Why do Mississippi police officers refuse to ticket at-fault motorists who hurt bicyclists?

We held a summit to ask WHY and to find out how we can help to change this practice. 

 

Lessons from the 2016 Mississippi Bike Walk Summit: Part 1

Article by Charlie Thomas of Bike Law

 

"One of my officers pulled a bicyclist over the other day and told him to get out of the road. The education of police on bicycle laws just isn't there." - Supervising officer of the Hattiesburg Police Department. 

 

It's not often that advocates for biking and walking, engineers, planners, and law enforcement come together for an open and comprehensive discussion about how to increase the safety of all roadway users. It's even less often that police departments from across an entire state would be represented. Perhaps most surprising is that this occurred in Mississippi, during the summer of 2016 at the 3rd Annual Mississippi Bike Walk Summit. This gathering did not occur by chance. Rather, it was the product of years of strategizing and an effort led by Bike Walk Mississippi and its Executive Director, Melody Moody-Thortis. 

 

Bike Walk Mississippi has served as the statewide bicycle advocacy group in Mississippi for over 20 years, helping to pass the state’s 3 foot passing law in 2010, increasing the state’s Bicycle Friendly ranking from #47 to #32 in just six years and leading the state in its advocacy work for increased safety, access and infrastructure for bicyclists and pedestrians across Mississippi. Bike Walk Mississippi launched the "Change Lanes to Pass" campaign as a way to dramatically and systematically increase safety for bicyclists and other vulnerable users of the roads in Mississippi. This effort includes increasing awareness of these issues through increased education, dialog and accountability between motorists, bicyclists and law enforcement across Mississippi. In November 2015, Bike Walk Mississippi produced a series of PSA videos that educate Mississippi motorists about the state’s legal right to change lanes to pass in a non-passing zone (when it is safe to do so) in order to safely pass a bicyclist.  The Change Lanes to Pass campaign also hosts an online reporting system for bicyclists who have been hit, buzzed or harassed and offers free resources on its website with downloadable bicycle safety information including free posters, safety brochures and “pocket-sized” Mississippi Bike Law guides. Every May, Bike Walk Mississippi also holds "Wear Yellow Day", an annual day of awareness where over 1,500 citizens have participated to raise awareness and increase dialog about the need for increased safety and mutual respect for bicyclists on Mississippi roads. 

 

As part of this effort to find new ways to increase bike safety in Mississippi, Bike Law began a partnership with Bike Walk Mississippi to see how we could effectively work together to increase dialog with law enforcement officers across the state, asking them to become allies in the effort to better protect Mississippi bicyclists. 

What’s happening and what’s the big deal?

 

The need for this discussion ripened after years of observing Mississippi police officers failing to issue citations for moving violations when a motorist is at fault for striking someone riding a bicycle. This disparity reveals a bias held by those entrusted to fairly enforce the law.  

 

Over the last several years, I’ve handled many cases arising out of motor vehicle and bicycle crashes. The common denominator among these incidents is that an at-fault driver will not receive a ticket for seriously injuring or even killing a bicyclist as long as the driver is sober and remains at the scene. This is true of every case I’ve had in Mississippi.

In the case study below, I have reviewed three select crashes and found:

 

  1. July 14, 2014 - Bicyclist killed when rear-ended by a driver: no citation. (Figures 1, 2) 

Figure 2

Figure 1

2. September 17, 2015 - Bicyclist suffered life-threatening injuries when rear-ended by a driver: no citation. (Figures 3, 4)  

Figure 3

Figure 4

3. May 31, 2016 - Bicyclist suffered life-threatening injuries when rear-ended by a driver: no citation. (Figures 5,6) 

Figure 5

Figure 6

Around the state, police regularly cite drivers for moving violations such as speeding. Speeding is typically a crime committed without a clear victim. Even with a victimless traffic crime, such a citation requires that the driver appear in a court. The driver must either accept the charges and pay a fine, or plead not guilty and go to trial. The inconvenience and potentially higher insurance rates for the driver create a deterrent.  Traffic tickets and citations also generate data that can be collected for understanding why and where certain crashes happen. The data informs public leaders for future changes in traffic planning and enforcement. According to the League of American Bicyclists, it’s important to collect data on enforcement actions against motorists based on incidents with bicycles such as traffic ticket issues, prosecutions, or convictions.

 

As advocates and active members of the bicycling community, it’s easy to feel slighted when police don’t cite rule-breaking drivers for seriously injuring or killing a bicyclist. We wanted to understand this further, so we began asking “why?” to police officers across Mississippi.

  Why don’t the police ticket at-fault drivers who cause injuries to bicyclists? 

The two most common answers that officers gave for not issuing tickets were:

 

   (i) the officer did not personally see the violation occur; or

 

   (ii) the crash was just an accident.

 

Neither answer is grounded in police best practices or the law itself.

No Mississippi laws require an officer to personally witness a violation to cite a driver.

 

When pointing this out to officers during our discussion they responded that the paper citation itself acted as an affidavit requiring the officers to swear that they had seen the offense.  After refusing to write a ticket to an 18-wheeler driver who was at fault for killing a bicyclist in July 2014, an investigating officer from the Mississippi Highway Patrol responded that “[e]ven if there were witnesses, I still have to be there to physically witness [the violation] because I’m on the that has to sign for the affidavit that I physically witnessed this happen.” This sounded illogical, considering all of the crimes police investigate without witnessing the incident first-hand. So, we did some more digging...

To understand this issue better, we next reviewed a MS Uniform Traffic Ticket. The ticket reads, in pertinent part, as follows:

 

  • In the Court designated below, the [police officer] herein being duly sworn, upon oath, does depose and say at the following location, time, and date [insert specifics of driver and incident]… 

 

  • That the above-named defendant, while operating the aforementioned motor vehicle did willfully and unlawfully commit the offense of [insert offense]… against the peace and dignity of the State of Mississippi. 

This language does not require an officer to witness the violation first-hand. The officer simply needs to certify that the violation occurred, which could be based on physical evidence or driver statements. 

 

Police departments in other states often have approved policies for issuing tickets. The Cincinnati Police Department instructs its officers to “not issue warnings for violations causing accidents.” Additionally, the Providence Police Department in Rhode Island has a policy to substantiate violations “through physical evidence, witness statements, or admissions of the violation from the offender.” These policies show that police officers should consider circumstantial evidence when deciding whether to ticket an offender, as responding officers aren’t normally present for the offense itself. 

 

Most of the Mississippi case studies that we’ve seen have either:

(i) clear evidence that the driver failed to leave 3 feet when passing a bicyclist (automatically violating the law in the case of a rear-end collision or side-swipe) or

 

(ii) an admission from the driver that he or she caused the impact. Yet no citations are issued.

 

This reasoning defies logic and strays from effective safety enforcement.  The second reason that police officers often use to justify not citing a driver for hitting a bicyclist is that the incident was merely an accident. These officers use “accident” as the opposite of intentional. This is also a bad practice. A true accident is a situation that could not be prevented and happens despite everyone involved not having any fault. These occurrences are extremely rare, such as when an intersection’s traffic light malfunctions and simultaneously displays green in all directions (arguably, this may not even be an accident if the traffic lights were defectively manufactured or programmed). 

 

Crashes caused by a distracted driver or one who fails to leave a safe amount of room while passing are not accidents. Although the driver likely did not intend this result, the driver disregarded a rule of the road and caused the wreck. Such crashes would not have happened but for the driver’s negligence and failure to follow the traffic rules (not drifting from a lane, controlling speed around a blind curve, leaving enough room for a safe pass, etc.). This justification also ignores the principles of effective traffic enforcement after a crash. 

Some have suggested other reasons as to why police officers don’t ticket at-fault drivers for hitting bicyclists.  Maybe there’s a bias against people on bicycles? Perhaps officers don’t want to appear in court to help prosecute the ticket? Or maybe there’s a general misunderstanding of the laws that apply to bicyclists? In fact, all theories could be correct, which is why Bike Walk Mississippi decided to bring officers and advocates together around the same table to form the larger conversation on how to actually change this practice. The idea was born to have a law enforcement dialog circle focusing on best practices, open-ended questions and productive dialog and discussion to solve these problems.

 

Welcome to the final day of the 2016 Mississippi Bike Walk Summit.

Is there a lack of police training and knowledge about bicycle laws? 

We presented our findings to police departments attending the Summit from across Mississippi. And we asked how Bike Walk Mississippi and Bike Law could help work with officers to change this practice in Mississippi. Law enforcement participants willingly and enthusiastically shared their thoughts. 

Some of the suggestions we heard included: 

 

Lieutenant Roe, Pascagoula suggested that this education needs to begin at the academy level of a police officer’s training. Recently, Pascagoula began a bicycle training program for its officers. This training is now required for all officers in the Pascagoula Police Department. In addition, several Pascagoula officers took the Traffic Skills 101 on-bike course offered at the Summit and plan to become League Certified Instructors (LCI) through the League of American Bicyclist's training program in the coming year. 

 

Trooper Chase Elkins, Mississippi Highway Patrol began his law enforcement career in 2011 and has only worked two bicycle crashes. He attributes this low number of investigations to his job of primarily patrolling interstate and high-speed highways in the lower six counties of Mississippi, where he encounters little bicycle traffic. Trooper Chase is a husband, father of three, and brother of an ironman triathlete. He puts an emphasis on all roadway users being able to return home safely at the end of the day. Trooper Elkins believes that bicycle laws are important for all officers to know. For this to happen, he recommended that each department’s chief needs to be on board with this education and training. Lieutenant Roe agreed that the command staff needs to prioritize this knowledge and training. 

 

Other suggestions indicated that education and training of police officers on bicycle laws would be the best way to begin.

 

Both Melody and I asked whether officers in most police departments seemed to have basic knowledge of the laws that apply to bicyclist in Mississippi. "Not many officers know even the smallest amount about this," said a supervising officer of the Hattiesburg Police Department.

 

How can we change this result?

Bike Walk Mississippi and Bike Law are both dedicated to leading the effort to increase bicycle safety. 

 

The Change Lanes to Pass campaign is leading the way in Mississippi to educate motorists and the general public and now, we want to put a focus on educating police officers on Mississippi bicycle laws.  We are asking them to work with us to make everyone safer on Mississippi roads. To do this, we’ve developed a two-step strategy specifically for engaging and educating law enforcement officers. 

1. Starting with education at the ground-level by introducing bike laws into Mississippi police academies. From the officer feedback we received at the Summit, they feel this approach would be the most efficient and effective way to educate officers - BEFORE they graduate from the academy. This will familiarize future officers with the basics while still in a learning environment, it will also educate them before they decentralize and disperse across the state, where they may be harder to reach for education purposes in the future. 

2. Our next step is to provide continuing education for officers who have already gone through the academy (decades ago for some). We know that Mississippi police officers need accredited continuing education hours every year and thanks to the Biloxi Police Department, the Bike Walk Summit provided the first of many of these credits. Bike Walk Mississippi and Bike Law will subsidize continuing education by holding free classes focused on substantive bike laws in Mississippi and continue to hold dialog circles to continue to open conversation. The hopeful outcome will be a more educated police force and strengthened ties between law enforcement and the bicycling community.

How can YOU help? 

 

We encourage you to join our cause and show your personal commitment to this change.

Please consider supporting the Change Lanes to Pass campaign by making a donation,

joining Bike Walk Mississippi or hosting us for a dialog circle in YOUR community.

 

You are also invited to email us your thoughts and suggestions to: 

Melody (melody@bikewalkmississippi.org) or me (charlie@bikelaw.com).  

 

Find out more about the Change Lanes to Pass Campaign at: www.changelanestopass.com 

For more on lessons learned at the Mississippi Bike Walk Summit, please continue to Part 2 of this series, Lessons from Tennessee