SANTA CRUZ (October 2009) - Five students sit in Gary Milburn’s classroom, all assigned to traffic school for running stop signs, going the wrong way, or wearing iPod headphones while threading through traffic.
The four men and one woman are quiet, resentful and a little embarrassed to be here, but Milburn’s first comments catch them by surprise. “You’re all here because you did something right,” Milburn says, with complete sincerity. “You rode your bike instead of driving a car.”
In operation since January 2008, Santa Cruz County’s Bicycle Traffic School seeks a tricky balance – to punish and educate scofflaw cyclists, without discouraging them from using environmentally-friendly, emissions-free transportation.
“Basically, this is a cycling town, and we’ve got a lot of riders and a lot of students and a lot of bike lanes,” said Corinne Hyland, bike school coordinator and a county health educator. “But we’ve also got a lot of riders who don’t understand that, in the eyes of the law, your bike is a vehicle and subject to all the rules of the road.”
A ONE-TIME REPRIEVE
To date, 232 cyclists have completed the class, paying a $35 fee instead of a ticket costing as much as $250. Violators get one chance to take the class – any further tickets cost full price.
While cycling tickets are written everywhere in the county, about 80 percent of class participants are white, male, UCSC students. Santa Cruz police have written nearly 400 bicycle citations so far this year – without it being an enforcement priority.
“Whenever there’s a tragic accident we get a lot of pressure to increase enforcement, but we can’t afford to do that all day,” said Santa Cruz Police spokesman Zach Friend. “There are a lot more pressing things we’re working on, like gang issues and these sexual assaults. (But) if we sat at an intersection all day and wrote bicycle tickets, we could really rack up some numbers.”
Santa Cruz County regularly ranks first or second in bicycle accidents per-capita among California’s 58 counties, a statistic that comes as no surprise to anyone traversing local roadways. Narrow streets, potholes, cars parked in bike lanes and distracted drivers pose hazard enough.
But in addition, a substantial minority of local cyclists brazenly sail through stoplights, ride on the wrong side of the street, and dart erratically through traffic – often with iPod earbuds firmly in place - stoking a furious car-versus-bike debate on newspaper letters pages and, occasionally, in the street.
Traffic school has traditionally been available for errant drivers. And since cycling does not require a license, many cyclists have never been taught what laws govern their use of public streets. County health officials hope that Bicycle Traffic School can help fill that education gap, and help bring some order to Santa Cruz’s chaotic streets.
Milburn’s tough-love classroom approach emphasizes a balance of legal rights and responsibilities, common sense and street etiquette. An industrial designer who rides his recumbent bicycle everywhere he goes, Milburn urges cyclists to claim their space on the road, ride confidently and predictably, make eye contact, and to signal their intentions. Above all, he says, be courteous.
“Bikers are often afraid of making car drivers really mad, so they dodge in and out of traffic and stay as far to the right as possible,” Milburn said. “But really, your best defense is to stake out a safe position, ride outside of the ‘door zone’ (of parked cars), and be predictable. Don’t dart in and out.”
While bicyclists justifiably fear getting hit by a car, statistics show that half of all bicycle accidents are solos, Milburn noted, involving only the cyclist and some stationary object. Another 17 percent of accidents are bike vs. bike, and eight percent are bike vs. dog.
Seventeen percent of bicycle accidents are bike versus car, and of those, the fault for the accident is about evenly split between riders and drivers.
THE DREADED "RIGHT HOOK"
Cars turning right are a major cause of bike accidents, a scenario known to cyclists as “a right hook.” When a bike lane also serves as a right turn lane, cyclists continuing straight need to merge to the left and make their intentions clear to traffic approaching from behind.
Bikers should never try and make a left turn from the right-hand side of the road, another frequent cause of collisions. Instead, cyclists should merge into traffic and take the turn from the same position that a car would, Milburn said. If traffic is too heavy or aggressive for safe merging, bikes should make a “box turn,” where they cross the street in the crosswalk from corner to corner, as a pedestrian would.
Riding on the sidewalk is another common violation, and in Santa Cruz is illegal in commercial areas. Helmets are only required for riders under age 18, Milburn said, though brain protection ought to be a high priority for every age.
Also, riding with an earbud in one ear is legal, but having both ears blocked will get you a ticket. Absurdly, talking or texting on a cell phone while riding a bike is legal, though incredibly dangerous.
Unbeknownst to pretty much everyone, cyclists in Santa Cruz are required, by city ordinance, to license their bicycles. No exceptions! But this law is almost never enforced.
Milburn’s recent two-hour class went quickly, but not quickly enough for some participants. One man, ticketed for riding against traffic, gazed around the room in an elaborate display of boredom, and joked about the time he ran his bike into a pedestrian.
Another man, ticketed for riding with headphones on, sent text messages on his phone and thumbed through pamphlets.
But the other students, though rather glum throughout, followed the presentation with interest, and said the information was helpful.
One student, a mover who was caught rolling through a red light, said the $230 price tag on his ticket convinced him to go to traffic school. But this ticket would be his last, he said.
AN URGE TO MERGE
“After listening to this class, I think I’m going to be more aggressive about being in my lane, not dodging over to the right all the time,” he said. “I’m going to try merging into traffic for left turns, instead of making box turns - that ought to save me some time.”
Carley Jennings, a former UCSC student who drove down from Sebastopol to take the class, felt that she is a careful cyclist who didn’t really deserve her $200 ticket.
“I technically ran a stop sign, however, I …stopped to look through the intersection checking for traffic… and I was also wearing a helmet,” Jennings said. But “I felt that it was really good they offer such a cheap alternative to paying for such an expensive ticket.”
As for the students who refuse to listen, Milburn just shrugs. “I’m not going to get through to some of those guys,” he said. “My mission is to get more, better cyclists out on the road. It’s better for everyone.”