With the rise of bike riders in congested urban zones like New York City has come, inevitably, a rise in altercations with the law. The New York Times reports that the city has (not surprisingly) a “myriad” of regulations about riding that most cyclists simply aren’t aware of (nor are police, necessarily). Aside from the hazards of speeding taxis and car doors opening, riders earlier this year endured a ticketing blitz, not to mention ”stepped-up police enforcement of red-light and other, less-obvious rules, like having adequate lights or not riding with earphones in both ears.”
Other violations that cyclists have been ticketed for include riding without a bell (a bell is required by law in NYC); riding without a helmet (which is not required for adults); riding with a purse over the handlebars. The New York Times does note that, according to the Police Department, officers should not have issued summons in these cases.
Due to all this, New York is seeing a rise in lawyers specializing in the rights of cyclists. The small firm of Rankin & Taylor is preparing a class-action suit against against the city, contending that cyclists are being handed out summons for “phantom violations — bike behavior that it says is not illegal in the city.” Among the knotty legal issues they find themselves addressing are whether a cyclist must ride in a bike lane if there is one:
For example, it is legal to leave the bike lane to make a turn, and cyclists are allowed to prepare to make a turn by getting to the appropriate side of the street. But just where one can move out of the lane — 50 yards away, or two blocks, perhaps — is not specified.
On its website, Rankin & Taylor specifically mentions the NYPD’s “ongoing bicycle crackdown,” noting that, prior to 2004 — when the Republican National Convention was held in the city and a Critical Mass bike ride was seen as a “threat” — the NYPD seemed “generally to ignore traffic violations by cyclists, except in certain neighborhoods.” NYPD training materials, says Rankin & Taylor, offer few specifics about how traffic laws apply to cyclists, while saying clearly that
…persons involved in illegal drug sales sometimes use accomplices or lookouts on bicycles. Such training materials may unfortunately create the unwarranted perception among young officers that, at least in certain neighborhoods, persons riding bicycles are likely to be engaged in criminal activity.
In other words, at least in the training manual cited by Rankin & Taylor, cyclists (at least those “in certain neighborhoods”) are looked upon first and foremost with suspicion, when they may well be riding a bike due to not being able to afford public transportation or a car, or for the sheer convenience a bike offers amid NYC traffic.
Cyclists really only need a lawyer to fight a ticket if they’ve been hurt by a vehicle, notes the New York Times.
“For those people who think it can’t happen to them — I have a file of a person it happened to,” said Scott Charnas, a personal-injury lawyer who has represented many New York cyclists. He formed a relationship a decade ago with Bob Mionske, a West Coast bike lawyer and Bicycling Magazine columnist, who recommends Mr. Charnas to New York riders.
Mr. Charnas’s current clients include a delivery cyclist severely injured by a passing car. “In that case, the rider turned away to avoid the opening door and was then hit by a car,” he said. The deliveryman had a broken leg and other injuries, Mr. Charnas said, and will never be able to ride a bike again.
The accident highlights what can happen in the so-called dooring zone, the area next to a vehicle where its door could hit a passing cyclist.
Lawyers including Paul Vaccaro, who left a job at a corporate law firm to work for Rankin & Taylor, says that, ultimately, the point of suing the city is to make it more cycle-friendly by preventing injuries and also ensuring that cyclists are treated on a par with motorists. Certainly New York lags behind European cities like those in the Netherlands in instituting bike-friendly policies that not only encourage people to ride, but benefit all of us by cutting down on pollution, carbon emissions and noise, just to name a few things. Perhaps it’s no surprise that a city full of lawyers may only become cycle-friendly by — what else? — a couple of lawsuits?
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Photo by Paul Beattie