Monday, December 21, 2009

Ride Report: Monday, December 21, 2009

An extraordinary and unlikely run-in with a motorcycle cop today.

It's 2:13 PM, and I'm climbing a small hill on Olympic just east of San Vicente, already feeling a little edgy about sharing the road with crazed last minute holiday shoppers. If they are the same people who come into the bookstore (where I just worked a 7 hour shift) and cut in line, yell, and leave mess everywhere, I don't particularly want to ride with them.

The rightmost lane on Olympic is available for parking, and I'm in what's left of it, technically in the door zone. I'm fine being in the door zone when I'm going pretty slow. All of a sudden someone SCREAMS in my ear. They seem to have direct access to my eardrum and they have let a scream rip at maximum pitch. I jump in my (bike) seat and look up to see an SUV with a teenager's head sticking out of the back window. As they pass me, in a total failure of my principles, I flip them off. Well... it was a heated moment. I was very startled and frightened.

I managed to note the SUV's license plate and I pulled over to call the LAPD. I have actually practiced noting license plates, because I call the LAPD regularly when I am harassed, or when someone drives recklessly around me. I've been on the phone for literally 10 seconds when a motorcycle cop passes by. Perfect! "I need your help!" I yell frantically. "Police!"

The motorcycle turns around and sort of scoots over to me. "Are you yelling for me?" he asks. I say, "Yes, I've just been harassed by an SUV... it was white, and it's headed that way, this was literally under a minute ago." He says, what do you mean harassed? I tell him that someone leaned out of the car and screamed in my ear.

He seems irritated. He tells me that there is no crime in yelling out of cars. He gestures toward the pavement and says, "Well, how were you riding, I mean, if you're in the roadway then..." I interrupt him. I show him where I was riding and he sort of shrugs. Then I say, "It's a good thing that they're writing that anti-harassment ordinance to deal with the problem of bicyclists being harassed. He leans his motorcycle-helmeted-head back slightly and squints his eyes. What "problem"? he asks skeptically. I tell him, you know, people yelling at us, passing us closely, throwing stuff at us.

"Oh." he says, as if admitting that such a problem might exist in Los Angeles. "Well, here's the thing, though... lots of bicyclists don't know the rules of the road, and lots of them are running lights, riding the wrong way..." I don't remember if the officer used the words "asking for it," exactly.

I actually interrupt him and tell him that if this is gonna be a lecture on bicyclists and the law, I'll pass. I tell him I'm intimately familiar with the laws. And anyway, I say, aren't motorists breaking the laws constantly, too? I cite some examples, like how they are always speeding. And how they never stop behind the limit line at red lights.

Turns out, Officer Corbett (? Collett? I forget.) is actually a speed patrol on Olympic and San Vicente, and he warms up to the idea that motorists are always breaking the law. Yes, he says. And what's more - "Wanna know the top speed I've ever seen? 98. Ninety-eight miles per hour on San Vicente. If somebody pulls out of their driveway in front of a car going that fast, they're dead." He goes on to tell me that he does more than the average officer for bikes and pedestrians, and he seems sincere. We talk for a while about Assault with a Deadly Weapon and how if a car ever veers toward you intentionally, it's ADW with a vehicle. He speaks with some venom, as if he has had experience with it, and he actually derides the fact that so many folks want to classify ADW with a vehicle as a traffic accident. Yes, that definitely happens in Los Angeles, I think as I listen, recalling the recent Hummer incident in downtown LA. Later he goes on a rant about how motorists don't know when pedestrians have the right of way, and how drivers need to slow down in this area, which has a hospital, a school, and plenty of elderly people crossing at unmarked intersections. We're on the same page about that, I think. I briefly consider enlisting the officer's support for traffic calming on Olympic.

Our conversation goes on for about 15 minutes longer, and we reach a much more level, respectful rapport than when I interrupted what I presumed to be an oncoming lecture. Ok. I want to end here with Three lessons from this.

1) Bottom line is, in our initial exchange, the officer's first question toward me was whether I was breaking the law or riding illegally; his first impulse was then to educate me regarding bike law and describe the rampant problem with scofflaw cyclists. I called him over asking for his help, and his first assumption is that I did something to deserve the harassment, like ride "in the roadway." (Ummm.... not against the law! I suspended my urge to give him a lecture about that. anyway...) Imagine if you called the cops because someone was harassing you and their first question was whether you were breaking any laws.

Even an officer like this one, who was fair and respectful, professed to be pro-bike and pro-ped, and viewed cars as deadly weapons, displayed anti-bike bias. That's just one more indicator that the anti-cyclist bias is huge and rampant among LAPD particularly.

2) We definitely need the cyclist harassment ban proposed by Councilman Rosendahl's office. I know that most of the vehicle code can't be touched by cities because its considered a "matter of statewide concern," and legally only the State of CA can create laws like a three-foot passing law or a stop-as-yield law, but we need to find the legal areas the city actually does have jurisdiction over and regulate on this. (By the way, the city does have a local ordinance against throwing things out of cars, apparently because of a problem with motorists and their passengers spraying people with fire extinguishers (?!) a while back. Officer Corbett explained this. So if you do get something thrown at you, definitely note the license plate and call it in to LAPD.)

Here I was with the improbable, fortunate coincidence of blatant harassment and the arrival of a police officer, and unfortunately for me, he couldn't do anything. If we had an anti-harassment ordinance, I could have cited the code, listed the license plate, and watched justice speed off.

3) There is no evidence that cyclists use their discretion to break the law any more than motorists do - no, definitely no evidence. But we must be ready to face the "scofflaw cyclist" stereotype at every turn. Our law-breaking stands out in motorists' minds because we break laws that would be VERY dangerous and stupid for cars to break. Their law breaking is just routine. I had some success tempering the "scofflaw cyclist" stereotype with 1) mention of the routine criminal activity of motorists, and 2) meticulous knowledge of the law and 3) meticulous following of the law. I think we need all three of these things to prevail in the face of this stereotype, which is why I basically never break the law on a bike when there is any kind of witness around (and of course not when it'd be stupid).

Geek note: this whole "motorists come in all shapes and sizes, but cyclists are all arrogant scofflaws" actually reflects a broader psychological/sociological phenomenon called "out-group homogeneity bias."

Rosendahl and City Hall, pass that law. Cyclists, know your laws. And LAPD, stop assuming we're breaking them.

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(The scene of the crime. In the background you can see the unmarked intersection the officer and I discussed.)

3 comments: said...

We totally need this law and the supporting education of our law enforcement. The bias within the LAPD runs deep and has let the motorist almost get away with murder at times! I don't think that cyclists should have to fend for themselves (as has been suggested to me by Rampart Div. front desk). I don't think that cyclists should be denied protection from death threat road ragers because of the default assumption cyclists are scofflaws or are not wearing a helmet, or are asking for it riding in traffic (some cops one liners before they leave the scene). LAPD are not above harassing cyclists with their vehicles and should be accountable for this law too. It's disgusting that some of these cops thinks it's funny to right hook, swerve, and harass cyclists while on and off duty.

Anonymous said...

you lived in west, you know what a problem spraying people with fire extinguishers can be....

way to go having a rational discussion, I would have pulled out my U-lock instead of the middle finger....

Anonymous said...

I used to hate that hill.