One of the primary tenets of the American justice system is that ignorance of the law is no excuse.
That is, you’re responsible for obeying it even if you don’t know something is illegal; it’s your responsibility to know the law.
But what if the one who doesn’t know the law is the person charged with enforcing it?
That’s what appears to have happened over the weekend, as cyclist Topher Mathers was forced off the road by a CHP motorcycle cop while riding downhill on Angeles Crest Highway.
Over the weekend I was cited for CVC 21202 as I was descending Angeles Crest Hwy by a CHP motorcycle officer. Before the officer pulled me over, he told me to get onto the shoulder to allow the cars behind me to pass. To note I was coming out of a series of turns and had yet been able to take my eyes off the road ahead of me to check for traffic behind me. Furthermore, the officer’s command was problematic because there is no real shoulder along the crest, just gravel, debris from car and motorcycle accidents and either the side of the San Gabriel Mountains or a cliff. The manner in which the officer engaged me not only startled me but it in fact endangered me. He did not use his siren or lights, he just pulled up alongside of me (well within in 3ft) and began giving commands. He informed me that my “delaying traffic time was over” and in the process forced me to process the situation and defend my actions all while actively descending a mountain. I informed him “I do not need to ride the shoulder.” Once he decided to pull me over he began forcing me onto the shoulder. He became angered, as he was not satisfied by my bicycle’s slowing speed, apparently not accounting for fact that I’m on a bicycle, not a motorcycle and that I am slowing down onto gravel. He initially indicated that he was going to cite me for impeding traffic but I guess he realized it was too hard to prove (less than 5 cars and they had all passed on by then) and ended up citing me for CVC 21202.
I attempted to question the officer once we came to a full stop but by this time I had my phone out and was filming, he became non-responsive.
I don’t even know where to start.
CVC 21202 does in fact require cyclists to ride as far to the right has practicable. However, nothing in California law requires cyclists to ride on the shoulder or to the right of the right limit line; the traffic lane is to the left of the line, and anything to the right is not legally considered part of the roadway.
In addition, if the officer had read a little further, he would have noticed a long list of exceptions under which CVC 21202 does not apply — including any traffic lane too narrow to safely share with a bike and a motor vehicle, which would include virtually every inch of Angeles Crest.
So much for that ticket.
And as Mather suggests, the standard for impeding traffic is a minimum of five vehicles stuck behind a slower vehicle and unable to pass. Again, if there are less than five cars behind, or if the cars can pass — even one at a time — the law does not apply.
Not to mention that common sense should come into play when a rider is busy negotiating a tricky descent.
More troubling than the officer’s ignorance of the law, however, was his use of a motor vehicle as a weapon to force Mather’s bike off the roadway — ignoring the fact that pushing the rider into gravel at speed could result in a potentially deadly fall, whether off the hillside or back into the path of the trailing traffic.
In fact, any use of a motor vehicle — any motor vehicle — to stop a cyclist should be considered deadly force, and its use banned by every department unless the officer’s life, or that of someone else, is in imminent danger. Which was hardly the case here.
Finally, there’s the officer’s ignorance of the physics of bicycling, as he somehow expected a bike rider going downhill at speed to instantly pull over and stop on a dime. Let alone conduct a conversation with a motorcycle rider violating the state’s new three-foot law.
All of which brings up a problem we’ve discussed many times before.
Virtually no law enforcement agency anywhere in the country trains its officers in bike law, and in how bikes operate.
The LAPD is one of the few that offers any training at all. And that only in the form of a interactive video session that all street level officers were required to view, and few remember.
To the best of my knowledge, the CHP doesn’t offer any bike training at all, either in the academy or after officers are on the streets.
And that has to change.
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