Tampa, St. Pete police grants aim to help cyclists, motorists share road

Published Nov. 26, 2014

Recently, I was on my bike behind three cars at a traffic light. Next to me a woman rolled down her car window and said, "Why don't you ride on the sidewalk where you belong!"

The next morning I was stopped at a red light in front of a car when a cyclist passed us both and sped through the intersection.

How can we encourage healthy exercise and reduce emissions and traffic when both sides — cyclists and motorists — think the road is solely for them?

Bicyclists have the right to the road, even the entire lane if necessary, but they need to obey the same traffic laws as motorists. I'm pretty confident most bicyclists know the rules, even if some choose to ignore them. I'm not sure about motorists. Do they know our rights, or do they resent that we have them?

The St. Petersburg Police Department will spend $110,000 from a Florida Department of Transportation grant to educate cyclists, motorists and pedestrians. The funds are solely to cover overtime costs for police enforcement but come with education requirements. The Tampa Police Department received a similar grant.

The first to be educated are the police. According to Tampa Police Cpl. Greg Weekes, all officers will be required to view videos produced by the FDOT about laws pertaining to bicyclists and pedestrians. "They must pass tests after each chapter and receive an 80 percent or better score on the overall test or they'll not be allowed to participate in the program," he said.

Tampa police started pulling over violators this month. The St. Petersburg program begins next month and will have three phases. First, officers will hand out a brochure produced by the University of South Florida Center for Transportation Research. The second phase will be to issue warnings. The third phase is tickets. According to St. Petersburg Police spokesman Michael Puetz, the officers intend to be highly visible and not undercover. "It's not a gotcha type of thing," he said. "It's primarily educational."

St. Petersburg Bicycle Club president John Sinibaldi said he welcomes the program. "But it needs to be all-encompassing, aimed at improving the behavior of motorists as well as cyclists."

The club asked the police to ride with them to experience what it's like for a cyclist, but was told officers would need to volunteer.

"It's a safety issue," said Lt. Cleven Wyatt, who will lead the St. Petersburg effort. Officers are trained to face off against loaded guns, but riding a bike on the streets apparently is another matter.

The odds are stacked against cyclists when it comes to sharing the roadways with motorists.

Florida law gives cyclists broad latitude as to where they ride. Generally, it's as far to the right "as practicable," not as possible. This means they can move farther into the travel lane to avoid debris, sand or potholes or to pass another rider or, of course, to make a left turn. They can ride two abreast on many roads. The FDOT advises that travel lanes less than 14 feet wide are too narrow for bikes and cars to share the lane. Bicycling advocates say riders are better off being far enough into narrow travel lanes to discourage motorists from trying to squeeze by.

Keep up with Tampa Bay’s top headlines

Keep up with Tampa Bay’s top headlines

Subscribe to our free DayStarter newsletter

We’ll deliver the latest news and information you need to know every morning.

You’re all signed up!

Want more of our free, weekly newsletters in your inbox? Let’s get started.

Explore all your options

The FDOT this month updated design guidance to recommend 7-foot-wide bike lanes in urban areas, which would allow cyclists better clearance from both passing and parked cars on either side.

Cyclists, meanwhile, should be on their best behavior. A case can be made that cyclists should treat red lights and stop signs differently than motorists.

But under Florida law, cyclists follow the same laws as cars. A few cyclists think stopping ruins their momentum. But nothing ruins a ride like a trip to the ER. And think of the lost opportunity to show courtesy and respect for other vehicles on the road.

That goes both ways. It will take more than this campaign to persuade motorists in a hurry, or who feel inconvenienced, to slow down and give cyclists the space needed to pass safely.

But the most dangerous drivers aren't those who don't like cyclists, it's those who don't even see us because they're distracted. While a motorist in a car versus bike accident will likely feel deep remorse, consequences are far more serious for the cyclist.

The St. Petersburg and Tampa campaigns are scheduled to run through the middle of next year. Let's hope everyone becomes smarter, safer and more tolerant.

Bob Griendling is vice president of the St. Petersburg Bicycle Club and a member of the Mayor's Bicycling and Pedestrian Advisory Committee.