The Austin Police Department has increased its enforcement of bicycle traffic laws in an effort to make city streets safer for all Austinites. Austin judges say, as a result, they're seeing more serious bicycle offenses before their bench.
It’s an intentional consequence of the shifted police priorities.
"What our court is all about, is trying to change behavior so that something as simple as running a red light on a bike doesn't turn into a traffic fatality later on," Bianca Bentzin, Austin Criminal Prosecution Division Chief, said.
Instead of a simple fine, culpable cyclists may be sentenced to undergo a course to learn how to responsibly, and legally, ride a bike on city roads.
Preston Tyree is a teacher for the Austin Cycling Association, the group which launched the bicycle safety education course a couple of years ago.
"They write citations for running red lights. They write citations for running stop signs, and they write citations for riding the wrong way in traffic,” he said. “Those are the three big places where people get hit."
After they’re cited, the cyclists pay $25 to learn the rules of the road—a sort of “driver’s ed” for bicyclists.
Tyree says 91 percent of students feel more confident about riding in traffic after the course, and 85 percent say it encourages them to abide by traffic laws.
"They take it back to the courts, they get that fine reduced and it doesn't show up as a moving violation. That's a big thing if you are looking at your insurance rates," Tyree said.
Bentzin thinks the program's working because she has seen very few repeat offenders. Before, they'd have to pay a fine, enroll in a defensive driving course, or take the ticket to trial.
"Trial kind of creates animosity, so we would rather have a more positive, proactive attack on these types of cases," she said.
Both Bentzin and Tyree hope the more than 300 graduates on the road today are examples to other riders of the rules that apply to bikes just the same as cars.
The bulk of bicycle crashes happen between 9 p.m. and 1 a.m. That's why officers increase patrols during those hours.
Police statistics show officers issued nearly 700 tickets in 2010. Last year, that number dropped to fewer than 450.