San Francisco bicyclists have been called "the nation's most politically active," winning huge gains on the streets in the past few years. But when it comes to understanding and protecting our own individual rights, sometimes our success is less impressive. The SFBC office receives, on average, a phone call or visit each week from someone who has been hit or threatened by a vehicle who has little awareness of his or her rights as a cyclist. Should I file a police report? Will insurance cover the damage to my bike? Is "dooring" considered a crime? These are commonly asked questions. It's no surprise that bicyclists are unclear of their rights, given the mixed messages sent by the city's Police Department and District Attorney's Office, which too often dismiss bike/car incidents as insubstantial.
Frustrated with these city departments' lackluster response to this ongoing problem, the SFBC has joined forces with the SF Bicycle Messengers' Association (SFBMA) and the International Longshore & Warehouse Union (ILWU) to create the new Bicyclists' Rights Hotline to help educate cyclists and force better enforcement of the laws. If you've been hit or threatened by a driver, call 415-431-BIKE, x-7 to report the incident. By keeping statistics on police department handling of incidents and the prosecution rate, we should be able to prove the problem and make some changes.
Mona Lisa Wallace, an attorney working to change the policy of the Police Department and District Attorney's Office, said, "By not filing reports on hit-and-run cases, we can't prosecute, and by not prosecuting, we're sending the message to drivers that the best thing to do if you hit someone is flee."
Another encouraging step is a resolution by Supervisor Leslie Katz urging the Police Dept. and the DA's Office to ensure equal treatment of bicyclists under the law. The Resolution, which awaits decision at the Board, asks the departments to do the following: track bike-related incidents and prosecution rates for six months; develop a training program for police officers covering bicyclists' legal rights; and recognize deliberate physical harassment of bicyclists and pedestrians as assault with a deadly weapon.
The SFBC has worked with the police during the past few years on some of these issues with varying success. At the Coalition's request last year, Chief Fred Lau issued two departmental memos reminding all officers of bicyclists' right to the road and the right to have proper police reports taken after traffic collisions. While some top brass within the Department have taken interest in the issue, we have seen little change in the number of complaints from bicyclists: many officers still refuse to take reports or write biased reports in favor of drivers.
If you are involved in a traffic collision, always insist that a police report be taken. You should also take information from the driver at the scene of the crime, including name, phone number, and insurance information. It is also helpful to write a detailed description of the incident, the driver, and the vehicle immediately afterwards so that you don't forget details. (For more helpful hints, see our story, "License To Kill" in this issue.)
Bicyclists' Rights Hotline: 415-431-BIKE, x-7.