Sunday, November 2, 2014

Distracted Policing @ UCLA ?

Erin and her husband are both UCLA staff. She works for the dental school, he works in research admin. Even Junior, their one year old son, attends UCLA, daycare that is, a few days a week. They live in Santa Monica, Ocean Park and they ride their bike to campus whenever possible.

Their commute is not without hurdles, of course. Two freeways to cross, for instance. Also the lack of welcoming bicycle routes in Westwood itself, which forces those on bikes into dangerously close vicinity with vehicles where texting, facebooking, tweeting, hand-held phones, loud music, eating, drinking, applying make-up etc is very common. But on 8/22/2014 a new hurdle appeared in the form of an UCPD patrol car, light flashing, with an officer on a special detail for a "distracted driving" crackdown. At the corner of Westwood and Le Conte, as Erin was entering the campus, the officer intercepted her, and duly issued a ticket for distracted driving. CVC 27400: A person operating a motor vehicle or bicycle may not wear a headset covering, or earplugs in, both ears.

Distracted driving by cyclists? Scientists point to the fact that "windows up" impairs hearing more than a pair of earbuds would, but the law is the law. Not being "all ear" while in traffic can indeed be a problem. On the bike, I personally use all my senses, especially those ears, to recognize the environment around me.

When her husband contacted us about his wife's adventures with the California vehicle code, he expresses it well: "The whole reasoning behind applying identical laws to cyclists and drivers just infuriates me. It is also frustrating that UCPD would penalize a cyclist so severely for such a minor violation when the campus is presumably trying to encourage more sustainable and healthy methods of coming to campus."

Given that driver distraction is involved in a large percentage of traffic fatalities, it is problematic that the enforcement seems to make no distinction between those who may harm others, and those who may harm themselves. Still more worrying is the suspicion that UCPD may use the wrong tools when enforcing distracted driving. These tools seem optimized for ticketing cyclists and fail to reach those whose distraction can do most harm to others. Those who ride a bike already feel very poorly served by the existing road system, second-class citizens on the roads of LA. Should they now also enter the cross-hairs of misguided enforcement?

The ticket will set our cyclist back some $ 197 and may involve two court dates. But how does such punitive enforcement fit with our bicycle friendly campus designation? Is there a bias against cyclists in UCPD police work? How?

An insidious anti-bicycle bias seems embedded in the tools the campus police used here. Compare a vehicle patrol and a bicycle patrol. Each tool offers a different view of the road. The elevated view of the cycling officer and the ease which which the officer on the bike can pass multiple vehicles in stationary or slow traffic, all this makes the bike a perfect tool to detect unsafe activities of drivers as they drive around campus. But put the same officer into a patrol vehicle, and send him on the roads of Westwood, he will complain that you make his work hard or impossible. He just can't observe the multitude of distractions going on around him.

When the cycling policeman can pass and inspect 50 vehicles, the colleague in the driving patrol car may only able to get a view of three or four. Seated inside a patrol vehicle he can barely see what is going on in front and behind his vehicle. His presence is quickly noticed. He may be able to scan the vehicle beside him, but not much more. The car-based officer is virtually blinded with regard to potential distraction occurring near him. But those lovely snow-white ear-buds Erin was wearing when she listened to NPR, these he can spot with ease. If a distracted driving crackdown is conducted from a patrol car, then cyclists suddenly become the perfect target: Easy to spot, easy to stop, easy do deliver the required number of tickets. Distracted policing occurs when the agency fails to recognize the bias inherent in their tools.

In order to learn more about this enforcement activity, and in order to find out how the choice of patrol vehicle can lead to institutional prejudice, we have asked UCPD a few questions:
What was the nature of the distraction crackdown? Was it supported by special funding or outside police officers? 
How many tickets for distracted driving were issued? 
How many of these to cyclists?
How many traffic tickets are written by officers on bicycle patrol?
In order to avoid the bias outlined above, what is your policy of using officers on bicycles to police vehicular traffic and issue tickets for moving violations?

Which still leaves Erin with her $197 citation. UCLA is about education, not punishment. This is why UCLA should have a court approved Bike Education Program that could dismiss a ticket when the recipient of a citation attends an educational course. The benefits of such citation diversion programs are compelling: They allow officers to ticket cyclists more freely, because they know that the program will produce better educated and safer cyclists. Some of these programs are delivered on-line, others require attendance, all should be designed with input from local bike advocacy organisations. Many universities offer such a programs already, including UC Davis and UT Austin. Is it not time for UCLA to have its own? Erin tells us she would love to help to bring this about. Therefore we added a few more questions to UCPD:
Would UCPD be interested to develop a citation diversion program with the local jurisdiction? 
Does the UCPD have a Bike Liaison officer?
Is this officer be prepared to have a meeting with the UCLA Bicycle Academy and other agencies to discuss the establishment a ticket diversion program?
Would you be interested to develop a pilot program on the use of cycling officers to police vehicular traffic?

Some Links:

(Nov 24) The Judge dismissed the case
Still waiting for a substantial answer from UCPD

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