Politics & Government

Wichita moving to end $87 bike fines and give away 1,200 free headlights

Wichita planner Scott Wadle holds one of the 1,200 bike headlights the city will be distributing for free to the public. The distribution will also include reflectors, bike bells and safety brochures.
Wichita planner Scott Wadle holds one of the 1,200 bike headlights the city will be distributing for free to the public. The distribution will also include reflectors, bike bells and safety brochures. The Wichita Eagle

Weeks after an angry bicycle commuter called the City Council “all idiots” over an $87 ticket for riding a bike without a headlight, Wichita leaders are moving toward ditching the fines and providing free lights to riders who need them.

The Bicycle and Pedestrian Advisory Board last week unanimously passed a recommendation that riding without a light at night be treated as an equipment violation, rather than a moving violation that automatically triggers a $20 fine plus $67 in court costs and fees.

A majority of council members this week expressed willingness to entertain that change.

“I think that’s a great idea to consider,” said City Council member Janet Miller. “That’s the beauty of having advisory boards, to look into issues like this and make recommendations.”

If the City Council approves, riders of unlit bicycle would get a “fix-it” ticket and could dispose of the matter without paying a fine, by simply putting a light on their bike and then getting any police officer to sign off that they had corrected the problem.

It’s a process routinely used for correcting automobile violations such as burned-out headlights and tail-lamps.

City Attorney Jennifer Magana said she thinks the council won’t even need to change an ordinance, but can handle it through a policy directive to the city administration.

About 140 bicyclists were cited for headlight violations in 2014, said Scott Wadle, a senior planner who oversees bike and pedestrian matters in the city.

Bicycle enthusiast and Friends University professor Russell Fox voted for the fix-it ticket recommendation last week at his first meeting as a bike-ped board member.

He said it helps accomplish two goals, getting bikers to ride more safely and helping motorists see them and accept them as a normal part of the traffic pattern.

“The (fix-it) ticket is obliging you to spend money on your own safety … and something that’s contributing to overall safety on the road,” Fox said.

The seeds of change were planted Aug. 4 when Chris Brault came to the City Council meeting with a tirade against the bike-light law that started with the memorable phrase: “The only reason I’m here today is you are all idiots.”

Brault, a filmmaker who also works at Subway, said he got written up for $87 for riding home without a light one night when he had to stay late at work and his babysitter was threatening to bail on him if he didn’t come home right away.

Council members said they didn’t exactly appreciate being called idiots, but no hard feelings.

“I think in this business you have to get used to that from time to time,” said council member Bryan Frye.

Frye said Brault had a valid point on the cost of the ticket he got and he’ll support changing bike-light violations to fix-it tickets.

“I’m all for that,” he said. “I was a little surprised that was the penalty for that.”

Riding without a light at night is listed as a $20 fine in the city code. But that fine comes with $67 in add-on costs, many of which have nothing to do with the violation.

Those costs include: $31.50 in standard traffic court cost, a $20.50 payment for the state, $7 for domestic violence programs, $6 for the public defender’s office and $2 for the court technology fund.

Council member Lavonta Williams said that’s too much, especially when the city is trying to encourage more people to use bikes for transportation.

“We are trying to get more riders, we don’t want to penalize them like that,” she said.

On Thursday, council members cut the ribbon on the second phase of the First and Second Street bike lanes project, opening a 3.7-mile crosstown bikeway linking Delano to Crown Heights.

Mayor Jeff Longwell said not only does he want to reduce the headlight penalty to a fix-it ticket, he wants to “figure out how we can match these people up with some free lights like we have in the past.”

On the same day Brault brought his complaint to City Hall, the council approved accepting a $2,000 safety grant from the Kansas Department of Transportation to provide free safety equipment and educational materials to the bicycling community.

Through the grant, Wadle has just received 1,200 bike headlights, 400 bells, 66 reflector sets and 685 bike-safety pamphlets and guides, in English and Spanish, for public distribution. He’s still waiting on another 250 red tail-lights.

The small LED headlights comply with the city’s requirement that they be visible from 500 feet, although Wadle said they’re best for casual or occasional use. He recommended serious night riders invest in a better head- and tail-light set.

He said the plan for distributing the safety equipment will go to the advisory board in a couple of weeks.

A limited number of the items will probably be available at City Hall, he said.

Others potential outlets for distribution include giving them out at bike safety clinics, having police give them to bicyclists they see while on patrol, and holding a “light up the night” event to distribute lights to riders on the city’s bike paths.

Those wanting more information on the distribution of bike safety equipment can call Wadle at 316-352-4855.

Reach Dion Lefler at 316-268-6527 or dlefler@wichitaeagle.com.

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