ticketed by police and are being told they must attach a front hand-brake to their bike (even though nowhere in the law does it mention being required to have a hand brake and a front brake is technically illegal since it is impossible to “skid” with the front wheel as the law requires).
- Many people I’ve talked to claim they are being unfairly targeted by one or two specific Traffic Division officers (Officers Barnum and Balzer frequently come up).
- Many of the people ticketed are professional bike messengers who can ill-afford the repeated $92 dollar tickets they are receiving.
As for the Police Bureau, KATU claims in story they have issued “less than two dozen tickets per year” for this infraction. That may be true if they are taking an average over the last decade, but clearly there have been many more tickets than that issued recently (feel free to chime in the comments if you’ve gotten one).
The people interviewed In KATU’s story alone claimed to have tallied six tickets for riding a fixed-gear. Lawyer Mark Ginsberg told me this morning he doesn’t think the ‘less than two dozen’ amount is accurate.
Back in November of 2006, Ginsberg fought six fixed-gear tickets in a single day in court.
The Police Bureau has repeatedly stood by their claim that messengers and fixed-gear riders are not being targeted. However, I continue to hear stories that refute this. The latest being an officer who stood outside a downtown office building, waiting near a group of fixed-gear bikes to ticket the owners when they returned.
In the KATU piece, Police Bureau spokesperson Brian Schmautz says, “I know for a few people this is the only issue that exists, but for us, just put a brake on your bike for crying out loud… It’s the law and nobody will bother you ever again.”
However, not everyone agrees that “it’s just the law” and for the people impacted by these tickets, it is a serious matter.
Let’s not forget that Senate Bill 729, which would have said that a “fixed gear bicycle is not required to be equipped with a separate brake,” passed the House and the Senate before hitting that unexpected snag.
To her credit, Senator Burdick has said she wants to revisit this issue in the future.
In the meantime, people who ride fixed-gear bicycles will keep getting tickets, allegations of targeted enforcement will remain, and, because some people think fixed-gear bikes are inherently unsafe and unfit to be on the road, the cat-and-mouse game will continue.
You can read the report and watch the video on KATU.com.