The Hard Way
A sharp, short chirp of a siren called from behind me on my way home that night. I slowed down, eyes adjusting to a squad car’s strobe in the noncommittal darkness of dusk, and waited by the curb. I felt a little nervous—It was my first experience with being stopped by a cop— but couldn’t think of what I might have done wrong.
It seemed absurd to me, straddled over my bike on the side of the road, that I was being pulled over that evening: I was on my bike. At the time, I was not a driver. I’d never decided to get my license, so at 21, I walked and pedaled everywhere I needed to be. I lived a low-impact lifestyle and took pleasure, as I do now, in small things, including two-wheeled, twilight amblings around the pretty neighborhoods of Cleveland Heights. In 2008, bikes were just starting to be all the rage, and the rules of the road (for cyclists, that is) were even less apparent or uniform than they are now, and presently there’s no driver’s-ed style guidebook, either.
The officer stepped out of his car and approached my friend and I, each of us bewildered, and explained civilly but with authority that not only did we need a light on our bikes, but we needed to register our rides with the city of Cleveland Heights. For safety reasons, he said, as he filled out written warnings on his tablet. Should we ever have our bikes stolen, a registration number could help recover them. My partner and I nodded and agreed, skeptical though we were of the chance of finding a stolen bicycle, at least intact (to date, the only stories I have heard of people getting their stolen bikes back involve some quick thinking and intimidation on the part of a local bike-shop owner). We rode off holding pink slips in our pockets and laughing at how silly it was for me to have had my first run-in with a cop not in a car, but on my bicycle.
Two weeks later, bike still unregistered but outfitted with a snappy new backlight, I was again sidelined by the police, this time for not having a front light. Again I was given a warning to register my bike, and get an additional light. I did the latter and thought nothing more of it. A year later, I moved to the west side, occasionally remembering both instances with a grin (because I still lived, until the winter of 2011, without a car or even a license).
I like the west side of Cleveland. Moving here was one of my better decisions in recent years, right up with buying my first road bike and finishing college. The west side has proven to be a large, laid-back community with a lot of good coffee, good people, and good bike paths, some of which offer cliff-side views of Lake Erie. Unbeknownst to me, the west side had also proven to be something of a safe-haven, until my first actual moving violation happened on August 16th. I found myself in my car, waiting for a cop on west 25th, after chasing a yellow light through an already-clogged intersection; admittedly a silly idea, I knew I’d get nailed for being hopeful. The policeman approached my window after running my license and handed it back to me, asking, in a demanding tone, “you know you have a warrant for your arrest, right?” I didn’t, and I asked what I’d done wrong. He refused to give me specifics, but told me that had I been yanked aside in Cleveland Heights (god forbid, on a weekend) that I might be spending my evening in jail; with that, he drove away, leaving me to fume and fret as I finished my drive home.
I checked online immediately, searching the public record for my name. Sure enough, four violation codes came up when I hit enter, and when I pushed further, I found that I owed quite a sum. Violations for not having bike lights were cheap, about the cost of a set of Knogs. The lack of registration, though, was a ticket that ran 120 dollars deep, and being awarded that ticket twice in the summer of 2008 left me with a 295 dollar fine.
That sum of money isn’t perhaps an easy one to part with for anyone, but certainly not for someone of my peer set. (That is, the recent-graduate making not-much-money per paycheck at a service job). I put a call into the court to ask about some sort of a payment plan, but was firmly turned down, my only option for the getting the warrant lifted prior to full payment being a written letter to the judge. Not wanting to risk getting pulled over before his honorable could read my plea, I paid the fine and went outside to bike out some of the stress.
I’m not familiar with the rules. I opted not to contest anything; not the traffic ticket, and not any of the four bike tickets I earned as a 21 year old. I felt powerless, and do still, as a young person, a civilian, and as a cyclist. Anger ate at me like road salt on a cheap tire, and does still, the ordeal still fresh, nagging, and antagonistic. I’m always cautious about giving cars space when I’m riding; it doesn’t matter who was responsible for what if an accident happens and someone gets hurt. I ride like a shrinking violet. I let drivers have every right of way, gingerly navigate potholes with consideration of oncoming and parked traffic, seldom ride late at night, avoid congestion areas when I possibly can. I ride for a lot of reasons, including for pleasure, but also because I consider riding over driving to be an upright decision, considering impacts on environmental and community health. I don’t drink and ride. I am by no means a perfect driver, nor a perfect biker. There is no exemplary road-man, whether on two wheels or four. Still, I take issue with the events of this late summer.
In addition to feeling picked-on four years ago, I feel targeted now by a flawed and incomplete traffic regulatory system, as it pertains to cyclists. If the law is going to treat cyclists like drivers, inasmuch as they are willing to ticket and fine for things like missing a bike light or riding an unregistered machine, I’d hope that local police forces (as well as drivers) would consider cyclists in their efforts to protect as well as persecute. This, however, is not often the case, at least in my experience, and that of the bike riders I know well. Stolen bikes are lost causes. Several of my friends have been hit by cars while riding—some mildly injured, some severely—, entirely at the fault of the driver, with no compensation for the error. Laws for cyclists are largely shared by word of mouth, leaving a large margin for error as a city-sized game of telephone occurs between countless spokes.
Hopeful new drivers are issued a manual explaining left turn signals and neighborhood speed limits; I have yet to see such a manual distributed to new bikers, although guides suggesting road safety for cyclists certainly exist. Still, drivers continue to be unaware of the rights of a biker, which puts everyone in a dangerous position. Additionally, the discrepancy between the level of support and respect cyclists have versus instances such as mine infuriates me. I gave up on expecting the world to be fair as a kid, when my siblings scarfed my share of a box of popsicles. I want someone on the badge-wearing end of things to put down the bravado and turn off the intimidation and treat a minor threat like a minor threat. I will willingly pay off a fine that fits the violation, especially (but not exclusively) if I earned it, my own dumb butt at fault. I do, however, have a problem with paying off a four-year old tariff that I wasn’t aware of, for violations I don’t agree were as severe as their costs, in a city I haven’t lived in for three years.
I accept responsibility, though. I was responsible for not knowing I had to ride with a light, and then I was responsible for not knowing I had to ride with a front light in addition to a back light. I was also responsible for not following up with city hall regarding registration. Never mind the fact that the officer who had issued my warnings never made clear that those warnings were actually tickets, or that I knew (and know) nary a biker who has a city brand on his or her bike— I own up to having been a little clueless then. At the time, I had only been riding a bike for a year. I had a lot to learn.
Educate yourself: access to bicycle laws for the City of Cleveland and Cleveland Heights is available at http://www.conwaygreene.com/clevelandhts.htm, as well as the Cleveland Bicycle Coalition website, http://bikesintheheights.org/resources/bicycle-laws/.