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Go Ahead, Hit a Cyclist. The Cops Might Let It Slide.

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A CAB HIT ME last month.

It struck me head-on, knocking me off my bike as I stood waiting for traffic to clear so I could make a left turn. Here's a sketch:

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I was near the train station at the time, and I assume the cabbie was scanning it for fares, not paying even the slightest attention to where he was steering his minivan. The whole thing was quick and egregious, and my bike was mangled.

But as I got up from the middle of the road, I felt comfort in this simple civic certainty: There will be consequences for this. The police will come, and the dangerous driving will be punished. This cabbie will learn to pay attention.

I was partly right: The cops did come.

But I—and the majority of people I've spoken with since this occurred—misunderstood the way these things work in Portland. The police wouldn't issue a citation, one of the officers who responded told me. That would require an "investigation," and since I wasn't clamoring to go to the hospital and the guy wasn't drunk, police protocol was to let the matter rest. No ticket for the cabbie. No points on his license.

Never mind numerous witnesses who spoke to the police on my behalf. Or that a circuit court judge—who happened to be presiding over community court in the nearby Bud Clark Commons—saw the whole thing. This wasn't worth the paperwork, from a police standpoint. Instead, officers merely helped the cabbie and me exchange information.

It made no sense. In Oregon, it's anywhere from a $60 to $250 fine if you're caught driving while on your cell phone—presumably because legislators want to dissuade the type of inattentive driving that might lead one to hit what the state calls "vulnerable users"—cyclists, pedestrians, people riding animals, construction workers.

Hit one of those users, though? Be on your way!

"This is how it has always been," I was told by Lieutenant Chris Davis, of the Portland Police Bureau Traffic Division. "Since time immemorial."

The police bureau has well-defined criteria for what merits a report. In the case of a car-bike crash, I'd have had to go to the hospital for police action, Davis says. A drunken driver or hit-and-run might also warrant police attention. For car-on-car accidents, the threshold's higher, requiring someone be admitted into one of the city's trauma wards, or damage of at least $1,500 to a vehicle. My bike's not worth $1,500, but it's pretty well demolished.

Davis says cops are allowed to write tickets regardless of damage, but most never do.

"I've gone out to crashes that didn't involve a mandatory report, but I've taken enforcement action anyway because the behavior on someone's part was so egregious," he says. "Typically you'll only see traffic officers do that."

The Multnomah County Sheriff's Office has no such reporting thresholds.

I called Mike Colbach, a former deputy district attorney who now specializes in bicycle crashes. He uses the unfettered rhetoric of the trial lawyer, but I found I identified with many of his points.

"Let me guarantee you this," Colbach tells me. "If that guy would have hit a patrol car, he would have gotten a ticket. In bike cases in general, I'm amazed how often they'll say 'no negligence.' They're second-class citizens, I guess."

I nodded.

Other bike advocates were more resigned to the police inaction.

"Let me guess: The cop basically facilitated an exchange of information," says Jonathan Maus, editor of bikeportland.org, which chronicles bike/car crashes in Portland probably more than anyone else. "They love to do that, because it's so much cleaner and simpler than getting into citations. It's a big problem."

And when I spoke with Rob Sadowsky, executive director of the Bicycle Transportation Alliance, he echoed almost everyone I spoke with for this story:

"You do have the ability to do a citizen citation," he says. "It's a pain in the ass."

Which is what it comes down to if you're hit, but not maimed, on the streets of Portland (by the way, check out our map of the most common car/bike and car/pedestrian crash points in the city). Oregon law allows citizens to issue their own tickets, via a fairly obscure, often misunderstood process ["Ticket to the Man," News, Sept 30, 2010].

The best part about it: In order to file my own citation I'd have to march down to Central Precinct. The cops, of course, need to approve the ticket.

ILLUSTRATION BY MELISSA RACHEL BLACK
  • Illustration by Melissa Rachel Black

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