Serious about sharing the road

Austin police stepping up enforcement of safe-passing law

Pam LeBlanc FIT CITY

Rheannon Cunningham tucks a radio into her backpack, turns up the volume on her ear buds, climbs onto a bicycle and heads into traffic.

It takes only a few minutes before a car on Airport Boulevard near the Mueller development passes too close to Cunningham, an officer with the Austin Police Department.

She alerts a nearby patrol car, which zips out of a parking lot and pulls the offending driver over for violating the city’s safe-passing ordinance.

Under the ordinance, enacted in 2009, motorists must allow at least 3 feet of clearance when passing vulnerable road users such as bicyclists, construction workers and pedestrians.

Heavy trucks must allow at least 6 feet.

Because it’s hard to enforce safe passing on a day-to-day basis, Austin police set up special operations like this one to watch for violations. Today’s is the sixth such operation, and more are planned.

“It’s part of our initiative to make Austin streets a safer place to ride a bicycle,” says Austin Police Sgt. James Dixon, who is heading the day’s effort. “It’s really important that we educate people that we are out here and going to enforce this whenever we can for safety.”

Typically, two undercover officers head out on bikes. They ride single file up and down a short stretch of road, waiting for motorists to pass. Officers in patrol cars pull over those who get too close, issuing warnings or citations based on the severity of the violation.

Before they hit the streets, the undercover cyclists practice judging the 3-foot distance by setting up a pole and riding past it. They measure the distance from the end of the handlebar to the farthest part of vehicle — usually the mirror. GoPro video cameras mounted on the bike record everything.

“If I were riding along and could reach out and touch the mirror, those get a citation,” says Cunningham, who was a cyclist before she became a police officer. “If it’s one we feel is right on the cusp, we give a warning.”

In the nearly four years since the law went into effect, officers have written 104 citations and warnings for people

violating it, according to Cmdr. Fred Fletcher with the Austin Police Department. A ticket costs $167, but and violators can take a defensive cycling class at Municipal Court in lieu of paying the fine.

Police target roads that don’t have bike lanes, but connect to popular cycling routes. So far they’ve worked stretches of Oltorf Street, Cesar Chavez Street, Martin Luther King Boulevard, Airport Boulevard, South Lamar Boulevard and Pleasant Valley Road.

“Most people say they didn’t know the law,” Cunningham says. Others know the law, but say they didn’t realize they were passing so closely. Some argue that bicyclists shouldn’t be on the road at all, and a few break into tears.

“They think it’s unfair and ridiculous what we’re doing to them,” says Austin police officer James Williams, who is pedaling alongside Cunningham today.

As the officers roll along the street’s narrow shoulder, most cars move out of the lane to pass. But not all. The driver of the first car that’s pulled over uses a false name and has outstanding traffic warrants. She’s taken into custody.

The team then moves its operation to South Lamar Boulevard, where traffic whizzes up and down the bustling street. Three minutes in, Cunningham radios in her first violation. When patrol officer Steven Constable pulls over driver Toni Manning, she’s apologetic.

“I know about (the 3-foot passing law), but didn’t see (the cyclists) until the last minute,” Manning says after Constable writes her a ticket. “I regret it. I don’t want anyone getting hurt out here. I feel terrible.”

The patrol cars take turns pulling over violators, and the pace is brisk.

The driver of a Ford F-150 passes the cyclists, then zips into a Sonic Drive-In. He’s surprised when an officer pulls in next to him and issues a warning.

“It’s not that I wasn’t aware (of the 3-foot passing law), I just didn’t see them,” says Kirby Green. “When it’s not enough room, it’s going to be you or the cyclist.... I’ll share the road, but wish they’d be a little more careful.”

The motorists aren’t the only ones getting noticed during the sting. When the officers see a cyclist riding the wrong way in the bike lane on South Lamar Boulevard, they pull him over, too.

“I wasn’t doing what I should be doing, which is going the right way,” says Jeremy Sweetlamb, who is biking downtown to teach an improvisation class. “I don’t want to be a nuisance and I don’t want to get in someone’s way.”

He gets a warning, but when he finds out why the police officers are out, he nods his approval. He’s been passed too closely while riding his bicycle more than once.

“People honk and go around, then they gun their engine to show you how annoyed they are,” Sweetlamb says.

While some motorists — especially those who have never ridden a bike — might be annoyed by the operation, the officers say handing out a ticket is better than working an accident.

“I have four-and-a-half years on patrol and can’t tell you how many times I’ve responded to a vehicle hitting a bicyclist,” Constable says.

If the sting does what it’s intended to do, he’ll be getting fewer of those calls in the future.

Contact Pam LeBlanc at 512-445-3994.