Thursday, October 15, 2009

How I fought the law...and lost

At least now I can check "represent myself in court" off my list. This morning I had to appear before the honorable Robert Aulgur, one of Columbia's three municipal judges, in regard to the time I broke the law back in September.

Ooh, this should be juicy: What did I do? I'm riding my Schwinn on campus, and I run a stop sign. That's when I hear the puny "tweet, tweet" of the police whistle. I brake, prop my bike against a parking meter and watch as Officer Roberts, a short, skinny, self-important-looking man, ceremoniously dismounts his own mountain bike.

He's telling me that what I just did was dangerous, and that in the last bicycle accident he responded to, they had to scrape the girl of the road, so I'd better watch out or I might end up like her. He says he's going to have to write me a ticket, can he please see my license, and I consider the possible repercussions of telling him I don't have one – "Gee, officer, I didn't realize you had to have a driver's license to ride a bike..." – but I think better of it and hand it over.

Oct. 15, court day, rolls around. I check in with the bailiff, a jolly-seeming fellow not preoccupied by legalese. The back of his blue officer's uniform presses into his neck, creating rolls that spill over his collar. His mustache says, "I'm in a position of authority, (but I'm a nice guy)."

I sit in the courtroom for about an hour, listening to a very enlightening Court 101 talk from the judge, and the sentences of the other law-breakers that come before me – mostly noise complaints and two very unfortunate young ladies who can never set foot in the mall again. This isn't the first time the late placement of my name in the alphabet has made me wait.

My turn. No, I don't need to consult with a lawyer; yes, your Honor, I'm guilty. Then he gives me the opportunity to talk about the case. I tell the judge that while I was standing with Roberts, I watched cyclist after cyclist blow through the very same stop sign (my former roommate actually ended up getting a ticket of his own exactly 10 minutes after mine). When I'm stopped on my bike at a stop sign, drivers will regularly wave me on even if they have the right of way. All of this indicates to me that there's a widespread ignorance of cycling laws, and that the solution is not fines and fees, but education. I ask to be placed under supervision to complete a bicycle safety class through PedNet.

The judge tells me he'd rather use his supervisory resources in places that mattered, such as DWI incidents. "Besides, I don't think you need an educational course to teach you how to stop at a stop sign," he says, dryly. "Forty-seven dollars at the violations window. Thank you."

I want to say, "Of course now I know that biking through stop signs is illegal, But what about other issues, like when is it appropriate to ride on sidewalks? Or what are the rules regarding lights and riding at night?" Simply fining people isn't a solution.

It may seem like a simple ruling, but I think there's something wrong. Each defendant who came before the bench with a motorized vehicle violation was given the opportunity to take a driver's improvement course, but when I suggested that I take biker's ed class, I was flatly denied. I understand the logic of not wasting resources, but along with all the good PedNet and GetAbout Columbia are doing, I'd like to see city government taking a more serious approach to safe bicycle commuting as an important alternative to driving.

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