Close Encounters with the Cycling Police: Law and Order, Montreal Style

American Voyeur. Photo Nick Janke Bicycles. American Voyeur. Photo Nick Janke

Montreal cyclists are either incredibly fearless or plain dumb. We often don’t wear helmets, we entrust our lives to the broken down Bixis available for rent on street corners, we bike well into the dead of winter and, for the better part of those trying to get to school or work in the morning, traffic lights and signals are merely a suggestion. Being a Montreal cyclist myself the only thing that stopped me from cycling well into January was a set of frozen brakes, a sense of self-preservation, and a slap on the wrist from a concerned, but well-meaning police officer.

It was the first week of November and it was unseasonably cold—so cold that I eschewed the safety of a helmet to protect me from the dangerous circus of the De Maisonneuve bike path at 9 in the morning for a warm toque. I was well aware of most cycling laws and regulations but I had yet to be stopped by the police for this minor infraction, not to mention I wasn’t going very far, just to Concordia. I was well rested, had just enjoyed a delicious breakfast with my family, and I was even going to be early for class: this was going to be a good day.

“ARRETEZ MADEMOISELLE”

I slammed on my breaks and looked over. A police officer in a yellow vest was signaling me to pull over to the side of the street. My first instinct was to leave. He wasn’t really going to follow me, right? But when he came right up to me, I couldn’t move. My hands were literally frozen to my handlebars it was so cold out and I started to panic.

“Is there a problem officer?” I asked. I’ve experienced this scene hundreds of times; in the movies, on TV, occasionally on the street. I’ve even been in a car pulled over by a state trooper on the highway. But that’s just it; I’ve been the voyeur to encounters with the police, and the first time it finally happened to me, I had no idea what to do. He rather pointedly told me that I had run a red light (even though in actual fact it was still a green light and I had run the Red Person of Stop-Here-And-Let-The-Cars-Go-Because-This-Is-A-Yield-Sign-For-Pedestrians and had therefore not broken any cycling laws, look it up) and took down my information before leaving me to stew on my bike seat for another 10 minutes. I checked my phone: 10:12. I was going to be late for class. I nearly broke down right then and there but hurriedly pulled out my phone and did the only thing that made any sense.

Yes, I called my father. He would know what to do, right? Dad, I just got pulled over by the police on the corner of so-and-so.

Sit tight, was the only solace he could offer. And are you wearing a helmet??

As the minutes slowly ticked by and I grew even more tardy for class, I understood that this stewing in ones juices was part of the sadistic game played by the Montreal police. Instead of literally beating you into submission, they’ll just make you so late for all your appointments and engagements that you’ll have no choice but to follow the law in the future or risk being detained even further.

Ten minutes later, the officer returned and handed me a white slip of paper. I opened it and 3 and a half feet of cycling ticket unfolded itself. I looked at him in disbelief but he was already walking away. By the time I got home that day, I was fuming… and crying a little bit. The ticket was only forty dollars but it was still humiliating to watch other cyclists go by, blatantly causing the same infraction that I was getting punished for without the repercussions. My face was red and blotchy and I felt like a twelve-year-old with a temper tantrum.

A year later, I look back on this episode and count my lucky stars that I was able to negotiate my way out of that ticket. I was even ready to turn myself into my own lawyer as I made my way to the police station the day after I was ticketed, armed with a sheaf of cycling laws I had printed out from the SPVM website and my own testimony of what exactly had happened and why my ticket was, for lack of a better word, bogus.

Oh yeah, the officer said. You didn’t run a red light. Sorry, let me tear that up for you.

And that was it.

Given the ease with which I had navigated my way out of this ticket I was certain that I could do it again should the need arise (not that I ever wanted another cycling ticket, they’re expensive and I am officially in the red for demerit points even though I don’t have my driver’s license).

How wrong I was.

I don’t know why police officers do this (well, actually I do; they have a quota to meet so by the end of the month they are particularly aggressive towards cyclists, especially in rich neighbourhoods and areas that have seen collisions and other bike-related accidents), but they seem to enjoy hiding on street corners and then popping out of nowhere to inform you that YOU’VE JUST RUN A STOP SIGN. HAVE A TICKET, SUCKER.

Look, I tried to tell them (in french). I have to go meet my mom. I need to go get a new passport so please, just let me off with a warning. I won’t run this stop sign again.

I almost expected them to just laugh in my face.

Here’s the thing, I know why they stopped me. I was female, I wasn’t wearing a helmet, and I looked vulnerable for some reason. I actually said to the police, why aren’t you stopping any of those cyclists who aren’t stopping at the stop sign? I was exasperated, I was tired, and I was late. There was no hope of contacting my mom because she didn’t have a cell phone. That excuse is so 2004.

Soon after they pulled me over, they pulled over a fifteen-year-old student on his way to an exam and called his father. Seriously, what the hell. I could appreciate that they felt like they were doing this part of the neighbourhood a service (after all someone had gotten into an accident the week previously on that same corner), but the fact remained that I was being detained and there were pedestrians going by THANKING the police their “hard work” and service “keeping the neighbourhood safe”. Safe from what? From renegade cyclists? Oh, watch out! The cyclists are descending! Run for your life! I was sitting uncomfortably on my seat getting slapped with a punitive 42 dollar fine while middle aged people wearing comfortable shoes walked up and down the street with their perfectly coiffed pooches congratulating the police on their fine jobs of stopping derelict cyclists.

I can understand that the police are just doing their job, but perhaps there is a better way to ensure road safety for cyclists. I suppose it would be impossible to make every cyclist take an online quiz about cycling laws before heading out on the road, but it sure would be helpful…

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