HOUSTON -- Next time you drive past a bicyclist on the streets of Houston, mind your manners. The bike rider just might be an undercover cop.
Houston police have adopted an unorthodox enforcement tactic, deploying plainclothes officers pedaling along streets to catch drivers disobeying a bicycle safety ordinance.
“What that simply means is that there are officers out there on bicycles, dressed as normal citizens, who are just riding around town,” says Mark Eisenman, an HPD assistant chief.
The enforcement effort that started three weeks ago focuses mainly on Houston’s Safe Passing Ordinance, which dictates that drivers should stay at least three feet away from bicyclists they pass on city streets. It also calls for cars and trucks to stay at least six feet behind bicycles they’re following.
Police say they’ve had problems enforcing the ordinance, mainly because it’s difficult for a patrol officer in a passing car to quickly determine whether a driver veers closer than the prescribed three feet.
So HPD officials say they’re deploying undercover officers in high traffic areas like downtown and the Washington corridor. After three weeks and about 80 hours on the streets, police say they’ve handed out only three citations and one warning.
“Really, we haven’t seen any egregious actions,” Eisenman says, adding that most drivers they’ve encountered give bicyclists the legally required three feet.
Still, bicyclists lobbying for safer conditions on Houston streets applauded the effort.
“I think that’s a good idea, because that’s our big complaint for all the cyclists,” said Stephen Klein, one of the riders who pedaled to City Hall to speak to council members on Tuesday.
Cyclists complain drivers routinely act aggressively toward them on city streets, sometimes even trying to force them off the road.
“You stay to the right and you’ll have motorists that’ll come by, they’ll rev their engine real loud,” Klein said. “Or they’ll honk. Or they’ll try to get as close as they can just to let you know that you shouldn’t feel comfortable on the road.”
Mayor Annise Parker touted the undercover sting operations as part of a broader bicycle safety campaign unveiled Tuesday. Expanding bike trails and encouraging bike ridership have become signature initiatives of Parker’s administration, but the efforts have been tragically marred by a series of deadly accidents in which bicyclists have been killed in collisions with motorized vehicles.
The Parker Administration also announced it’s dedicating $50,000 toward a bicycle master plan for Houston, an effort to coordinate a number of initiatives that will vastly expand the city’s network of bike trails. Two years ago, voters passed a $166-million bond issue investing heavily in parks and bike trails. More recently, the Texas Legislature cleared the way for the wide utility easements cutting through the city to be used for hike and bike trails.