What “Riding Abreast” Shows about Enforcement in DC

It should surprise no one that WABA has been working to improve traffic enforcement and the protection of bicyclists on the District’s roadways. We have worked countless hours on this issue and testified at two hearings held by the DC Council’s Committee on the Judiciary on this matter. Those hearings led to a finding by the Office of Police Complaints of deficiencies in the Department’s enforcement and relationship with cyclists and led MPD to appoint a liaison to the bicycling community to work with the District’s Bicycle Advisory Council.

These are positive steps, but there is much more to be done.

Often, when there is a major crash or a cyclist is cited for an infraction that he or she feels is undeserved, that cyclist or a family member calls WABA for advice. And often, when a WABA staffer or an attorney for the cyclist/family follows up on the facts of the case, we find that the story is quite different than the one contained in the police reports. In some cases, the facts presented in the reports or the citations issued simply do not match the stories of those on the scene.  In other cases, even as presented, the facts do not justify the conclusion drawn or the citation issued.

We have been working to make the case that as cycling grows in the District with the support of District programs and infrastructure, the District also has a responsibility to educate police officers on the application of traffic laws to bicyclists. Absent the physical protection of an automobile surrounding us, we rely on the protection of the law.

Unfortunately, we tend to encounter these enforcement errors on an individual basis, one at a time, as impacted cyclists contact us. We have worked to systematize this and get better data through the creation of our crash tracker survey, and it has been useful in getting more information on more crashes. But we are still working to show that the issue is not an occasional error by an occasional officer who misunderstands a provision. Rather, it is a systemic lack of appropriate training for all officers that needs to be rectified by a significant training effort.

Lacking the resources to launch a full analysis of every crash report related to bicycling, we recently chose to focus on a single regulation and review every citation for a violation. We submitted a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request to MPD and the DC Department of Motor Vehicles. Because the names and contact information of the cited party are not disclosed through the FOIA process, we attempted to select a provision in which we would not need to contact the cited party or follow up with witnesses to show errors. For this reason we selected the District’s “riding abreast” regulation, 18 DCMR 1201.7:

Persons riding upon a roadway shall not ride more than two abreast except on paths or part of roadways set aside for the exclusive use of bicycles. Persons riding two abreast shall not impede the normal and reasonable movement of traffic and, on a lane roadway, shall ride within a single lane.

Note that this law:

  1. Cannot apply to a bicyclist riding alone;
  2. Does not relate to the relationship between any bicycle and any non-bicycle vehicle.

We submitted our request seeking information on citations for violation of the “riding abreast” regulation on March 16. The statutory period for acknowledgment passed without response from MPD. On April 9, we followed up with MPD, noting the delay beyond the statutory limit, and also submitted an identical request with the District’s DMV, which oversees adjudication services. On April 19, we did receive acknowledgement of the initial request from MPD but have received no substantive response to date.

DMV, however, has provided both an initial response with overview data of the citation history in its records, as well as a more detailed supplemental response including individual Notices of Infraction. Both responses are below.

Dmv Foia Riding Abreast 1 of 2

Dmv Foia Riding Abreast 2 of 2

A very quick analysis reveals that not a single citation is supported by the officer’s description. In many cases no description is provided, so one cannot conclude whether the citation was justified. But in every case in which a description was provided, a violation of 18 DCMR 1201.7 is not described. Also, notably, there was no instance of two citations being issued at the same location, as might be expected for a law requiring two bicycles.

We continue to be concerned that officers entrusted with enforcing the laws that we need to help keep us safe on the roadways are not adequately trained on those laws or the application to cyclists. Wrongful citations have ramifications, and those ramifications can go well beyond the $25 fine or the frustration of being ticketed when the other party committed the unlawful act. Under the District’s contributory negligence system, insurers will frequently rely on a citation to deny coverage for injuries in a crash, forcing the cyclist who acted entirely within the law to run a complicated legal gauntlet of contesting the wrongful citation and winning, then taking legal action to compel the insurer to provide compensation for any injuries.

In short, bicyclists need MPD to get these citations right. We have seen recent cases in which the intervention of the officers appointed to act as liaisons to the cycling community–Lt. Breul and Commander Crane–have led to the withdrawal of improper citations. The documents provided reveal another such instance. But this sort of intervention is only available in the rare and clear-cut cases in which the officer’s description fails to match the citation as a matter of law. Intervention of this sort is unavailable when the dispute is a factual matter, such as which party has the duty to yield. In any event, the District cannot rely on one or two individual officers to catch the mistakes of many. MPD needs to improve its understanding and application of laws as applied to bicyclists, and that requires a real, robust, and funded training effort.

We hope that the District’s leadership will view this analysis broadly and conclude that we have a real, systemic problem with MPD training that needs a solution. In the absence of that, we hope that this law–which seems to do nothing but provide an invitation to wrongly cite bicyclists–will be amended or repealed to ensure that the wrongful application stops.

And finally, we hope that this analysis will spur others to help us to evaluate the application of laws to bicyclists and push for improvements. We focused on a single, seldom-used citation in this analysis. There are many other provisions that need exploration, but that will generate much more data and, potentially, require much more investigation and follow-up. If you are interested in focusing on these issues, WABA has applied for and received a $3,000 Advocacy Advance Rapid Response Grant to provide stipend(s) to support this campaign and our efforts to show the need for better training of law enforcement officers in the District.

If you are interested in helping WABA make our streets safer by helping us in this manner, send an email to advocacy@waba.org explaining the approach you would take or provisions of law of interest to you.

And please mark your calendar for the next hearing on bicyclist and pedestrian safety and enforcement before the DC Council Committee on the Judiciary: May 30th at 10am. It is important that as these hearings continue bicyclists continue to show up, tell their stories, and ensure that the Committee and the Council takes bicyclist safety seriously. To sign up to testify, contact Jessica Jacobs at jjacobs@dccouncil.us.