Police keeping eye on bicyclists

Ashland police may be giving out more warnings and tickets to bicyclists in coming months after getting instructions from Police Chief Terry Holderness to watch for bike riders who break traffic laws.

Cyclists are required to follow many of the same laws that car drivers must obey. They can also be slapped with the same hefty fines and court fees.

For example, a cyclist or driver faces a fine and court fees of up to $287 for failing to stop at a red light or stop sign, or for failing to bike or drive on the right side of the road.

Holderness said Ashland police officers have had a tendency to not stop and cite cyclists who are breaking traffic laws. However, some eye-opening statistics prompted him to put more weight on enforcement of laws when it comes to bikers.

In 2010, 26.5 percent of collisions with injuries in Ashland involved cyclists. However, only 2 percent of traffic citations were given out to cyclists, Holderness said.

"Those numbers are out of whack," he said.

Holderness said he has given his officers discretion to either warn cyclists or give them tickets.

"If they want to warn, that's OK. But everyone has been told to at least be thinking about enforcement," he said.

Holderness gave the instructions in February.

Wet weather has kept many cyclists off their bikes in recent weeks. Holderness said it will take at least three months worth of citation statistics to see whether the number of tickets given to cyclists increases.

He said he has not set a quota for cyclist tickets.

Rumors about the new instructions to police officers have caused some cyclists to protest that since cars cause the most injuries during car vs. bike collisions, officers should concentrate on drivers and leave bikers alone.

Holderness said having police officers focus more of their attention on cyclists is meant to increase safety for bikers.

He noted that a cyclist was badly injured last year after blowing through a stop sign while riding on the wrong side of the street.

"A car will do the most damage, but a cyclist is more likely to be injured," Holderness said.

In an effort to reduce the financial sting of a ticket, educate bicyclists and increase their safety, Ashland Municipal Court allows cyclists to take a $70 bike safety class offered through the Ashland Parks and Recreation Department. People who pay for and complete the one-day class will have their fines and fees dismissed, Ashland Municipal Court Judge Pam Burkholder Turner said.

The bicycle diversion program has been in effect for several years, she said.

"The first person I sent didn't want to do it. He had been biking a long time and didn't think he had much to learn. He ended up learning a lot," Turner said. "The instructors are really good. I've sent everyone from juveniles to people who have been biking for 30 years."

Turner said bicyclists who are ticketed are usually shocked that the fines and fees are the same as for a motorist. But she said biking and driving can both be hazardous activities when performed incorrectly, and bicyclists can face an even greater risk of injury.

The next bike safety class is coming up on Saturday, April 9, at The Grove, 1195 E. Main St. It lasts from 8 a.m. until 3 p.m., with half of the time spent in a classroom and the other half spent outside practicing bike skills.

Ashland resident and avid cyclist Bill Heimann, a certified League of American Bicyclists instructor and United States Cycling Federation certified coach, will teach the class.

Heimann said he supports police officers giving tickets to cyclists who break the law for safety reasons, but not because that drums up more potential students for his classes. He noted that the class is open to the general public, as well as people who have chosen to take the class in lieu of paying fines and fees for cycling violations.

Heimann said most people attending the class through the court diversion program don't want to be there in the beginning, but by the end of the day, they are glad they came.

Skills covered include avoiding a collision with a vehicle that turns in front of you, making yourself more visible to drivers, analyzing an intersection, making a quick stop, avoiding obstacles that suddenly appear in front of you and making tight turns, he said.

Heimann said cyclists will also learn some surprising facts. While many think that biking on a sidewalk is safer than cycling in the road or a bike lane, a cyclist is three times more likely to be struck by a car on the sidewalk, even when traveling in the same direction as traffic. A cyclist who bikes against the flow of traffic on the sidewalk is 10 times as likely to be in a collision.

That's because drivers traveling on roads and going in and out of driveways simply aren't watching out for cyclists on sidewalks, he said.

Heimann said a traffic ticket may be hard for a cyclist to swallow, but getting a safety reminder before an accident is better than getting a ticket for breaking the law when you're at fault for crashing into a car.

People interested in pre-registering for the bike safety class can visit www.ashlandparks.recware.com, or call the parks office at 541-488-5340 for registration help.

Heimann encouraged people to pre-register by April 7. He said they can also show up at The Grove and register on the day of the class, but pre-registering will help insure the proper number of instructors for the class size.

If there are more than five students, Heimann said he will be joined by fellow cycling instructor John Colwell.

Staff reporter Vickie Aldous can be reached at 541-479-8199 or vlaldous@yahoo.com.

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