EDITORIAL: Cyclist issue needs more thought

Kids riding bikes in the road and interfering with motorists has no simple solution

Categories: Editorial, Opinion

As frustrating as the situation has been — and as tempting as it might be for elected officials to quickly pass a new law or two to address it — the Schenectady City Council did the right thing Tuesday night by taking no immediate action to address the problem of groups of youth bicyclists riding in the streets and interfering with motorists.

That’s not to say that they shouldn’t take action in the future. But rushing to impose a solution that might not only be ineffective but also illegal is not the way to solve this problem.

Some motorists have complained this summer that groups of kids have been riding their bikes in the middle of the road, deliberately slowing traffic, and sometimes harassing motorists by kicking their cars, shouting profanities or spitting on windshields.

This not only is intimidating to drivers, but puts bicyclists in danger of colliding with cars or becoming distracted and falling and injuring themselves.

It’s a legitimate concern for the city, and citizens have a right to demand officials take some kind of action.

On Tuesday, some council members proposed a new city law, a kind of non-classified youth misdemeanor charge, in which the city would seize bicycles from kids engaged in “reckless” trick riding, zig-zagging and popping wheelies in the street.

To get their bikes back, the kids would have to sit and watch a safety video with their parent or guardian. In the case of a borrowed bike, the owner would have to offer proof of ownership to get the bike back.

This just reeks of government overreaction.

How, for instance, would the city identify the bicyclists subject to seizure? What conduct defines an offense?

Would there be some kind of court proceeding or hearing to determine guilt, or would the city just take the bike on a motorist’s word and hold it until the offender did his penance?

Would the kid end up with a criminal record as a result? Would there be subsequent penalties for frequent offenders?

What kind of civil action could the city be exposed to by taking someone’s property without a legal determination of guilt?

See how this kind of response could get complicated real fast, even if the city finds a legal way to dot its I’s and cross its T’s?

Schenectady isn’t the first city to deal with this problem. Several local communities like Rotterdam and others in Schenectady County have had similar problems.

In some cities around the country, like Bethlehem and Allentown in Pennsylvania, officials have taken the tough road, encouraging motorists to submit videos and charging kids with high-level misdemeanors when they harass or intimidate motorists.

If the problem gets much worse, that approach could be one potential solution, although charging adolescents with crimes has its own legal issues in New York. 

Another potential problem with strict enforcement occurred in Tampa Bay, Fla., where police cracked down on cyclists riding without lights at night and riding in traffic.

The enforcement effort resulted in a disproportionate number of minority kids being ticketed by police, raising questions of whether black youth were being unfairly targeted and discriminated against.

Since the kids are now back in school and winter is coming, we’re likely to see the problem ebb for the year. But it likely will kick up again in the spring.

That gives city officials, police, motorists, youth groups, individual bike riders and the legal community time to formulate an approach that might be more effective than simply threatening to seize bikes, potentially without due process.

For instance, continued engagement among police and the youth communities might help discourage the practice or help police identify the most flagrant violators.

City officials could further investigate how existing state motor vehicle laws could be applied and investigate how other communities have dealt with the problem. Maybe local school and municipal boards in and around Schenectady could put their heads together over the winter to share ideas.

Motorists also need to be educated on how to react when faced with such a situation in order to avoid injuring a cyclist or being victimized by some aberrant behavior.

This is a legitimate problem for the City Council to address.

But the council was right to hit the pause button and give itself more time to investigate and consider more potentially effective solutions.

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