Last Friday, Sept. 9, 2011, at about 10 a.m., I was enjoying the new bike lanes on 5th Street and Maurice Avenue when a breeze of air and the sound of a scooter caused me to look over my right shoulder and notice the flashing lights of Missoula Police. Believing the scooter was headed ahead of me to pull over some other vehicle in violation of the traffic laws, I stayed near the edge of the road. The lights did not pass, though, and it wasn’t long before I realized I was the offending vehicle. I stopped my bike, still in disbelief that I had somehow violated a law, and waited for the officer to give me a lecture on wearing a helmet. When he explained that I ran at least two stop signs, I was sure it was a joke. Which stop signs? I hadn’t seen a person or vehicle in two blocks. Should a biker who doesn’t come to a complete stop at a stop sign where there are no cars or people present be punished?
After a long exchange with the officer (including a conversation about why I didn’t have any form of ID on me; yes, you need to carry your driver’s license when riding your bike), I became informed. Bicyclists are subject to motor vehicle laws. Apparently there have been complaints about bicyclists not obeying traffic signs and signals.
It wasn’t long into my conversation with the officer when another officer on a scooter pulled up behind us. The presence of this second officer and the fact that the first officer had clearly been waiting for me or some other unsuspecting cyclist gave me the feeling that we bikers were being trapped. The officer who wrote my ticket urged me to “tell my friends” about this incident to spread awareness and hopefully change the predominant view that cyclists are somehow not subject to traffic laws. When I got home and told my roommate, she noted that one of her friends had just posted on Facebook about getting a ticket on his bike.
I’m writing this letter to inform the bicycle community, so Missoulians can avoid similar experiences. Rather than find some half-day that I happen to have free, pack up my 13-month-old and wait around at the courthouse to pay some unknown sum, I would like to have read about this new enforcement in an email from the university, blurb in the local paper, or flyer on campus.
I am grateful that Missoula is invested in protecting its pedestrians, but I can’t help but feel like I was trapped, and wonder if targeting bicyclists in this manner is really just. Police should not disproportionately target non-motorized vehicles at empty intersections. And if I earned a nickel for every car I’ve watched roll through stop signs or driver I’ve seen texting, I probably wouldn’t be putting so much energy into fighting this ticket, even if I am guilty. If we are serious about protecting pedestrians and bicyclists, might I suggest targeting those vehicles that not only cause serious harm, but knowingly violate traffic laws?