Sunday, September 23, 2018

From the Archives - Busted By a Cop on Highway 24!


Recently, a particular stretch of California State Highway 24, which has always been legal for bicycles, has been marked illegal. This seems wrong, and has resulted in a lot of emails flying around among the members of my bike team. I wrote about this to a local bike advocacy group, who reached out to the DOT, who replied that the law hadn’t changed (i.e., the stretch is still legal) so they’re having the Traffic Office go check the signage. (Breaking update: as of September 25, Caltrans has confirmed the signs are wrong, and replacements will be installed in a few weeks. Until then, we are assured that it is okay to keeping riding this stretch of Highway 24.)

For the record, here’s a photo of the new sign posted on the on-ramp (recently snapped by a bike pal), and below that—to keep handy in case you get pulled over—the last photo of this ramp that Google shot for their Street View map:

There was a similar problem with the signs some years ago (after some construction), and I got caught out. Bikes are required to exit and rejoin the highway in certain places, such as Wilder Road, and I complied. Alas, when I tried to rejoin the highway I discovered a) a sign declaring Highway 24 to be illegal for bikes, and b) a cop parked right there on the shoulder. What could I do? I couldn’t go back the way I came, but I didn’t want to flout the law right in front of the cop. So I asked her for clarification, and she responded to the effect that she didn’t know if bikes were allowed and didn’t care. So boldly I rode and well, into the jaws of the on-ramp, right in front of the cop, half expecting to hear her siren start wailing. But it didn’t.

That episode ended well enough, but another time, almost thirty years ago, I got ticketed on my bike on that same highway, albeit in the westbound direction. I vaguely remembered writing about it at the time, and—lo and behold—here is that story, from my archives.

(I almost named this post “BSI Orinda: Bike Sign Investigation,” after a quip in a biking pal’s email.)

Busted by a Cop on Highway 24 – August 14, 1990

So one minute I’m just riding along, minding my own business, not a care in the world—well, actually, that’s not quite right. I’m not feeling particularly carefree because I’m riding my bike up Highway 24, westbound toward Fish Ranch Road, and there’s a lot of traffic whizzing by. Even though the shoulder is over eight feet wide, it’s an unpleasant section; I only ride it because it’s such a convenient shortcut. So anyway, one minute I’m making my not-so-merry way along 24 and then suddenly there’s this cop stopped ahead of me.

He’s got his big macho Mustang cruiser pulled over on the shoulder, his door open just enough for him to drop to one knee like T.J. Hooker in a prime time shootout.  Only he’s just putting out his arm, palm facing me, in the universal law enforcement signal for “STOP!”  Great, I’m thinking. What the hell am I doing wrong?

“You were supposed to exit back there,” he says sternly.  I have no idea what he’s talking about. I have this biking guidebook called Roads to Ride that says Highway 24 is legal from Orinda to Fish Ranch Road.  I tell the cop about the book, being very careful not to act smug, and I realize that I sound like I’m totally making it up. Meanwhile, I’m well aware how futile it is to argue with a cop, especially one in a big bad Mustang.

“No!” he says, clearly displeased at my insubordination. “You have to exit!  There’s a sign!” Trying not to shrug, I reply, “ I know there is, but it’s up there.” I point up the road toward the next exit, for Fish Ranch Road, where I’ve seen a “BICYCLES MUST EXIT” sign.  This seems to piss the cop off even more.  “NO!  There’s another one.  Back there.”  He points down the road.  All I see is a stampede of cars going eighty-five in a fifty-five zone.  I tell him I’ve taken that exit before but it doesn’t go anywhere.  “I know!” he snarls.  “You have to get off and get right back on again!  It’s for your own safety!”

He asks for my driver’s license. I don’t have it on me but I give him the number from memory. He writes it down in his little book, and I know my situation is futile.

There are two kinds of cops, and it doesn’t really matter which kind you get.  The first kind is the guy who, growing up, never expected to become a cop. If he is a generally disappointed person who wishes he’d become a doctor, maybe he gets some satisfaction out of giving doctors tickets. And if he wishes he’d had the opportunity to go to college, maybe he enjoys foisting citations on overprivileged college kids like me. (Or maybe he’s just doing the same thorough job at this as anybody would at anything, and I’m only imagining that what-ifs and woulda-coulda-shouldas ever enter the picture.)

The other kind of cop is the guy who, as a kid, always knew he’d be a cop one day, and loves being a cop. To him, being anything else—like a doctor or a college kid—would be unthinkable, as would letting me off the hook. In his worldview, those who break the law must be brought to justice, and giving me just a warning would be like throwing a wrench into the spinning wheels of his very raison-d’ĂȘtre.
I don’t know which type this cop is. If he were really burly and had the standard-issue bushy mustache I’d assume he was the second kind, but that wouldn’t necessarily mean I was right. In any case this guy is oddly small and skinny for a cop, or at least for a highway patrolman with a souped-up Mustang.  His service revolver, in contrast, is definitely on the large side and I wonder whether it pokes him in the leg when he’s driving.  And does he have a nightstick in the car? Does he normally slip that through a loop in his belt as he exits the car, like the cops on TV? Or does he only bring it out at night?

I think some more about his gun. Do cops all get issued the same type of sidearm, or do they get to choose? I think about Dirty Harry explaining to a colleague his choice of a 44 Magnum: “A 357 Magnum is a good weapon, but I’ve seen 38s bounce off of windshields. No good in a city like this.” Suddenly I realize that this officer has caught me staring at his gun. Not a good thing for me to be doing. Does he think I’m contemplating making a grab for it? I quickly flick my eyes away, like when I’m caught gawking at a pretty girl. The cop stares at me for a second, and then turns his attention to my bike.

Oh, this is just great.  My bike totally looks stolen, because I spray-painted the frame with neon orange Krylon, and did a poor job at that, so there are little hardened drips all over the place.  “What make is this bike?” the cop asks, looking at the sticker on the head tube. The sticker has a skull and crossbones on it, only one of the bones is a big wrench. Above the graphic it says “HERCULON LOVE GODS” and below that, “DRUNK ROCK!”  I got it from a buddy of mine who’s in the band.  The cop looks up at me. “What make, and what year?”

I honestly don’t know; this bike sat in a warehouse for months, maybe years, because the English manufacturer got in a fight with the American distributor. Eventually the distributor got tired of storing all the frames—I think there were a couple hundred of them—and started selling them to the public for $40 apiece. That’s a great price for a handmade racing frame, so after discovering this great deal via a classified ad, I turned all my friends onto it and lots of us bought these as our backup bikes. The frames were unpainted so we all did them up with the same orange Krylon, like we’re part of a cult or something. I try to figure out how I could possibly explain all this to the cop without sounding like I’m deep into a highly criminal enterprise, but I can’t come up with anything.

“I don’t know what year,” I tell him. “Probably 1988 or ‘89.”  He asks again what the make is.  “Uh . . . Orbit?” I stammer, knowing I sound like I’m hiding something. Eyeing me very suspiciously, the cop says, “I’m gonna need to see the serial number.” 

I know where the serial number is: it’s stamped on the bottom bracket shell. Unfortunately, it’s obscured by the plastic cable guide that bolts on there. I remember thinking, when I built up the bike, that it was pretty lame of the framebuilder not to have foreseen this problem. Feeling like things are going from bad to worse, I lift up the front wheel and tilt the bike all the way back so the cop can see the BB shell. There’s a lot of black grime on there so he doesn’t immediately realize why the serial number is unreadable. He scrapes the grime away with his fingers, eagerly, like this is some thrilling forensic moment of truth.

“Oh, gosh,” I say, “I think that plastic thing is covering it up.  If I had an eight millimeter wrench, I could uncover it.  Hold on.”  I look through my seat bag, feeling very grateful that it’s far too small to conceal a firearm.  I know exactly what’s in there:  an inner tube, a patch kit, and some tire levers. I don’t need to look to know that I don’t have an 8 millimeter wrench, but I really want to seem helpful. The cop tells me to stay put and goes back to his car. He fetches the CB and starts talking on it, standing next to the car. I see him eyeing his reflection in the window. Does he like the way he looks when he talks on the CB? Or is my perspective all wrong and he’s actually keeping an eye on me? At least the driver’s license number I gave him is legit and will match up with my info—height, weight, etc.—in SCMODS (the State County Municipal Offender Data System). On top of that, I have a totally clean slate, in the eyes of the law, so chances are I’ll get away with nothing more than a citation.

Which he does, in the end, give me, for failing to exit the highway as required. Before he gets back in his cruiser, he fixes me with one last stare, like I’m damn lucky to be getting off so easy. And suddenly this whole episode seems completely absurd: a college kid who’s never done anything wrong before comes off as some kind of minor-league criminal, but the over-equipped and needlessly vigilant cop can’t make anything stick. It’s like a parody of a cop show.


It was tempting, when I went back to edit this today, to add a little more commentary, acknowledging  the role that color—i.e., my being white—played in this ultimately harmless encounter. But the fact is, I’d only recently moved to the Bay Area, and it never occurred to me at that time that a young black man in the same situation—even on the outskirts of suburban Orinda, California—might have fared far worse than I did.

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