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Letter of the Law, Spirit of the Law

November 19, 2010

The story of the unicyclist ticketed for riding on the sidewalk is making the rounds today now that the unicyclist in question, Kyle Peterson, has filed a $3 million lawsuit against the NYPD for violations of his constitutional rights.  Peterson used the wording of the New York City administrative code as a loophole to get his summons dismissed and is now pointing to it as the basis for his lawsuit.

The code defines a bicycle as a “two- or three-wheeled device” propelled by human power – that’s at least one wheel more than a unicycle has, the suit says.
To me, this fits the classic definition of chutzpah: a person who murders his parents and then pleads to the judge for compassion because he’s now an orphan.  I’m not saying that Peterson shouldn’t have fought the summons–we’re all free to use whatever legal gymnastics we like to get out of tickets–but once it was thrown out, I think he should have picked up his unicycle ridden home.  On the street.  (If Peterson was harassed or mistreated by the police while they wrote his summons, that’s a separate story and one that may warrant a lawsuit by itself.)


If the backlash against cyclists these days is a battle of perception, we must consider that only those enmeshed in the world of cycling would really distinguish a unicycle from a bicycle or tricycle.  There’s only one reaction to this silly story if you live in the non-cycling world: bikes, defined as anything with wheels and pedals, don’t belong on the sidewalk.  If the cycle in question had four wheels instead of one, would anyone argue that Peterson was within his rights to pedal on the sidewalk or that he should not have been ticketed because of the narrow definition of the law?

This story got me thinking about the difference between the letter of the law and the spirit of the law.  Most cyclists violate the letter of the law every day, and often there’s little harm that results.  For example, bikes are supposed to have brakes, but a lot of people ride fixies with none and can stop just fine.  Cyclists are required to give hand signals when turning, but do we need to be so strict as to enforce that law if there’s no one around to see them?  Front and rear reflectors are required, but if you do most of your riding during the day they’re not much help, so who is harmed by someone not having them on his bike?  I sometimes ride with lights clipped to my bag or helmet, but not my bike, even though the law clearly instructs me to do the latter.  Am I any less visible because my light is on my back and not my seat tube?


Bells may be the best example.  They are required by New York State law, and while they might be a polite way to get the attention of someone in a bike path during leisurely ride, there’s no way they can be heard above the cacophony of midtown traffic or penetrate the steel and glass cages in which car drivers sit talking on their cellphones.  Yelling at the top of one’s lungs is much more effective.  When police officers ticket cyclists for not having bells, they are wasting valuable resources enforcing a law has few ill effects when violated.  Plus it adds to the impression that the NYPD has it in for cyclists and will use any excuse to harass them.


Peterson, of course, did not violate the letter of the law, but his actions and the nerve with which he filed his lawsuit are a violation of the law’s spirit.  This story is being picked up because of the media’s appetite for sensationalism and triviality–Cue the clown music! Have the art department draw up a clown graphic!–but it also does harm to the cause of safe cycling in New York by obscures giving ammunition to those who think all bikers, whether on one wheel or two, are bunch of scofflaws intent on flouting the law at every opportunity.


People don’t want bikes on the sidewalks because of the risk they can pose to pedestrians or cyclists themselves. (Not to mention the PR problem that comes from whizzing by seniors even with a wide clearance.)  If Peterson was riding there because he felt unsafe in the street, that’s a discussion worth having.  How can we improve conditions so that responsible cyclists don’t have to make that choice?  But when someone uses the letter of the law as an excuse for their bad behavior, responsible cyclists, no matter how many wheels they ride, are put on the defensive.

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