Has DMV Relapsed Into Its Old Habit of Ripping Off Cyclists?

Photo: Rob Foran
Photo: Rob Foran

Four years after the Department of Motor Vehicles was caught systematically overcharging cyclists who received traffic tickets, the attorney who brought the scandal to light thinks the agency might be making the same mistakes again.

When police ticket people on bicycles, they’re supposed to code the violation differently than a motor vehicle infraction. Driving violations include an $88 surcharge and, potentially, points on the license. Biking violations are always exempt from both.

But for years, DMV appended the extra $88 and license points to cyclists’ fines. Only after attorney Steve Vaccaro revealed the pattern of excessive penalties did DMV correct its practice.

Now Vaccaro suspects that DMV may have relapsed. A cyclist recently showed Vaccaro (whose firm — full disclosure — is a Streetsblog sponsor) the fees for red light violations he received while biking. Each infraction carries the $88 surcharge and license points that by law only apply to motorists.

mandatory_surcharge

It’s just one case so far, but Vaccaro points out that NYPD recently digitized its process of filling out traffic tickets, and the transition could have disrupted the fix DMV instituted four years ago. It wouldn’t be the first time NYPD and DMV put a system in place where something gets lost in translation between the agencies, to the detriment of cyclists.

That’s the hypothesis. And if history is any guide, we can’t count on NYPD and DMV to own up to ripping off people who bike. The proof will have to come from cyclists who get overcharged.

If you were wrongly charged by DMV, the evidence won’t be on your ticket but on the agency’s website. When you log in to pay a fine for a bike violation, the columns for “mandatory surcharge” and “driver violation points” should be blank. If they’re not, you’ve been ripped off by the state.

To ascertain if DMV is repeating its old mistakes, cyclists who’ve been erroneously assessed the surcharge and license points should take a screenshot of their records on the DMV website (it should look like the images in this post) and email it to info@vaccaroandwhite.com.

driver_violation_points

  • Tooscrapps

    Whats up with the three/four citations on one day? Did the officer tail the cyclist through alll these red lights?

  • qrt145

    I recently got two red light tickets at once (cops apparently tailed me across two T intersections before stopping me), but the good news is I didn’t get any surcharges or the escalating repeat offender fine. The ticket clearly contemplates two separate categories: one for motor vehicles and one for cyclists, both of which are listed in the fine schedule on the ticket itself.

    In the example above, I think the cop just coded it wrong. I won’t speculate if that is malice or incompetence. My only advice is never give them your driver license and instead use some other form of ID. I hope that reduces the chances of getting a wrongly coded ticket.

    (On the other hand, maybe it’s possible to get wrongly coded tickets dismissed?)

  • Joe R.

    Exactly. The point of the escalating penalties is to discourage repeat violations after you receive a ticket for the first one. It was never meant to be used in the manner shown in the article. And I’ve never seen it used in that way when dealing with motorists. Motorists will generally get fined once for running a red light, even if they ran several. Only if they run more red lights on another day would the escalating penalties apply.

    This isn’t even getting to the fact it should be legal for cyclists to pass red lights if they can safely do so. The best fix for this problem is to change the law so police don’t waste manpower going after something that’s not even a public safety issue.

  • SteveVaccaro

    The cop coded it as vehicle type “bike”. In each of the four summonses. As clear as day. Somehow the DMV misread that. Four times. I’m thinking it has something to do with a new digital (as opposed to manual, paper format) recording of ticket data.

  • for privacy reasons I didn’t post the tickets themselves but they clearly say “bicycle” in neat typography in the “vehicle type” field. it’s possible that’s not the correct way to code it but it looks very correct.

  • qrt145

    Interesting. I thought that the information went straight from the cop’s computer to the DMV with no need for recoding the information. But maybe that would be too efficient for government work!

  • They can, and do, follow bicyclists to let them “rack up” violations, and the law was written to make repeat violations for motor vehicles extremely costly. But then it also applies the exact same to cyclists, sometimes in the most innocuous of circumstances.

    NYPD officers must know how punitive this is, which makes them really, really nasty for doing this to people on a bike ride where nobody got hurt. There is a WORLD of different consequences for a cyclist inadvertently creating a collision through such an infraction vs. a motorist for doing that. This is horrifically bad policy and it remains in place because our state politicians haven’t heard us scream and torture them over our dissatisfaction with this, compared to what suburban drivers do when someone proposes more statewide red light enforcement cameras (always DOA in the Legislature, they’re right on top of THAT)

  • qrt145

    FWIW mine says “NYC BIKE/SKATE RDLGT” in the violation description on the website, not “NYC REDLIGHT”. Could that be the key difference? Interestingly, my printed ticket also says “NYC REDLIGHT”. Maybe cops just code it that way and leave it to the DMV to figure out the details?

    The page also says “If you plead Guilty to an offense committed while operating a bicycle or in-line skates you are not required to pay a surcharge. Convictions for bicycle/in-line skate offenses do not result in points on your driving record.” Did it also show that text for the tickets you quote, or maybe it only shows up when they are coded correctly?

  • Thing is, it might ONCE IN A WHILE be a minor safety issue.

    That alone has kept all the cycling laws in place exactly as-is.

    The LPI intro was filed in 2016 and still hasn’t made its way through the Council, and the fact that it’s the basis of a pilot now (even though it’s not fully law yet) is the fastest movement we’ve seen on any law change for cyclists in a long time

  • MatthewEH

    In the civilized, foreign land of Washington DC the fine for a bicycle red light violation is $25 with no escalating fee structure for “repeat offense” (in the same goddamned traffic stop?!?)

    This doesn’t seem to have caused a firestorm of scurrilous red-light lawbreaking from the lower fine, as compared to peer cities.

    https://ddot.dc.gov/sites/default/files/dc/sites/ddot/publication/attachments/DC-Bike-Law-Pocket-Guide-Oct2012.pdf (from 2012, but still appears to reflect current law. Under “traffic control device, disobeying”)

  • Joe R.

    The fines and enforcement should reflect the fact it’s at worst a minor safety issue. A $25 fine (and no escalating fees), as in Washington, DC seems about right. And the cops should only go after cyclists who put others in danger with their red light violations.

  • MatthewEH

    I wonder if this is something that the city council could override via elaborating RCNY. “Notwithstanding the provisions of VTL 1110a and 1111(d)-1, a bicycle rider or in-line skater who is stopped for violating traffic laws and has caused no personal injury or property damage may be fined no more than $75. This limit applies to all conduct that prompted the original traffic stop, even if the rider may have violated multiple rules.” At least put a stop to this mishegos within NYC. (I’m too lazy right now to see which specific state statutes are specifically overrideable by a city of a million inhabitants or more.)

  • MatthewEH

    Maybe it’s reasonable if we’re all in Finland where traffic fines are proportional to the offender’s income, and in this case the lawbreaker happens to be a zillionaire.

    Update: I just checked, we don’t live in Finland.

  • Joe R.

    We need to scream at the top of ours lungs about this kind of nonsense. Consider that many people who bike aren’t exactly rich. $1769 is beyond punishment for such people. They might not be able to pay much, if anything, towards the fine. Or if they can, they might be financially set back for many months. We’re talking about an amount which is over a month’s take-home pay if you’re making minimum wage. Even for a professional making 6 figures, this fine can easily be a week’s take-home pay.

    Fines should reflect both the danger posed to society. $25 seems about right here. It’s also enough money, particularly for low wage earners, to still constitute a deterrent.

  • Joe R.

    I’m sure in Finland they won’t even bother to ticket a cyclist for running a red light unless they put someone else in danger. In fact, in Europe there are far fewer red lights to run in the first place because they don’t grossly overuse them like NYC does.

  • MatthewEH

    Sorry to hear about your tickets. None yet for me in, um, near 15 years of NYC cycling now. I’ve been more lucky than good, I imagine.

  • SteveVaccaro

    Yes, the description on the DMV website should say “NYC BIEK/SKATE RDLGT”. If it does not, the ticket was miscoded somehere between the cop writing it and DMV inputting it.

  • SteveVaccaro

    Interesting, but probably something Albany has to do. More fundamentally, why should the City Council have to legislate a fix when the simple fix is to tell cops not to do it? And the simple reason why not is, *no one* tells the cops what to do. They do what they please.

  • Brad Sutton

    Not the same situation, but I was stopped by an officer and given a ticket for running a red in South Williamsburg last October. During the stop he told me multiple times the fine would be $50. When I logged on to pay the fine it was $190. I instead plead not guilty and was given a court date 364 days away. At least I know where I’ll be that day…¯_(?)_/¯

  • qrt145

    Thank you. This is my first in 9 years. While I admit I sometimes take a flexible interpretation of red lights (especially at utterly empty T intersections!), I do avoid running them in front of cops, but this time I failed to notice them.

    It’s not too bad if we amortize it over 9 years, considering the thousands of dollars in transit fares I’ve saved during that time! (I like to be optimistic about it… 🙂

  • Tooscrapps

    If a cyclist rolling reds is such a danger to theirself and others (in Manhattan I hear they’re more dangerous than cars!), why would an officer allow this madman to go through four lights without bringing the rampage to an end.

  • Setty/Steven

    I could have sworn the US constitution had an eighth amendment

  • A fair political argument: in other major US urban areas, what is the effective penalty/escalation for common bicycling traffic offenses? May be some leverage if NYC has far-and-away the worst penalties for routine, non-injury-causing behavior.

  • Joe R.

    As far as I know, no other city has a system of escalating fines that they misuse to increase penalties in the same traffic stop.. There may be other cities with comparable fines for running a red light, but none where you can get a four figure fine for running a few reds in a row.

    This isn’t even getting into the fact NYC’s horrible street environment virtually encourages ignoring traffic laws by all groups. The sheer number of traffic signals, with their poor/nonexistent timing, encourages pedestrians and cyclists to ignore red lights. Congested streets cause motorist road rage with the accompanying dangerous behavior.

    Maybe the question we should be asking instead is why must so many NYC streets have traffic signals every 250 feet? From where I stand easily 90% of them are unnecessary from a safety standpoint. The penalties for running red lights might be mostly moot if the city had so few traffic signals that there was little to be gained from ignoring red lights. As an example, they don’t have an Idaho stop law in the Netherlands but they don’t need it because traffic signals were systematically removed from bike routes (or timed to bicycle speeds in the short segments where they couldn’t be removed)

  • Ken Dodd

    I stop at red lights. Always. Last year I stopped at a red light at 2nd Ave & 11th st, and a cop standing just outside the bike lane on the other side of the intersection nodded and waved me through literally about 2 seconds before the light changed. I, y’know, did as I was told. Got halfway through the intersection and he pointed to the ground next to him and said “stop right there, you’re getting a ticket.” I got about as far as “Are you f*cking kidd….” and he put his hand up to my face and said “save it, I don’t even want to hear it and I don’t care” and went to his car to write the ticket. There were 2 other cyclists stood by their bikes on the sidewalk right by us, and one of them laughed and said “he did exactly the same thing to us.” They said they were going to fight it. I didn’t bother – it’s more trouble than it’s worth for me to guarantee a day off work on a specific date. I just let the rage flourish inside of me and my hatred of the NYPD intensified. They’re one of the worst police departments in the country and it’s no wonder there’s such a lack of respect for the law in this city.

  • Brian Howald

    I’d say that’s entrapment, but what you did isn’t even illegal, since you are allowed to ignore traffic control devices when so instructed by a police or traffic officer. If each of you served as a witness for the others, you stand a chance of having the tickets dismissed.

  • Joe R.

    Your interpretation is 100% correct BUT in court it’ll be the officer’s word against the cyclist’s. Do you really think the officer will admit to waving the cyclist through in front of a judge?

    This brings me to my next point. Given the disgusting tactics used by the NYPD, we cyclists need to do four things:

    1) Always have a camera going so you have video proof of what happened.
    2) If you have a smart phone, immediately post locations where cops are conducting dragnets against cyclists so other cyclists can avoid them.
    3) Always look for police before breaking any traffic laws. No sense making it easy for them to issue us tickets.
    4) Avoid any intersections where you see police, even if it means a few blocks extra riding. As a rule I turn off the street if I see police stopped up ahead, regardless of whether I’m breaking any traffic laws or not. They may be getting donuts, or they may be making life miserable for cyclists. I don’t care to find out which.

  • Joe R.

    One of the worst? At this point I think they’re the worst (the LAPD probably had that honor for a while but now the crown goes to the NYPD). I generally avoid cops whether on foot or on a bike, as in I’ll turn off the road or cross the street if I see one. And I’m not even a minority.

  • Re: the density of traffic signals

    I completely agree about that necessity argument, but it’s a consequence of having pedestrian crosswalks + 5-lane highway avenues. While I can’t see this going away from Sixth Avenue anytime soon, there are so many lopped-off streets along Second and First Avenues that result in T-style intersections with no need for a dedicated green cross-signal. So you COULD introduce different traffic controls, including “vehicular red only” that allows for a caution control / must-yield direction for cyclists crossing against traffic. And, at the very least, knowing that NYPD goes ONLY to those intersections to write tickets, there could be some sort-of coordinated traffic direction response to use manual traffic direction overrides at the intersections where the coast is clear. But nobody is interested in doing either; if you are a cyclist who is not content at coming to a complete stop for 30 seconds every three blocks for a 3-mile commute every single day, you’re a goddamn criminal and you deserve your $1,700 in fines, apparently.

  • BortLicensePlatez

    Avoid cops at all cost. Don’t listen to them, don’t talk to them, don’t even look at them or treat them with any respect or dignity. They don’t give a shit about you or any other person but their god king Trump and Pat Lynch. You learned a valuable lesson that many people are taught at a very, very young age.

  • BortLicensePlatez

    Well, of course they lie. Its important for their self esteem, but more importantly they can then think they’re “just enforcing the law” and not being terrible human beings.

  • Adamlaw

    Correct. We have found this to be a common practice by the NYPD. Then they state in the summons that all four red light violations occurred at the same time.

  • WellAdjustedAndroid

    This. This is the correct answer.

  • Brian Howald

    > Do you really think the officer will admit to waving the cyclist through in front of a judge?

    It’s unlikely, but that’s why I think it’s imperative to be witnesses for each other if at all possible. I know this is practically very difficult, since the hearings would likely be set at different times, but I thought it worth noting.

  • Joe R.

    I got the same nonsense when I was given a sidewalk cycling ticket in 1999. The cop said it would only be $10. Instead, it was $75 plus a dressing down from the judge as if I had raped someone. Meanwhile, people with far worse driving violations got lesser fines and/or somewhat sympathetic responses from the judge. I actually spent some time afterwards writing a bunch of letters to judges and politicians. My money was never refunded, but I like to think I wasted way more than $75 of everyone’s time.

  • Joe R.

    My idea is similar. You have bike signals which are flashing yellow or flashing red, depending upon whether it’s safe to yield, or if you need a full stop for visibility reasons before proceeding. These would be on when motor traffic gets a red. No need to pass an Idaho stop law. DOT can install this signaling to let cyclists proceed on red in as many intersections as it wants right now. By default all T-intersections should get a flashing yellow. Flashing red might be more appropriate for situations where view of the cross street is partially blocked.

  • MatthewEH

    That’s awful. I would’ve fought that on principle.

    There have been some occasions where I’m right by police in easy earshot, waiting at a red light, and I’ll ask “officer, may I go through?” I’ve gotten okays and it hasn’t been a problem.

  • Ken Dodd

    Unfortunately I’m in a work situation at the minute where I really cannot predict whether I’ll be available to fight something like that on any given date. If I was, and I could secure a day off, I would have fought it tooth and nail.

  • Ken Dodd

    Guarantee that judge lived on Long Island and blazed to work in a giant SUV every morning.

  • qrt145

    I have a question I haven’t been able to answer after lots of googling: where exactly are these fines defined? I looked at the VTL and RCNY, I looked through the DMV website, and I can’t find this $190 fine defined anywhere. Who sets it, the state or the city? Is there a table posted somewhere official with the fine schedule or something like that? I found a very nice penalty schedule for the NYC DOT, but I don’t think red light tickets fall under their jurisdiction. Obviously IANAL.

  • MatthewEH

    Necromancing this thread hard, but I got mine yesterday. 4 lights passed, the officer claims. That part of RSD winds, too; no way that he had me in line of sight the whole time unless he was running reds too. Let’s see whether fine escalation applies here or not. Bah.

    I am gonna have to go to court about this. The officer also tacked on a “no audible signaling equipment” violation, but we didn’t discuss this at all. AFAICT, he saw that my bars appeared to be bare and jumped to conclusions.

  • qrt145

    Good luck! I still haven’t have my court date, so I’m not sure whether fine escalation applied or not. I thought it didn’t, but then I heard that you don’t really get to know the amount for sure until you plead guilty or are convicted, so we’ll see.

    It is truly absurd that they gave you 4 tickets at once, especially if the escalating fines apply which could get into the thousands of dollars. I hope you can get at least a couple of them dismissed!

    Just out of curiosity, did you have audible signaling equipment but not on the handlebars?

  • MatthewEH

    I did have audible signaling equipment, but not on the handlebars, yes.

  • qrt145

    I’m happy to report that both of my tickets were dismissed! I didn’t have to say anything in my defense; the judge said that the officer didn’t have clear and convincing evidence. I’m not sure if that was because she didn’t have my ID number or because she seemed befuddled when asked which side of the stop line I was when the light turned red.

    I was in and out in 25 minutes. I must say this is the most efficient encounter I’ve ever had with the DMV! (The other two times were for getting licenses.)

    Based on this experience, I would recommend anyone to take their chances and show up if at all possible.

    I didn’t get to find out if the escalating fines would apply or not. But even if they didn’t, I saved at least $380.

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