CYCLE OF RAGE: State DMV Must Stop Treating Drivers of 30-Pound Bikes The Same as Drivers of 3,200-Pound Cars

George Calderaro slowed down to go through red lights in a quiet residential area — and got more than $2,000 in tickets from the same NYPD officer!
George Calderaro slowed down to go through red lights in a quiet residential area — and got more than $2,000 in tickets from the same NYPD officer!

Cyclists who run red lights at high speeds and endanger pedestrians should be ticketed by the NYPD.

There, I said it.

Now, can we talk about the real world instead of a Steve Cuozzo fantasyland for a second? The NYPD needs to stop ticketing cyclists like they are cars. And the state Department of Motor Vehicles needs to stop charging drivers and cyclists the same fee — $190 for first offense, $375 for second, etc. — for moving through a red light. The fact that car drivers and cyclists are fined the same amount for a dramatically different level of danger, is simply unjust.

Since 2011, drivers have killed 969 pedestrians and cyclists in New York City. Over the same period, cyclists have killed five pedestrians. So break that down: 99.5 percent of victims were killed by car drivers and .5 percent of victims were killed by bicyclists.

The dangers presented by these vehicle operators is different by nearly a factor of a hundred. So it is absurd to treat the danger on the road equally in the summons book.

Speaking of the absurd situation, meet George Calderaro, a community relations director at Columbia University. He’s one of the safest cyclists you’ll ever meet — yet he’s currently on the hook for more than $2,000 in tickets for passing through red lights near his office.

And here’s a nifty twist: all four tickets were written by the same NYPD officer, a guy named Jaeger.

The details are both familiar and infuriating to cyclists.

Here's where George Calderaro got the first of his four "red light" tickets. Photo: Google
Here’s where George Calderaro got the first of his four “red light” tickets. Photo: Google

Calderaro got tickets 1 ($190) and 2 ($375) on Seventh Avenue and 113th and 114th streets in Harlem’s 28th Precinct on Oct. 6, 2016. Here’s how he described them in court testimony:

I am and have been a safe, exemplary daily New York City bike rider for 30 years; I wouldn’t be alive if not. On a weekday morning at 8:30, I was on my way to give a free community presentation for small business owners in Harlem on a relatively deserted street. I paused at a red light and, seeing no cars or pedestrians, proceeded through the red light and the following one, again after pausing to make sure no cars or pedestrians were in the intersection. An unmarked car pulled me over. … I was fined and paid $545 for pausing at two lights on a bike. For context about the inappropriateness of this penalty, a car ticketed for speeding in a school zone is fined $50. To illustrate the lopsidedness of these fines, State Senator Martin Golden has accrued 10 tickets for speeding in school zones for a total of $500, still less than the fine I paid for pausing at an empty intersection. On a bicycle.

Calderaro got tickets 3 ($940) and 4 ($940) in almost the same location — on Seventh Avenue and 114th and 115th streets in Harlem‘s 28th Precinct — on March 8, 2017. Here’s how he described them in court testimony:

I was on the same street on my way to a community meeting and, after my previous experience, rather than pausing, came to a complete stop before proceeding through the empty intersection. The same thing happened: two tickets from the same officer. … I feel that this summons serves no public good but was issued to help officer Jaeger meet some quota or act out some anti-bicyclist bias.

And this is the part that informs the title of this column. Jaeger is obviously under some pressure — whether self-imposed or imposed by his commanding officer — to crack down on cyclists. The fact is, his ultimate boss, Mayor de Blasio, says he need not feel such a pressure.

Back on Aug. 24, during his regular appearance on the Brian Lehrer show, de Blasio was questioned by a woman who claimed she received a ticket for biking on the sidewalk at 6:38 in the morning — a crime she committed because the roadway was too narrow for her to pass safely. The mayor’s answer should be sent to Office Jaeger immediately:

At 6:38 in the morning, I’m a little surprised that the officers did that and they obviously have discretion in these situations. One of the things we’ve emphasized really across all enforcement by NYPD [is] training officers to exercise discretion and look at each individual situation. So I think in a lot of cases officers might say, “Okay this is one where, we’re not going to – we’re not going to sweat it but we do want to remind you don’t do this regularly.”

To Calderaro, this is just the city talking out of both sides of its summons book: The mayor says officers should use their heads but the officer, at least in Calderaro’s case, doesn’t appear to have one.

“Some modicum of reasonable judgment [by the NYPD] should be expected,” he said. “Sitting at an intersection waiting for people who stop at lights then proceed after seeing no traffic seems like entrapment. We have all seen and been annoyed or terrified by dangerous bicyclist going the wrong way on a one-way street or riding on the sidewalk, but this is not a case of reckless endangerment despite the egregious penalty.”

Here's Calderaro with his tickets.
Here’s Calderaro with his tickets.

On the subject of recklessness, the gap between cars and bicycles is also wide. Drivers frequently exceed the speed limit — remember speed cameras? They issued more than 4.5 million tickets in just four years (and those were only around 140 schools and only during school hours and only people who went more than 10 miles per hour over the 25 mph limit!). Only cyclists competing in the Tour de France can get up to such speeds.

And many thousands of pounds more Newtons of force are created when a 3,200-pound car slams into a pedestrian versus a 30-pound bicycle. That’s just physics.

And it’s also politics.

In 2015, Council Member Antonio Reynoso  introduced a resolution calling upon the state legislature to make it legal for cyclists to pass through a red light after stopping — something that has been called “the Idaho stop” because it’s been legal in the Gem State since 1982. Over the years, nine other states and many counties have legalized versions of the Idaho stop, but the very idea is dead in Albany.

Reynoso’s resolution cites basic common sense as its motivation: “Individuals who ride bicycles do not pose the same safety hazards to pedestrians because bicycles generally travel at a slower speed and bicyclists have the ability to more quickly see and respond to surrounding traffic,”

Calderaro certainly agrees, saying that the state’s failure to even take up the Reynoso motion is evidence that government “is less concerned about safety than its retrograde bias against bicycles.”

It also, he added, illustrates “a lack of awareness of urban transportation alternatives.”

For now, it also indicates a lack of money in Calderaro’s pocket. He appealed the two most-recent tickets, but was thrown out of court on Aug. 6. He has paid the full $2,425.

  • ortcutt

    I’m wondering whether pedal-assist bikes will make running red lights less of an issue. They’re expensive, but cheaper than $2,425 in tickets.

  • MB

    Until streets are engineered with even a modicum of thought regarding bicycles, cyclists will continue to go through red lights. Too many streets have their lights timed so that an average to even somewhat fast rider will get caught at light after light after light. It’s insane that an officer can ticket someone numerous times (at the same rate as a car) before warning for what is essentially the same violation, which is committed simply because the road is not designed for them.

    These kinds of tickets are even larger than the amount written on the summons for, what I’d imagine is the majority of NYers, in that most people wont have a few thousands, or perhaps even a few hundred, lying around to pay the fine. They will have to put it on a credit card and then get charged interest as it will take some time before it can be paid off.

    This seems incredibly unfair. Anyone who has eyes and simply walks around this city for a few minutes a day will see drivers go through red lights so frequently it seems as if it must be legal to go on red as long as the light only changed less than 20 seconds prior. I suspect most feel it is their right to go through the red especially if they were “held up” by a turning vehicle or other obstacle and would have made the light had they not been in the way. Way too often there is a police officer sitting in a vehicle in witness of the violations who does absolutely nothing. In fact, while this is only anecdotal, I can’t think of a single time I have ever witnessed a police officer pull over a driver for going through on a red and yet it is something I see occur in front of a police officer daily.

  • Oso Bear

    I find it ridiculous – you’d NEVER find NYPD writing multiple red light tickets for a driver. (which we know a red light ticket for a driver is rare to begin with). Why they wait and follow a bicyclist and don’t pull them over right away so they can nab them twice is absurd.

  • Oso Bear

    In 25+ years of NYC riding I have never seen a driver pulled over for going thru a red. Ever. I have seen a few instances of ticket traps where drivers have been pulled over rolling thru a stop sign. But never for a red light. And anytime I ride my bike I see that happen frequently and it is dangerous and it seems to be “okay” by NYPD for drivers to go thru reds about three seconds late.

  • MatthewEH

    To be entirely fair, the fee is not identical for drivers and for cyclists; there’s an $88 surcharge per ticket that applies to motorists but not properly to cyclists. Previous coverage here has talked about how the state DMV system keeps on backsliding on taking appropriate steps not to charge this fee of cyclists.

    Cold comfort if a third offense is $940, rather than $1028 without the surcharge. A whole 8.6% lower, when the difference in threat to public safety is orders of magnitude.

    Hey Gersh, my number was up Thursday last week on being ridiculously and punitively punished for alleged red light violations, multiple tickets issued in the same stop, yadda yadda. Wanna do a followup with me? I mailed the tips@ line about it too.

    Note to Mayor de Blasio: you need to expend some real political capital to fix this. I will not vote for you in the primary or general election in 2021 if you don’t, and I will encourage friends and fellow travelers to do the same. I may call into Brian Lehrer next time you’re on there to try to deliver this message.

  • Elizabeth F

    NYPD has a habit of watching bikers go through multiple red lights, then giving multiple “consecutive” tickets for that. I have read that all but the first can get thrown out in court.

  • Philip Vegdahl

    I got one red light ticket for turning right on red, and another for not riding in the bike lane when I was about to turn (overturned in court). Since then, I’ve been paranoid about following the absolute letter of the law. I *should* be paranoid about my safety, but instead I’m focused on not making any minor violation. Until NY makes their laws bike friendly, you unfortunately have to ride like that. Otherwise you’re just easy pickings for a cop that needs to make their quota.

  • J

    I live a couple blocks from the location of these tickets – on 115th Street between Adam Clayton Powell (7th) and Frederick Douglass (8th) Boulevards. And I find this ticketing outrageous. It’s NYPD shooting fish in a barrel with little concern for protecting us.

    Meanwhile, every weekday morning cars are speeding down ACP in the same area rushing to beat red lights and making high-speed turns east and west off ACP.

    NYPD needs to learn that traffic enforcement has to focus on what is actually dangerous. That guy riding slowly down the street is the oppposite.

  • sbauman

    The traffic laws were not originally written for bicyclists and pedestrians. They were called vehicle traffic laws and applied only to motor vehicles. Bicyclists and pedestrians were blamed as motor vehicles did not provide the advertised speed improvements.

    Bicyclists were not included until the middle to late 1930’s. One reason was for this was that there was a cycling boom not seen since the 1890’s. This was driven by the depression. The automobile industry needed to stamp out any competition – especially low cost competition.

    Pedestrians were not included NYC’s traffic rules until the mid 1950’s.

    The vehicle traffic laws were not modified for these modes, when they were included.

  • MatthewEH

    Sounds like Mr. Calderado tried this — certainly in the case of his second 2x ticketing — but did not have the extra charge thrown out.

  • Daphna

    Great article. I wish all NYPD Precinct Chiefs and de Blasio would read it.

  • Seth Rosenblum

    De Blasio is term-limited, unless he pulls some Bloomberg stuff he won’t be running in 2021.

  • MatthewEH

    Oh, I see. So the sequence of events was

    1) 2008: term limit extension passed
    2) 2009: Bloomberg re-elected
    3) 2010: term limit extension referendum reverts 1)

    I didn’t realize 3) had happened, or that it affected the mayor’s office fully. (Somehow I think I knew that positions like City Council Speaker were limited to 2 terms, but couldn’t have walked you through all the particulars.)

  • Joe R.

    Unfortunately, it’s probably not mathematically possible for NYC to time most of its traffic signals even for cars, let alone bicycles. That leaves three alternatives, in order from worst to best. One is to allow cyclists to treat reds as yields (yes, yields as a complete stop before proceeding usually isn’t necessary for safety, except in rare cases where lines of sight are poor). This works during off-hours when traffic is light enough that you actually have gaps where you can safely go through red lights. It doesn’t help much during peak hours.

    Two is to systematically start getting rid of traffic signals. NYC has over 12,000 signalized intersections. Most of these traffic lights were never needed for safety. They were put there at the behest of ignorant community boards. My guess is you could get the number of traffic signals in NYC to well under 1,000, and most of those would either be in Manhattan or the “downtown” parts of the outer boroughs. Everywhere else could use roundabouts, stop or yield signs on the minor street, or uncontrolled intersections. This would not only make cycling more efficient, but it would cut down on the pollution caused by motor vehicles making unnecessary stops.

    Three is to just grade separate bike routes so they’re above or below surface streets, avoiding traffic signals altogether. As NYC seems to have no traction for getting rid of traffic signals, this is probably the best long-term solution. Complete grade separation also avoids conflicts with motor vehicles or pedestrians, thereby improving safety, not just travel times. The primary downside is cost but in many cases we can leverage already existing grade-separated highways or railways, and simply hang elevated bike lanes off them.

    If we do nothing, of course cyclists will continue to go through red lights. The time savings are often enormous, to the point of averaging 14 or 15 mph on a trip versus average 5 or 6 mph.

  • Joe R.

    One of the reasons for passing red lights is safety. You avoid being in a pack of accelerating motor vehicles jockeying for position when the light goes green. This still applies even if you’re on an e-bike. E-bikes will help avoid the leg strain from repeatedly starting and stopping. They will also allow you to make more lights by virtue of their speed and faster acceleration. However, they don’t avoid the aforementioned danger. Therefore, at intersections with lots of vehicles waiting there will still be a safety incentive to pass red lights.

  • Joe R.

    They were intentionally not modified as part of the master plan to discourage modes other than the automobile. Also, back then traffic lights and stop signs were quite rare by today’s standards, so it wasn’t considered overly burdensome for cyclists to obey them. That’s not the case nowadays where on some streets a cyclist riding legally will be stopping for 40 seconds every other block.

  • Joe R.

    Minor correction on Only cyclists competing in the Tour de France can get up to such speeds.

    Only cyclists competing in the Tour de France can get up to such speeds for more than a few seconds.

    It’s quite possible for the majority of cyclists to break 25 mph, but this is typically only on downgrades, or with tailwinds. A number of stronger riders can break 25 mph on level roads, but only for a handful of seconds.

  • LCS812

    Infuriating, and typical. I once got a summons for riding on a sidewalk at 2 am in a completely deserted area of Queens. I only did it because the roadway had been stripped and it felt too dangerous to bike on. There probably wasn’t a pedestrian within 5 blocks of where I was. The cops (who, hilariously, drove onto the sidewalk to stop me) were not interested in a discussion and were clearly just out to mess with me. One of them was literally smoking a cigar as he wrote the ticket.

  • Joe R.

    I got one of those in 1999 on a completely empty sidewalk at 10 PM. The irony is I was only briefly on the sidewalk to put a rented tape in the slot at Blockbuster. As with you, they weren’t interested in a discussion. The cop even lied and said it’s only a $10 ticket. The judge fined me $75. I wrote a bunch of letters to legislators and others afterwards to no avail. The city still owes me $75 plus interest as far as I’m concerned. As I was doing nothing dangerous, I shouldn’t have been fined.

    In your case I think it’s even more unjust. Stripped roadways are unsafe to bike on. In Queens with its crazy street layout there may or may not be a parallel route nearby. Therefore often the only realistic alternative is to ride on the sidewalk. So long as you keep your speed reasonable I’m not seeing the harm in doing so.

  • MiklosMeszaros

    Pfft 3,200 pounds? Have cars suddenly been on a weight loss diet no one told me about. Make them that lightweight and I hurl myself into the doors as they cross reds at nearly every intersection throughout the city!

  • Setty/Steven

    I coulda sworn the US Constitution had an Eighth Amendment

  • USbike

    It’s crazy how many traffic lights there are in NYC! The difference in urban planning and civil engineering between the US and the Netherlands is truly night and day. In the States, the default seems to be to put stop signs EVERYWHERE deemed practicable, and then stop lights where the former doesn’t work. The quiet, neighboring village of 1,000 inhabitants from where I grew up in PA now has at least 2 traffic lights (maybe even 3 now), while all the local towns here, even the ones with 6,000-10,000 people, in Zeeland have none at all. Whenever construction happens, it’s also done so much quicker, and still way more meticulous, than anything I’ve ever encountered in the States.

  • jcwconsult

    If a cyclist stops at a red light, checks carefully to be sure there are no possible conflicts with pedestrians, cyclists or motor vehicles – then it is safe for them to proceed through the red light.
    The SAME is true for a car driver. You either ticket both, or neither.

    James C. Walker, National Motorists Association

  • MatthewEH

    So 40 years of this, you know, actually being the law in Idaho is of no importance?

    What if the car driver is wrong? Or didn’t see the pedestrian because of their giant A-pillars?

    Cyclists have much better awareness of their surroundings — and are right *on* the intersections and crosswalks they’re approaching, not separated from them by the length of the hood of their car — and even in the event of an error are likely to cause much less damage and mayhem. What is reasonably safe practice for a person on a bicycle is not reasonable for a driver. THE SITUATIONS ARE NOT THE SAME.

    Your argument is full of crap and so are you.

  • The Dude

    “only people who went more than 10 miles per hour over the 25 mph limit!” – That would mean 35 mph. I feel the author has the right idea since 35 mph is about what the top Tour riders do on a time trial course.

  • jcwconsult

    Nonsense. Anyone who cannot be 100% certain of no conflicts in that situation from the driver’s seat of a car has such poor vision they should turn in their license. I said “checks carefully” which includes being sure of no conflicts behind an A pillar.
    James C. Walker, National Motorists Association

  • Joe R.

    I’m not sure about that. While TDF cyclists absolutely are the only ones who can maintain 35+ mph, such speeds are not out of the realm of ordinary cyclists to reach for a handful of seconds very occasionally. Obviously you need the right conditions, such as a hill or tailwind. I was actually able to top 35 mph very early in my cycling days down a hill not far from where I live. Of course, it took a few years of regular riding before I had sufficient power to reach 35 mph on level roads. And I could only maintain it for a block or two.

  • Joe R.

    You have to look at a bunch of things, not just whether it’s possible. There’s the average level of training drivers receive, which in this country is poor to nonexistent. I think one state still gives out licenses if you can move the car 15 feet forward and 15 feet backwards. Then you have wildly varying car designs. Some car designs prevent you from seeing cross traffic until you’re actually blocking it. Other have great visibility. Finally, there’s the damage potential to others if you screw up. That’s virtually zero for cyclists but can be very high for motorists.

    On the other hand, cyclists and pedestrians both have great visibility at intersections. They also have the benefit of sound and smell. Drivers can’t use these other senses in their cocooned environment. While I certainly think the US has gone overboard using stop signs and traffic signals, this doesn’t imply that what’s safe for a cyclist is safe for a motorist. Some intersections indeed might have good enough lines of sight for most motorists to safely treat red lights as stop or yield signs. However, if that’s the case then the best course of action is to just remove the traffic signal. Other signalized intersections may have good enough visibility only for cyclists to pass reds, but not motorists. A rare few will have such poor visibility that it’s not safe for either to pass red lights. You can prohibit an Idaho stop at such intersections.

    A secondary issue is light timing. If light timing is done primarily for cars, then there’s often little benefit to allowing motorists to pass red lights. They can just wait for a green, drive at the timed speed, and never hit another red light on that road. On the other hand, typical light timing often means cyclists riding legally will hit red lights every few blocks, perhaps even every block. So long as it’s safe to pass these red lights, there’s no good reason not to let them do so.

    Safety is yet another consideration. By passing red lights you avoid being in a pack of accelerating motor vehicles jockeying for position when the light goes green. The oft-recommended advice to cyclists to “hang back” until the pack clears the intersection to avoid this situation is nonsensical. It makes an already bad situation as far as light timing goes even worse.

    Just as we often have different laws for trucks and cars, such as lower speed limits for trucks, or roads where they’re not allowed, you can have slightly different traffic laws for operators of small, light, slow vehicles.

  • Andrew

    The potential to cause damage to others is far greater for a motorist who gets this wrong than for a cyclist who gets this wrong.

    The potential to be the subject of damage is far greater for a cyclist who gets this wrong than for a motorist who gets this wrong.

    Driving laws exist because of the high potential for damage that motorists pose to everyone else. Cyclists have far less potential for damage and have far greater incentive to avoid causing damage in the first place. They don’t need anywhere near the same degree of legal restriction.

  • Joe R.

    Also, in many instances it’s safer for a cyclist to pass a red light, just as it’s often safer for a pedestrian to either cross on red, or cross midblock.

  • Andrew

    Agreed.

  • jcwconsult

    I understand your view, Joe R. and thanks for a thoughtful reply. I just respectfully disagree.
    James C. Walker, National Motorists Association

  • AMH

    If the car driver is riding a bicycle, then you’re correct.

  • jcwconsult

    Thanks for a thoughtful reply, Andrew, I just respectfully disagree. Many driving laws exist because of high damage potentials, others exist due to improper engineering.
    James C. Walker, National Motorists Association

  • jcwconsult

    Do note in Michigan that the pedestrian who crosses without a crosswalk specifically does not have the right of way.
    James C. Walker, National Motorists Association

  • Joe R.

    Neither would a cyclist passing a red light. Nobody here is suggesting that we allow cyclists to go through red lights without even bothering to look. The purpose of a traffic signal is to assign right-of-way to one street or the other. If a cyclist can safely pass a red light after looking for cross traffic, this doesn’t imply they have the right-of-way. It just means we’re allowing them to pass red as a courtesy. If they screw up, they should bear 100% responsibility.

    The problem could largely be rectified (for both cyclists and motorists) by engineering traffic signals so they never go red unless something is crossing AND only stay red for as long as it takes that something to cross. Cyclists go through red lights precisely to avoid sitting there for long periods staring at literally nothing. Arguably, if there is no cross traffic, then stopping for a red light serves no safety purpose whatsoever. It should be incumbent upon the state to engineer safety in the least intrusive manner possible. And I don’t know why motorists aren’t up in arms about this also as it would benefit them as well. If you have to stop at an empty intersection, the state has failed to do its job.

  • jcwconsult

    Arguably, if there is no cross traffic, then stopping for a red light serves no safety purpose whatsoever.
    Agreed, and true for car drivers as well.
    In some cities, lights are timed for progressive greens if the driver is at or near the target travel speed. Making those lights subject to vehicle demand only would disturb complex timing issues.

    Another bad US example is the far-too-common STOP sign, when so many places could have YIELD signs. In many European countries, the STOP sign is pretty rare. Most such circumstances have YIELD or GIVE WAY protocols, meaning you must yield the right of way to any conflicts but do not have to stop if no conflicts are present. I kept track once in the UK on three successive visits totaling over 3,000 miles – we saw a STOP sign about every 800 miles, and only in places where the side vision was totally restricted by a building or a hedge right up the perpendicular travel lanes.

    James C. Walker, National Motorists Association

  • AMH

    I was surprised by the statement that HE was thrown out of court–wonder what the story is there.

  • AMH

    And double-okay if they’re flooring it!

  • AMH

    I wonder if this is the same jackass who pulled up behind my wife and me while we were waiting in the left-turn lane to make a left turn, and blared the siren and yelled through a bullhorn to get in the bike lane. (This was years ago when we were relatively new to cycling, and really rattled us, but then it still would.) Meanwhile, drivers including NYPD use ACP as a racetrack–it’s even worse north of 125th. I hope the city blankets that street with speed cameras.

  • Yes . In CB4 one cyclist got $ 1,800 in fines… this is ridiculous .

  • LimestoneKid

    What the mayor’s response to the woman “who claimed she received a ticket for biking on the sidewalk at 6:38 in the morning” is that she, as a cyclist, has every right to take the entire when she thinks the roadway is too narrow for her to pass safely.

    The mayor would then reassure her that the city is going to start a program to educate drivers in NYC about the need to “Share the Road”.

  • quenchy

    Red lights are red lights for a reason, whether you are in a car, bike or scooter. It is never safe to proceed. What is so hard about following simple traffic stops? If you are going to be late because of traffic stops and signs…well get up earlier then

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