Through education and enforcement, this is the story of how one police officer
significantly improved the safety of bicyclists on roadways.
Lessons from the 2016 Mississippi Bike Walk Summit: Part 2
Article by Charlie Thomas of Bike Law
Photographs by Dan Henry
Officer Rob Simmons of the Chattanooga Police Department (“CPD”) is not your average policeman. For nearly a decade, he’s been patrolling by bicycle. One recent bicyclist’s death motivated Rob to become perhaps the most effective bicycle policeman ever known — pushing for reform and new safety technology that’s being adopted nationwide. After he accepted Bike Walk Mississippi’s invitation to speak at the Mississippi Get to B Bike Walk Summit, Simmons recounted his journey to a statewide audience at the Summit in Biloxi this past August.
In 2009, David Meek was hit and killed while riding his bicycle on a four lane roadway in Chattanooga. A grand jury declined to indict the at-fault driver. Tension between bicyclists and motorists spiked to a fever pitch. Officer Rob saw an opportunity to address the standoff and improve safety for all roadway users. But one impediment stood in his way: the bicycling community’s lack of faith in police for not properly enforcing rules of the road against culpable drivers in collisions. Few, if any, citations were being issued against drivers who hit bicyclists (as in the case of David Meek).
Rob came up with a four-step plan to reverse this downward spiral. This plan was designed to educate police, motorists, and bicyclists about what traffic laws apply. It was also designed improve safety through enforcement. At the Bike Walk Summit, he shared this plan as a model for the police departments from across Mississippi whose officers attended the presentation.
Officer Rob’s first task was to train his fellow police officers on Tennessee’s bicycle laws. Laws can only be properly enforced when they are understood by those enforcing them. Rob put together a short Bicycling Reference Guide, which was essentially a “Cycling for Dummies” manual. The guide covered issues such as vehicular moving violations and whether a bicyclist needs to have a driver’s license. This bike law training became required for all officers within the CPD.
Once the police department was educated, Rob set out to accomplish the second step: educating bicyclists on their rights and responsibilities on the road. Rob quickly pointed out that cyclists know their rights to the road but don’t know all of their responsibilities. To start this conversation, Rob set out to meet with as many bicyclists as possible. He approached bike shops and clubs to set up meetings where he would lead roundtable discussions and absorb yelling and heated comments for an hour or more.
According to Rob, this venting was therapeutic for the bicycling community. It was also worthwhile for him by allowing a more meaningful conversation to occur. Once the heat faded, Rob held calm and productive discussions with bicyclists about the importance of the rules of the road and negative public perception when bicyclists run red lights or salmon in traffic. The bicycling community bought in and wanted to be part of the change.
Rob was able to move into his third step: educating motorists. To do this, Rob led a program of education, outreach, and enforcement. Rob approached billboard companies to publicize the 3-foot safe passing law, brokering a deal for the companies to use this program as a tax write-off. End result: widespread education of motorists on a key bike law with no out of pocket costs.
Furthermore, Rob worked with the Department of Transportation to place signage on key bicycling corridors. Typical signs include “Bicyclists May Use Full Lane” and “Share the Road”. Rob also had window graphics wrapped onto police cruisers about the 3 foot passing law. He appeared on numerous television and radio news outlets to have open conversations with the community about their thoughts on sharing the road. Regardless of someone’s personal feelings, these discussions focused the community’s attention on these bicycle safety issues.
Finally, Rob was able to take the fourth step of his plan: a new technology to make enforcement of the 3-foot passing law possible. Although Tennessee requires drivers to leave a three-foot distance when passing a cyclist, this distance is tough to judge without riding around holding out yardsticks. From a police officer’s perspective, any citation given should be defensible in court. If a police officer is judging the 3-foot distance between a car and bicyclist from some longer distance away, it would be difficult to irrefutably testify before a judge as to exactly how close the car passed.
Rob sought the advice from police departments across the country who had a 3-foot law, The resounding answer was that the law is impossible to enforce. Rob realized he needed to spearhead a device that would allow officers to enforce this law. He found an engineer in Austin, Texas, who had developed his own bicycle crash detection system. This system used trigonometry and sonar to alert the rider when a car was approaching from behind too closely. Now, the engineer needed to make it work for law enforcement.
Ultimately, Rob and the engineering firm, Codaxus, LLC, developed a product called the C3FT. This device is a handlebar mounted device that measures the number of inches left by a passing vehicle. Rob was quick to point out that he does not receive any sale proceeds from this device, but he is proud that it was his brainchild and that it is now in production.
In Chattanooga, Rob uses this device in two ways:
(1) on patrol while in uniform, and
(2) in sting mode while in plain clothes.
While in sting mode, Rob has two marked units stationed on a roadway where he rides back and forth between them. When a driver makes an illegally-close pass, Rob radios to the unit ahead, who makes the stop. While conducting the stop, Rob will replay the video taken from the GoPro of the unsafe pass. Most often, Rob says that the offending driver had no idea that they had driven so close to the bicyclist and that they did not understand how scary the pass was from the perspective of the bicyclist.
More than 95% of the time, Rob will give the driver the Bicycling Reference Guide, a quick explanation about the importance of leaving additional space when passing a bicyclist (including a picture or two of fatality victims), and a warning rather than a citation. “Understanding has a longer lasting effect than citations,” according to Rob. Of course, citations are warranted for those not willing to voluntarily learn. The C3FT is now being ordered by police departments around the world as the one device that allows them to enforce unsafe passes that leave only the thinnest of margins for serious bodily injury or death.
The result of Rob’s 4-step plan has resulted in a significant decrease in Chattanooga’s bike versus car tension. What about crash rates? This strategy led to a 27% reduction in area crashes, all while increasing the number of riders. Although we can’t clone Officer Rob for use in our own cities, we can learn from his plan – and possibly look forward to a C3FT device coming to a police department near you.
Keep up with Simmon’s continued work in Chattanooga by following the Chattanooga Safe Bicycling Initiative at: www.facebook.com/CHATT.SBI
Written by Charlie Thomas of Bike Law
Don't forget to check out Part 1 of the Series.
How can YOU help support bicycle safety in Mississippi?
We encourage you to join our cause and show your personal commitment to this change.
joining Bike Walk Mississippi or hosting us for a dialog circle in YOUR community.
Find out more about the Change Lanes to Pass Campaign at: www.changelanestopass.com