St. Petersburg police ticket 16 bicyclists as safety campaign begins

St. Petersburg Bicycle Club members prepare to stop Friday at an intersection where several bikers were ticketed Thursday.

CHERIE DIEZ | Times

St. Petersburg Bicycle Club members prepare to stop Friday at an intersection where several bikers were ticketed Thursday.

ST. PETERSBURG — Kimberly Cooper had a question for the mayor.

During a breakfast meet-and-greet this week, she pressed Mayor Bill Foster on what he was going to do about bicycle safety.

Crack down on bicyclists who disobey the law, Foster told her. "When you see a stop sign, you stop.''

The next day, police ticketed 16 bicyclists for disobeying stop signs or riding more than two abreast. Only a handful of similar tickets had been issued since Jan. 1.

"Operation Share the Road," a city crackdown, was prompted by numerous complaints about bicyclists not following laws, Foster said.

Some bicycle enthusiasts wonder if the city's focus is misplaced.

"It's the people who are drugged up and drunk who aren't going to stop at stop signs," said Cooper, who has relied on a bike for more than 25 years.

In Tampa Bay and around Florida, bicycle regulation long has been the subject of spirited debate. With warm weather and a plethora of bike trails from Citrus County to south Pinellas, bicycle ridership has flourished. But controversy is never far away, usually provoked by tragedy, such as the horrific accident in July 2003 when a Lincoln Continental plowed into 20 cyclists on a St. Petersburg street.

"I figured it was just time to do some education to the biking community," Foster said. "Education as to the great facilities we have for them to ride freely . . . and also education that when you're on the street, the rules of apply to them as well."

City Council member Karl Nurse, whose district sees heavy bike riding on Third Street S, hopes the crackdown spreads the message.

"It would be a friendly gesture if they try to remember they're not the only people on the road," Nurse said.

Tim Butts, president of the St. Petersburg Bicycle Club, said he heard rumors that the city was going to increase enforcement but said no one in the city reached out to him about the enforcement action.

"We have no problems with the level of enforcement of traffic laws," he said. "I'm concerned, and I think all cyclists would be concerned, that they would be enforcing the traffic laws against cyclists and ignoring the much more prevalent behavior of motorists."

Butts was riding with a group of about 50 cyclists Thursday when he encountered the enforcement detail.

He said a police SUV blocked the bicyclists' path near Third Street and Sixth Avenue S. Some cyclists were corralled into a parking lot near the University of South Florida St. Petersburg and ticketed. Others, including Butts, were let go.

Holly Petrak, 33, of Tampa was riding alone in St. Petersburg on Thursday and saw a few police cars near USF St. Pete. She knew there was a stop sign, she said, so she slowed down. But she didn't stop completely.

Petrak, a professional fitness specialist who prefers cycling in St. Petersburg because it has less traffic, rode another block and stopped at a red light. A motorcycle officer pulled up behind her and gave her a $166 ticket for not stopping at the sign.

"I thought there was some dangerous person on the loose," Petrak said. "So I thought they were warning me."

Petrak said she knows she should obey stop signs, but clipping and unclipping her bike shoes slows her down and can make it dangerous when crossing intersections. More motorists would get mad if a group of 50 cyclists stopped at every stop sign, slowing traffic even more, Petrak said.

Foster said he loves the cycling community and wants to do more to promote bicycling. But bicyclists and motorists have to safely share the road, Foster said. "Cars and bikes don't mix."

Ninety-nine bicyclists were killed in Florida last year, including 10 in 2009 in Pinellas County, according to the Florida Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles. That's down from 199 in 2005.

City Council member Steve Kornell said he has received few complaints about bicyclists. But the law is the law, he said. And people should follow it, especially if it helps to make the streets safer.

"I would hope everybody would be respectful of each other," Kornell said. "There's no reason we can't work together and be respectful and polite to one another."

Times news researcher Natalie Watson contributed to this report. Andy Boyle can be reached at aboyle@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8804.

FAST FACTS

Rules of the road

In Florida, the bicycle is legally defined as a vehicle. Bicyclists have the same rights to the roads and must obey the same traffic laws as operators of other vehicles. These include stopping for stop signs and red lights, riding with the flow of traffic, using lights at night and yielding the right of way when entering a road. For the entire law pertaining to bicycles, go to links.tampabay.com.

Source: Florida Bicycle Association, Florida Statutes

St. Petersburg police ticket 16 bicyclists as safety campaign begins 08/27/10 [Last modified: Friday, August 27, 2010 9:00pm]

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