Bike Safety: We Require a Revision of the Basics

Jack Cahn, Nancy Ko and Severyn Kozak are members of the Junior State of America (JSA), a student-run political awareness organization for high school students.

Jack Cahn was in the wrong place at the wrong time. It was an early summer morning, and a reckless driver was in a hurry. She made an illegal turn and slammed him off his bike, his head colliding with the car before he toppled to the ground. A crowd of people encircled him as the driver sped away, marking a classic hit-and-run.

Following the accident, Jack provided the police with a license plate number, three witnesses, and the location of the incident. It was a trivial case -- the officers would search up the driver's license plate number, and arrest her on criminal charges. Yet, at the precinct office, his evidence was returned with a shrug. "We'll handle it."

He returned home with $800 in medical fees, a battered bike, a crushed laptop, and no retribution. Days dragged into weeks, weeks into months, and the police continually ignored him -- refusing to even discuss the case. After three months, he finally spoke to the detective responsible for his case. The detective's words were blunt: "You are our least priority."

The negligence of the driver and the police unearths unsettling truths: people often disregard traffic laws, and traffic laws are lackadaisically enforced. This ultimately undermines the safety and stability of our city. With the lack of enforcement, Mayor Michael Bloomberg and the NYPD send a broader message to young people: they're telling us that we can commit minor crimes, and receive no punishment.

Jack's case is not an exception. New York City traffic laws are rarely enforced. Jaywalkers don't fear punishment for breaking the light. Bicyclists, faced with a problematic indifference to biker safety, begin breaking laws themselves; they ignore unsafe bike lanes, ride against traffic, and transitively provide an obstacle for motorists. The drivers, in response, turn a blind eye to pedestrians and bikers alike, forging a hostile street environment. The magnitude of individual crimes is irrelevant; little is done about the issue at all.

The website Transportation Nation reported in the spring of 2012, "Last year, 21 cyclists died in vehicle crashes in New York City. But only two drivers were arrested and local district attorneys are hard pressed to cite convictions for cyclist deaths." Traffic crimes go unpunished and unaddressed, and the reckless remain on the streets.

This issue is especially pertinent today as the magnitude of traffic increases dramatically. The past decade has given rise to a blossoming bike culture within NYC, as growing numbers of city-dwellers turn to the bicycle for leisure, recreation, and transportation. Statistics provided by the Department of Transportation (DOT) indicate that the number of bike commuters has doubled over a period of only four years. As the number of bikers is exponentially increasing, the DOT must make a choice: revise policies, or watch hundreds more suffer from preventable traffic accidents.

Though certain changes, such as the introduction of bike lanes, have already been implemented, they are far from sufficient. Cars simply drive over the lanes because there is no enforcement of traffic laws, and there aren't enough bike lanes to make a substantial impact in the New York metropolis.  In certain neighborhoods throughout the city, bike lanes have been built with a row of parked cars separating the cyclists from moving traffic -- and that's great.

But the majority of the lanes introduced don't have this feature. This is especially worrying, considering the planned "Bike Sharing" program to take effect in March; as the city gears up for mass bicycle transportation, it must ensure the safety of its bikers. We require greater, further-reaching reform. We require a revision of the basics.

First and foremost, the DOT must crack down on traffic law enforcement. A study performed by the Pennsylvania Transportation Institute reveals that driver behavior and compliance reflects the level of law enforcement more than actual street laws. We need enforcement to give meaning to street law.

Finally, the DOT must impart increased awareness of the vast consequences of irresponsible driving to our car drivers, motorcyclists, and bicyclists to minimize future accident rates. They must inspire diligence in citizens through television commercials and public advertisements regarding driver safety -- and not just DUI.