Six bike riders have been killed in the Houston area so far this year, according to advocacy group BikeHouston, but the Houston Police Department is now setting up regular stings for drivers who endanger cyclists.
In March, Houston Police Chief Art Acevedo announced he’d start going after drivers who pass bikes without the minimum three feet of space, using plainclothes bike cops equipped with a high-tech “C3FT” device. It’s part of a push by a number of local politicians, including Mayor Sylvester Turner and Harris County District Attorney Kim Ogg, to make Houston safer for cyclists.
Although Houston’s “safe-passing” ordinance has been in effect since 2013, Houston police never had a good way to measure the space between a passing car and bicycle. With these new gadgets, groups like BikeHouston hope that will change.
A Facebook video, uploaded last week by the Houston Police Department, shows how it works. A sedan zips by a plainclothes bicycle cop, who has a C3FT device attached to his handlebars. The device bounces ultrasonic sound waves against the side of the car, confirming that it passed too closely. The bike cop radios another officer in a patrol car, who pulls the sedan over.
Stings like this have been happening once a week. Robert Irving, the lieutenant of the department's Bicycle Administration and Training Unit, says his six officers have pulled over about a dozen people so far. They’ve issued one citation.
“It’s a new ordinance, so you always need that test case to make sure we’re doing everything correctly,” he said. “We’re still waiting on the first prosecution.”
A cyclist himself, Irving says he’s been pleased with how many drivers seem to be following the law already. Besides, he says, his focus for now is on awareness and training.
Clear Channel has donated space for a billboard. The Central, Eastside and Northeast precincts will soon hold community meetings, where BikeHouston will provide lawn signs. On Thursday, Irving’s bike unit will teach Westside Patrol how to use the C3FT device. Then, on Friday, he’ll join Mayor Sylvester Turner for a Bike to Work Day event.
In the meantime, Irving advises cyclists to travel in groups. “Drivers are emboldened when there’s a solo cyclist,” he said. “But when there are four or five riding, and they can take up the whole lane, I think people just tend to treat them as a motor vehicle.”
Victor Senties, a police department spokesman, said police were still in the process of informing drivers about the new rules. “When you roll something out, you kind of want to go through the educational process before you start — for lack of a better term — dropping paper on people,” he said.
Mary Blitzer agrees with this approach. As Advocacy Director for BikeHouston, Blitzer has worked with the city on a variety of bike-safety initiatives, including the safe-passing ordinance.
“Of course, you’ve got to have the law on the books,” she told the Houston Press in a phone interview. “But then people need to know there’s a law and follow it.”
Blitzer views bike safety as a kind of feedback loop. The more bikes that are on the road, the more drivers would know to look out for riders and the more police would punish drivers who endanger cyclists. That would signal to Houstonians that bike-riding was getting safer — encouraging more city residents to bike to work or school.
She acknowledged that Houston has a lot of work left to do. Houston’s number of yearly traffic fatalities of all types, she said, is about the same as its number of murders. And a 2016 study by the Alliance for Biking & Walking, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit, found that only 0.6 percent of Houstonians bike to work. That puts Houston No. 29 among other major U.S. cities in the rate of cyclist-commuters — ahead of San Antonio and Dallas, but far behind Austin and the three most populous U.S. cities: New York, Chicago and Los Angeles.
Still, Blitzer said she sees promising changes. “There are just more people riding,” she said. “In the  Loop, there’s more of an expectation that you’ll see someone on a bike.”
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She’s also heartened by efforts to create more bike paths in Houston, such as the Houston Bike Plan and the Complete Streets and Transportation Plan, as well as promises by Ogg, the new Harris County District Attorney, to get tougher on drivers who kill cyclists.
The C3FT device has already been adopted by police departments in Austin and Chattanooga, Tennessee. The gizmos are sold by Codaxus, an Austin-based company.
In an email, Christopher Stanton, co-founder of Codaxus, explained how the devices work and why he’d made them. Stanton, who’d started off as a bike activist himself, was inspired to make the C3FT after Austin unveiled its own safe-passing program.
“Officers felt they didn’t have the tools to enforce it,” Stanton wrote. In a growing number of cities, including Houston, drivers who pass too closely will soon lose that excuse.