Run 3 Reds on a Bike, Pay $1,500; Hit 10 People With a Car, It’s All Good

Today “Gridlock” Sam Schwartz and Gerard Soffian, both former officials with NYC DOT, said the city should amend laws that treat cyclists and motorists the same. One of their recommendations is to lower the fine for cyclists who run red lights.

“Right now, penalties against bicyclists who run red lights are up to $270 — identical to car driver fines, even though the consequences, in terms of injuring others, are much fewer,” they wrote on CityLand. Schwartz and Soffian suggest a fine of $50, payable to the city Department of Finance, rather than the Traffic Violations Bureau, a Department of Motor Vehicles division that splits ticket revenues with the state.

four_tickets
The four tickets an officer issued to a cyclist on Ninth Avenue in a single traffic stop.

Here’s an example of how screwy the current penalty structure is. The going rate for killing someone with a car while driving without a license in NYC is $500. And depending on where you commit the crime, the DA might let you off with half that much — even if you have an outstanding charge for unlicensed driving.

Meanwhile, because traffic fines generally don’t distinguish between someone in a multi-ton motorized vehicle and someone riding a bicycle, penalties for relatively innocuous cyclist behavior can reach absurd levels compared to the consequences for deadly driving. A cyclist, whom we’ll call Alex, emailed us about a recent NYPD stop on Ninth Avenue.

I was biking down Ninth Ave (like I do every day) and stopping at every red light and waiting until there were no cars, then going, like every biker does. Apparently a cop saw me run a red light and yelled for me to stop but I had headphones in and didn’t hear him. He tailed me for three lights that I ran through until I turned and he cut me off. I got three tickets for running red lights and one for having headphones in. If I’m right, my ticket costs for my first offense in NY are going to cost me about $1,600, plus fees which I’m sure they will spring on me.

The total fine is so high because red light penalties increase for multiple infractions committed within 18 months. The intent is to discourage motorists from repeating a potentially deadly infraction. Applied to cyclists, it can turn into a grossly disproportionate fine for essentially harmless behavior. Alex has yet to receive the official fine, but he calculates that the first red light will run him $278, the second $463, and the third $1,028.

That’s in line with the fines reported for similar traffic stops in the past. In 2010, Gothamist ran a story about a cyclist who was fined $1,555 for running multiple red lights in a single traffic stop.

“I’m going to take it to court only because I don’t have $1,600 to pay them,” Alex writes. “I’m sure I’m not the first or the last person to have this problem but it irritates me that police are using the ‘broken windows’ policy when there are actual criminals who deserve their attention.”

Now, Alex didn’t deny running the lights. But had he sped through an intersection in a car, jumped a curb, hit 10 people on the sidewalk, and killed a child, he may not have been ticketed at all. This is not a formula for safer streets.

  • Question:

    If going through a red on a bike is so dangerous, and the fines are structured so as to discourage multiple risky and illegal violations, why would a cop allow someone to do it three times before stopping him?

    Sure, Alex says he didn’t hear the instructions to pull over after the first instance, but as the Gothamist link shows this isn’t a one-time thing. (Many people have told me that they have also been tailed by cops as they slowly rolled through light after light.)

    If Operation Safe Cycle is truly about safe cycling or changing behavior and not, say, harassment or generating revenue, then we’d certainly want our police department to stop people before they harm others or themselves.

  • MiklosMeszaros

    In this particular case, I hardly have any pity on this ‘Alex’. Your number one defense in riding the streets are your eyes and your ears second. So what does he do, eliminate the second? Its a very close second as well since those are your proverbial eyes on the back of your head.

    So he admits to crossing three lights, if not more. A driver who sees a cyclist just pop into his field is no issue at all when he expects a clear path. Granted, everyone knows no green light in this town really doesn’t mean a clear path, but there are quite a few blind intersections around here. What if the driver attempts to avoid this ‘Alex’ and ends up losing control into a crowd?

    I’m sorry, I think the ticket is valid and just. I drive, bike commute, and take public transportation in this city for more than two decades. If there are no other offenses on his record, I would agree to a reduction, but redirection on to drivers in this case is not an acceptable tactic.

  • Mike

    The red light fines do seem a little harsh, but riding on Ninth Ave with headphones in (and music on so loud that he can’t hear a cop) is both stupid and illegal. He should be harshly penalized for that.

  • You’re correct in a total vacuum. Break the law, deal with it. But it’s not about “this particular case.” As framed by this post — running three lights on your bike versus mowing down 10 people with your car — there’s something perversely wrong with the enforcement and fee structure.

  • Jeff

    I don’t think he should be punished any more harshly than motorists who drive with their windows closed and the radio on.

  • Mike

    Not that I want to come too close to defending how police interact with cyclists, but it’s entirely possible that there was no safe way to get the cyclist’s attention for three blocks. Eventually, the cyclist turned on to a side street, where the cop finally found room to pull in front and catch the guy’s attention. Ninth Ave. has a protected bike lane that is pretty hard to pull a cop car into to get a cyclist’s attention.

  • MiklosMeszaros

    I disagree when the cyclist is the potential catalyst for a driver ‘mowing’ down ten people. I guess your ‘Alex’ would ride away and the driver would have to deal with an error of judgement which would effect many for rest of their lives.

    You position of running a red light being a simple law breaking is far from the truth. In a city as dense as New York, a seemingly small incident of running a red on a bike can have drastic consequence. While I agree that a driver blatantly crossing a red is in no doubt worse, don’t belittle the potential on the cyclist case.

    I don’t agree with this ticket blitz in the least bit. We need regular enforcement across all three groups to get to safer streets. Lets stop making excuses and useless actions such as this blitz and achieve a goal.

  • JarekAF

    “I disagree when the cyclist is the potential catalyst for a driver ‘mowing’ down ten people”

    I don’t follow? How is treating 3 reds as stop signs and safely proceeding through them (albeit, breaking the law, but not being unsafe), in this case, a catalyst for a driver “mowing” down ten people?

    How is this making an excuse? Is it not a fact, that this guy was riding safely, and incurred significantly greater fines, then someone who mowed down 10 ppl while on a suspended license?

  • JarekAF

    harshly penalized for that? Puhlease. Did this article get tweeted out by drudge or something?

  • Brad Aaron

    If you are driving as you should in a dense urban environment, nothing a cyclist does will “cause” you to “lose control” and harm other people. Period.

  • So you’re using a theoretical instance of a driver barely missing a red-light jumping cyclist and then theoretically mowing down ten people while ignoring what was in the post? An actual driver actually mowing down ten people when no cyclist was involved? I don’t follow.

  • MiklosMeszaros

    Because a surprised driver could easily make a jerk reaction and end up on a curb, making contact with pedestrians. Don’t just think about a recent suspended driver story as a case, but as a system in general. The next driver might be a valid driver who happens to run into our ‘Alex’ and attempts avoidance.

    Its a transportation ‘system’ and singling out one aspect isn’t effective. I also don’t see a minor ticket of $50 dollars being a deterrent either. What is lacking in a general sense is a regular enforcement done by a professional group. Things that the NYPD are hardly capable of as they violate the laws even pertaining to themselves more often than parking meter is. I want these high violation costs in place, I want them enforced on a regular basis, I want all parties from drivers to pedestrians to change their habits.

  • MiklosMeszaros

    Your right, a driver should be competent enough to not allow that to occur. Unfortunately this isn’t the case and even if one state increased their driving examinations to be stringent enough, another 49 states would need to follow.

    Have you ever been in a car with a driver in NYC that the first thing that crossed your mind was getting the hell out of the car? Yeah, we have plenty of those.

  • Joe R.

    Because a surprised driver could easily make a jerk reaction and end up on a curb, making contact with pedestrians.

    You’re assuming that a cyclist will be passing a red light right as a motorist is in or near the intersection. That’s not how it usually works. Some cyclists may do that, but most don’t cut it so close that a driver will be surprised by them. I typically won’t pass a red light if approaching traffic is one block away or closer.

    On the headphones, yes, I agree there. Anyone who does anything to dull their sense of hearing while riding is a danger to themselves.

  • MiklosMeszaros

    So this ‘Alex’ is an example person who demonstrates a lack of better judgement. We also have cyclists who ride drunk, stoned, and distracted by a variety of things. Very much the same as drivers, but agreeably a smaller threat to the general public.

    I’m not really assuming, I’ve seen similar situations where the cyclist ended on the hood of a car. Planning safe traffic patterns in a city like New York requires designs for somewhat above reasonable measures to achieve safety. The growth of cycling as a mode of transportation is an excellent effort which far greater funds than is currently invested should be made. Its low pollution, high capacity, low cost method with positive health benefits that is sorely needed in this country.

    I would support elevated pathways much like the SkyCycle concept, public secure bike parking systems similar to Japan and German solutions, and improved street markings throughout the city. Drivers residing in New York should be required an instructional course to keep the cooperative road rules present in their minds.

    What we have here with BIll de Blasio and his Vision Zero crackdown plan will result in small overall changes at best. Not the kind that really would move the city forward.

  • Joe R.

    Totally agree on all your points, especially the part about elevated bikeways. Providing cyclists with the infrastructure to complete 95% of their journeys on nonstop elevated bikeways would go a long way towards getting them to comply with traffic controls the 5% of the time they’re on surface streets. Remember part of the reason cyclists tend to run red lights in this city is because there are just way too many of them. On some streets you could be stopping every block or two. That could be 100 stops in a 10 mile journey. It’s unrealistic to expect any human being to be able to do that. If you can do 9.5 of those 10 miles on an elevated bikeway, you’ll only need to stop a few times. That’s a lot more reasonable.

    And then there’s also the safety angle. Yes, no argument if you run a red light improperly that it can be dangerous. However, if you wait for the green light being in a pack of cars jockeying around position can be equally dangerous for the cyclist. The best solution is to build infrastructure which avoids putting cyclists in situations where they face a choice of danger/grossly increased journey times, or disobeying the laws.

  • Guest

    I’m really surprised the Idaho law hasn’t made it to other states yet. While comments on articles about it are surely wacky – everyone assuming that it must mean cyclists will just fly through reds – it seems to have worked well enough in Idaho that they haven’t reverted back.

  • Andy

    I’m really surprised the Idaho law hasn’t made it to other states yet.
    While comments on articles about it are surely wacky – everyone assuming
    that it must mean cyclists will just fly through reds – it seems to
    have worked well enough in Idaho that they haven’t reverted back.

  • Joe R.

    That makes two of us. For those who might say the Idaho stop only works in places like, well, Idaho, and not NYC, Paris and other European cities are doing something similar:

    http://www.wnyc.org/story/285662-european-cities-allowing-bikes-to-run-red-lights/

  • Wylie

    lol what the fuck are you talking about? The discussion isn’t about that

  • Zulu

    A couple of hours ago I just witnessed how the bicyclist in front of me ran a red light in front of the NYPD squad car on 120th St and 3rd, then again on 120th and 2nd and once more on 120th and 1st. I stopped on all three (next to the cop) and thought to myself: “oh well, I must be the only fool getting red light tickets on my bike in this place!” As soon as I finish my thought I hear the squad car accelerate tremendously and catch up with the cyclist on the intersection of 120th and Pleasant Ave. In all three intersections the cop had the opportunity to stop the cyclist as he was the first vehicle waiting for the red light to change. The cop was simply baiting the cyclist so he could run up the ticket count.

    I was lucky after all, when I got my red light ticket the cop had the decency to stop me after only running one light. For the record (not that it matters) my intersection was clear of vehicles and pedestrians and the pedestrian signals where red. If indeed I ran the light it was by a couple seconds before it turned to red.

    FYI, don’t pay the ticket online or you’ll have to pay the $88 surcharge and you get 3 points on your license like Steve Vaccaro mentioned on a prior post. Go to the website and call the “customer service” line. Tell them that you were on a bicycle and they will adjust the ticket to reflect the correct fine amount, then you can pay over the phone.

  • Zulu

    BTW the intersections the bicyclist in front of me went through were also clear of traffic and pedestrians. Had I not received a red light tickets weeks ago I would’ve had gone through them myself. The only reason I didn’t was because the cop was there.

  • NYer

    Truly pathetic. There are hundreds of thousands of truly dangerous traffic incidents every day on the streets of NYC worthy of enforcement. And this is what the police are focused on?

    Mayor Bill de Blasio: The way NYPD is executing Vision Zero is just a joke.

  • Zulu

    A couple days after I got a red light ticket on my bike the driver of a double decker tourist bus in Times Square lunged through a red light and rear ended another bus, knocking down a pole and injuring 14 people. Yes, the driver got arrested because the cops thought he was drunk or high, but once they ran the tests and came back negative he was left free. Somebody correct me if I’m wrong, but I believe he didn’t even get a ticket, moving violation or anything remotely close to what bicyclists are getting for running a red light.

    I’m going to try that next time I get pulled over, “sorry officer but my brakes must have failed!” or “oops, sorry I didn’t see that light turn red”, or the classic “I confused the gas pedal for the brake, can I go home now?”

    Bill de Basio: Vision Zero Common Sense

  • Nathanael

    The way the NYPD is executing it, it should be called “Vision Kill More Pedestrians”. Pathetic.

  • Nathanael

    He could have been charged with running a red light, failure to control his vehicle, following too closely, reckless driving, etc. Even if it was all “mistakes”, his commercial license can be revoked.

    The NYPD simply chooses to let motorists get away with this sort of reckless driving, because the NYPD is a criminal gang. It has to be cleaned out from the top, starting with the arrest of Commissioner Bratton. I don’t see how else to do it.

  • Matthias

    A simpler solution could be just retiming the traffic lights for lower speeds so that bicyclists do not encounter a red light every 2 blocks. That and allowing bicyclists to yield at red lights (but not blow through them) would go a long way toward making streets safer and more bicycle-friendly.

  • Andres Dee

    Last night, looking down from the bus, I spotted a motorist with “sun shades” drawn over all windows except the driver’s, no doubt to hide from witnesses and cops that he was using a handheld. You catch motorists doing a lot of interesting things looking down from a bus.

  • Joe R.

    So long as you still allow yielding at red lights, that would make things much better. It might mean the difference between passing a red light every 2 or 3 blocks versus one every mile or two. I feel things will get slightly better shortly as the new 25 mph speed limit goes into effect and we have more 20 mph zones. If we retime lights on 25 mph arterials for the speed limit or a few mph less, they will be somewhat more cyclist friendly than 30 mph timing, even though they still won’t be ideal for most riders. If we do the same in 20 mph zones we might have 17 or 18 mph light timing. That’s actually not bad for many cyclists. Even your average 13 mph rider won’t encounter many red lights with 17-18 mph timing.

  • You’re right.

    While it’s true that the comparative penalties for a bicyclist blowing a light with no consequences and for a driver killing someone are obscene, this does not absolve the cyclist from the responsibility to obey the law.

    This bicyclist admits to passing red lights. (Oh! but only when there were no cars — as though he has the right to unilaterally substitute his judgement for the law.) Furthermore, he freely admits to having headphones on so loud that he didn’t hear a cop yelling at him.

    And someone is going to tell me that we bicyclists don’t have a culture of lawlessness? This guy himself says he ran the red lights “like every biker does”. He presents this perception of what “every biker does” as a self-serving justification; the rest of society sees it with an understandable resentment.

    Despite the danger posed to us bicyclists by drivers, the overwhelming majority of whom are incompetent and negligent, the worst enemy of bicyclists remains bicyclists ourselves. Following the law is not optional. When we treat it as such, we undermine our moral standing to point the finger at the truly dangerous lawbreakers (namely, drivers); and we damage efforts to change the law for the better to accommodate the reality that bicycles are not cars.

  • lop

    So long as you still allow yielding at red lights, that would make things much better

    At night, sure. But most people are awake during the day when it won’t matter as much, and light timing is more important.

  • Cold Shoaler

    Cop cars have sirens and PA speakers. The officer didn’t need to shout or wait for 3 infractions to initiate a stop. Using verbal commands over loud speakers would be far safer than pulling a cruise in front of a cyclist. It’s my understanding that cops need special training before they can stop a car for a moving violation. Does that extend to a case like this?

  • roomidoomi

    in CA, i got hit with a 400$ fine… for 1 red light….. at a T intersection….. i was going through the red on the through-road… fucking pathetic.

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