The effectiveness of any law is dependent largely on how it’s enforced. In Pittsburgh, we’re offered a reminder of this fact every winter, as chairs intended to reserve parking spaces begin to dot our neighborhood streets.
While many of us find this practice to be endearing, it is also illegal. The behavior continues simply because we’ve chosen not to enforce the law. Fortunately, little harm comes from this, beyond the occasional neighborly quarrel. If we felt that it was a priority, we would simply enforce the law and the behavior would change.
This rule about effectiveness doesn’t only apply to matters of parking. Last year, following a rash of deaths and injuries to bicyclists inflicted by passing cars, our state Legislature passed a law requiring that motorists give cyclists a 4-foot buffer when passing (and explicitly allowed these motorists to cross a double-yellow line in order to do so).
The cycling community was thrilled. Every cyclist who rides on public roads has had his or her share of close calls with passing cars. Many cyclists have been struck. Some have even lost their lives.
“Finally,” we thought, “we can ride without feeling that little pang of fear every time we hear the sound of an approaching car that sounds a little bit too loud.”
Unfortunately, during the first 13 months this law was on the books, not a single ticket was issued in Pittsburgh. Reached for comment, police commander Scott Schubert added that at least one ticket has been issued since, but that citations have not been frequent.
This is inexcusable. As a frequent bicycle commuter, I can tell you that dangerously close passing is still a serious problem.
When a car gives you a 1-foot buffer, it’s not an annoyance, it’s a warning. It’s a warning that next time that car might be 6 inches closer, 11 inches closer, 13 inches closer. It’s a warning that if you’re not the one who gets hit, that it could be a friend. It could be a relative.
My adorable, 5-foot-tall, white-haired mother started commuting on her bicycle last spring. Forgive the personal nature of this statement, but the thought that our city’s neglect in enforcing this law could result in physical harm to my mother makes me furious, and I hope it makes you furious, too.
When citizens, legislators and police departments agree that a behavior needs to change, they do something about it. For example, as our collective understanding about the dangers of drunken driving has grown, DUI penalties have steadily increased, enforcement has ramped up and drunken driving deaths have fallen. It’s not rocket science. Penalties and enforcement are what influence behavior.
It takes a lot of work to get a law through a state legislature. To our state’s credit, that work is done (for now). The 4-foot rule certainly comes with its own set of challenges to enforcement, but they’re far from insurmountable. Other cities have found ways to save lives. It’s time that we acknowledge what’s at stake and work through those challenges.
The average cost of a DUI in Pittsburgh is over $5,000. A ticket for failing to comply with the 4-foot law costs $25 .
We can’t expect that enforcement of the 4-foot-buffer law will solve all of our problems, but it’s a start.
Joel Levin is a commercial lender and bicycle enthusiast (email@example.com). He blogs at levincentives.blogspot.com.