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.

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