Police charge motorist with reckless driving and unsafe passing
Updated July 7, 2014
Jim Brown says that he rarely has unsafe encounters with motorists during his daily bike commute between Cary and Morrisville. His route takes him down Church Street, a narrow but low-traffic local road that runs parallel to Highway 54. But on June 5th, he experienced what he says was his first unsafe close pass on Church Street since he started using it 18 months ago. The driver of a van blasted his horn, passed very closely, then started moving right toward Jim’s bike before clearing him – despite no oncoming traffic in what was otherwise a perfectly safe passing zone. Jim avoided collision and finished his ride home without incident.
From many cyclists, the story would have ended there. Even if a cyclist could read and remember the vehicle license plate, police rarely take enforcement action against dangerous drivers reported by citizens unless there is physical evidence or a corroborating witness. But Jim records video of his rides using a Midland 720p camera mounted on his handlebars. “So it was all caught on camera. I did not think much of it. When I arrived home I looked at the video and then realized how bad this actually was and that the license plate is visible.”
That evening Jim put the video on YouTube and Facebook to share with other cyclists, and sent a message to the Morrisville Police Department with a link to the video.
At 8:30 the next morning, Officer Rodriguez called him back. “[He] said he was very disturbed by what was on the video and he was going to contact the owner of the vehicle and charge the owner with Reckless and Dangerous Driving and illegal passing. This was if I was willing to go to court to state what I felt and experienced so I naturally said of course. Later [that] afternoon I heard back from the officer that the owner has been ticket for the offenses he said and their court date is July 8th.”
“I was really pleased with the response of the Morrisville Police to the video.” says Jim. “I honestly did not think that the police would do much more then maybe send the driver a letter. I did not expect them to actually ticket the driver.”
Use of small HD video cameras by bicyclists has become increasingly popular as the cost of the cameras has decreased. Some models, such as the one Jim uses, can now be purchased for under $100. Bicyclists use the video to document their rides in groups and alone, on and off road, and occasionally record crashes or incidents of harassment. Many of these clips end up on YouTube, where the most unusual or disturbing incidents tend to get the most attention. The online sampling can give a misleading impression of the frequency of problems, but in individual cases the videos have helped bicyclists persuade police to take action by providing clear and compelling evidence of each incident.
Officer Almond of the Morrisville Police Department says that video is invaluable in traffic cases where it is one person’s word against another. “Under North Carolina law, if the offense is a misdemeanor or less, an officer generally cannot write a ticket or make an arrest unless the offense happened in his presence.” The exception, says Almond, is where video or other evidence such as injuries prove that the incident occurred. “Even with the video, the cyclist will still need to come to court to testify.” Without video or other evidence, police can contact the driver and have a discussion, but are unable to do more.
In some cities, bicyclists’ cameras have recorded inappropriate police activity. Eli Damon is a bike commuter who was stopped by police in Hadley, Massachusetts when cycling lawfully in the roadway. He was charged with disorderly conduct for riding on the roadway, and charged with illegal wiretapping when the police discovered his helmet cam. After a lengthy legal battle, all charges were dropped, the city of Hadley was required to pay for Eli’s legal costs, and Hadley police agreed to respect his right to ride on the roadway.
Video also allows viewers to question a bicyclist’s operating behavior. Some videos posted online show bicyclists running red lights and stop signs immediately before collisions or close calls. In other cases, video shows behavior that is safe and legal, but may be misunderstood by some viewers. In Jim Brown’s video, he can be seen riding in the center of the narrow travel lane on Church Street. Some bicyclists have asked why he didn’t ride on the right edge of the road instead. Jim explains:
“Riding down the middle is much safer on this road. As you can see at the end of the clip the van has just 1/2 foot on each side , if that much, from line to line. If I was line riding it would encourage people to squeeze past thus side swiping me or my being run off the road. I and other people refer to that as line riding a much more dangerous position. Take this example maybe that is a 10 foot wide lane. I need 4 1/2 feet if I ride on the side. I need 2 1/2 feet for myself and 2 feet clearance from the passing vehicle. That means there is less than 6 feet for the passing vehicle. That is not enough room […].”
Numerous traffic bicycling education programs and materials encourage this approach when cycling in narrow lanes. The NCDOT publication Streetwise Cycling has this advice: “In very narrow lanes, you may have to ride far enough from the edge to discourage unsafe passing.” Jim says Officer Rodriguez had no issue with his lane position. “He did not ask why I was in the middle of the lane my impression from him was that I had every right to be there. Much as when I’ve had contact with Cary Police.”
One potential pitfall of posting evidence video to a sharing site such as YouTube is that the exposure may invite attempts to discredit the bicyclist as a defense strategy. For instance if a bicyclist has posted to his YouTube channel or Facebook page a series of videos depicting confrontations with motorists or bicycling behaviors that may be interpreted in a negative light, this might be used to undermine the bicyclist’s testimony and status as an innocent victim.
The cycling web site Commute Orlando has the following advice for bicyclists who experience harassment: Don’t escalate the situation. “There is a small, but significant, percentage of the motoring population that is angry and selfish. They will honk or yell at you to get off the road and then speed away like cowards. Let them go. Smile and wave (with all five fingers), or pretend you heard nothing. They will simply move on with their negative selves and you can remember the nice motorist who smiled and waved you through a merge a few minutes before. […] It is rare, but scary, to encounter someone who wants to pick a fight with you. Do not react. Get out of the way, get yourself to a public place or pull off the road and call 911. Producing a cell phone will usually make these bullies go away in a hurry. Get a license plate number and definitely report it.”
Morrisville Police recommend the following when reporting harassment, assault or dangerous driving:
- Note details such as the license plate number, a description of who was driving, and the vehicle make, model and color when possible.
- Call 911 as soon as possible. This allows police to start looking for the vehicle sooner, which helps prove who was driving the vehicle at the time.
- Provide the video file to police as soon as possible. The laptop in a responding officer’s car may be capable of reading digital media cards and playing the video right there on the side of the road. Police don’t need to keep your media card, however; a copy of the file is enough.
- Agree to testify in court. Video is inadequate without witness testimony to support it.
Jim Brown remains enthusiastic about bike commuting. “What took place in this video is not what happens on a typical commute. My commutes are normally very uneventful and a pleasure to ride. […] I truly enjoy this form of transportation. No matter what happens during my day the ride home is relaxing. I enjoy the ride so much that I like to make the ride last at least an hour or more. I really feel that most people I encounter see me everyday out there and respect my place on the road. In the past I have had people tell me at lights that they find me an inspiration in the fact that they have watched me for years riding every day. […] To me riding a bicycle to work is so much less stressful than driving a car to work.”