TL;DR summary: Injury bicycle crashes dropped 19 percent after Tampa police stopped writing tickets to scofflaw cyclists when a newspaper investigation revealed possible racial bias in the department’s targeted enforcement.
Background: Biking While Black
In April 2015, the Tampa Bay Times published a “biking while black” report showing that 80% of traffic citations issued to bicycle riders in the city of Tampa, FL are written to African-Americans, although they comprise only 20% of the population.
Tampa PD claimed their proactive policing improves bicycle safety, reduces bicycle theft, and stops other crime in the neighborhoods they patrol, mostly through pretext stops. Pretext stops are a Supreme Court approved method to circumvent Fourth Amendment protections against unreasonable searches and seizures. A traffic or equipment violation of any type is probable cause for the cyclist to be detained and questioned. If you ride no-handed, have a passenger on your bike, lack sufficient lighting and reflectors, or if the police officer believes you’re not riding “as close as practicable to the right-hand curb or edge of the roadway,” you’re subject to a stop and frisk.
The Tampa PD, to their credit, asked the US Department of Justice Office of Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS) to evaluate their policy of targeting people on bikes. COPS looked at the department’s stated goals, crunched some numbers, and found their targeted enforcement of people on bikes had little to no impact on safety, bike theft, or crime in general.
I may discuss the other findings in this report later, but I’d like to focus on the wider implications of the first set of findings, which deal with the relation between bicycle traffic stops and bicycle safety.
I lifted this table from the COPS report An Examination of Racial Disparities in Bicycle Stops and Citations Made by the Tampa Police Department. “After TBT Article” shows the time period after the Tampa Bay Times published their biking while black story in April 2015, after which Tampa police suspended their enhanced enforcement of traffic law on cyclists.
The COPS researchers asked “Do bicycle stops reduce the number of bicycle crashes?” They highlight their findings in this narrative:
After the publication of the TBT article on bicycle citations in Tampa, there was a sharp reduction in the number of bicycle stops and citations compared to the same period (May– October) of 2014: Bicycle stops and citations dropped by approximately 45 percent and 69 percent, respectively. Further, as the TPD did not require officers to record every bicycle stop prior to May 2015, the actual reduction in the number of bicycle stops may well be greater than these figures indicate. In any case, bicycle stops (and citations) declined sharply after the publication of the TBT article. We can estimate the effect of this large reduction in bicycle law enforcement on bicycle crashes, bicycle recovery, and crime.
Table 6 on page 35 [i.e. the above table] compares the number of bicycle crashes with injuries per month before and after the TBT news story. If bicycle stops are effective in enhancing bicycle safety, then we expect to observe an increase in the number of bicycle crashes after the TPD substantially reduced the number of bicycle stops. The results in table 6, however, contradict this expectation. The number of bicycle crashes per month was roughly 19 percent lower after the reduction in the number of stops than in comparison to the same period in 2014.33 Thus, we find no evidence to support the contention that the TPD’s bicycle law enforcement as practiced in the period of interest was effective in enhancing bicycle safety as measured by the number of bicycle crashes involving injuries.
The researchers continue:
The bicycle safety rationale for making a large number of bicycle stops implicitly assumes that bicycle stops are an effective means of improving bicycle safety. We tested this assumption by comparing the number of bicycle crashes before and after the TPD substantially reduced the number of bicycle stops made. Our analyses find that the TPD’s use of bicycle stops does not appear to improve bicycle safety, as there were fewer crashes after the number of bicycle stops dropped considerably. This result is inconsistent with the notion that bicycle stops as practiced by the TPD in the period of interest are effective in improving bicycle safety.
My personal opposition to even juvenile helmet laws is due in part to its overuse to harass children in some California cities, which in turn discourages them from riding bikes. While this doesn’t apply in Florida, obscure and frequently violated equipment requirements for bells and side reflectors are also frequently used as a pretext to stop the usual suspects.
We can’t know if this very specific example from a few neighborhoods in Tampa, Florida might apply to the rest of the nation, but it fits the narrative of many bicycle safety advocates that enforcement should focus more on those who are capable of causing the most danger and havoc. Supposed Vision Zero efforts that work to correct cyclist misbehavior can be better spent on motorist misbehavior. IMHO.