Culver City Crash: Sgt Nielsen – it was the cyclists’ fault.

(Previous posts on Bikeside about the Culver City Crash – #1, #2, #3, #4 – and a nice comprehensive post at LA Streetsblog.)

If you want to know what rank and file Culver City police officers think of cyclists, you don’t have to go far to get their opinion.  Bikerowave board member Thomas Anthony was pulled over by Culver City Police Department officer Sergeant Nielsen, who offered his opinion that Midnight Ridazz are a “bunch of idiots” and that the victims of the recent crash at Jefferson and Hetzler were at fault, because they were (in his opinion), blocking the road:

He asked if we ever rode with the Midnight Ridazz, I replied that I had, but big group rides weren’t really my thing.  He said, “They’re a bunch of idiots.”  My friend asked if he had heard about the group of cyclists that were hit by a girl who was drunk and texting, late the night before.  He responded in the affirmative and said they were blocking the road.  I was baffled but wanted to confirm what had just heard. I asked if he thought “it was the cyclists fault for getting hit by a drunk driver”?  Sergeant Nielsen replied, “Yes.”

Find the full story from Anthony below.

Anthony’s tale is a classic case of “biased cop has never heard of CVC 21202”, spiced up by his opinion of the downed cyclists in Culver City.  It shows that the burden to prove they are unbiased in their investigation is on Culver City PD – something they have yet to prove to me.  Together with information that Culver City traffic engineers knew that Hetzler and Jefferson was a dangerous intersection, the city is starting to look pretty vulnerable.

Anthony’s story:

My encounter with the Culver City Police Department began at about 2pm Thursday, 16 June 2011.  I was riding my bicycle eastbound in about the 10300 block of Washington Blvd.  A white Honda Civic pulled up beside us, slowed to our speed, and a police officer behind the wheel yelled for me to “get in single file” and “ride in the extreme right hand side of the lane.”  Being respectful of the law but not fond of being yelled at by anyone, I responded that according to CVC 21202, I have full right to the lane, as I saw it was of substandard width.  The officer repeated loudly that he wanted us to ride single file on the right side of the lane.  I waved and dropped back behind my friend, seeing that I would make no progress trying to convince him of the rights afforded me by California state law.

We continued east on Washington Blvd, after the confrontation the Civic had sped ahead, letting traffic continue, and took up position in the right lane in front of us.  We caught up to him at the next stop light, when the light changed we continued on, the officer apparently sat and waited for us to proceed.  We turned left from Washington Blvd to ride on Venice Blvd instead. The officer again sped past us, pulled over, and got out of his vehicle.  As we approached, he had me stop and told me he was going to give me a ticket; he said  “I gave you a chance and you blew it. I told you to ride single file in the right side of the lane.”  I told him that was exactly what I did.  He told me he would give me a ticket for impeding the flow of traffic.  I told him the lane was of substandard width, explained that there was not enough room for a car to pass me while staying in the lane. For my safety, I chose to take the lane.  He repeated that he had told me to ride single file. I replied that nowhere in the California Vehicle Code does it state that bicycles must ride single file.  CVC prohibits municipalities from placing such restrictions on cyclists.  He said we would “let the judge decide.”

At this point we were joined by another Culver City Police officer, yet another rolled by as the second officer approached.  The officer who pulled me over, Sergeant Nielsen, produced his CVC pocket synopsis and read me a passage that stated a vehicle must maintain the speed of traffic making exceptions for safe operation and that the statute only applied to vehicles that must be registered.  In my flustered state, I did not write down what code violation he was threatening to give me a ticket under.

I continued stating that under CVC 21202 cyclists are allowed to take full use of the right lane under several conditions, the reason I had was the lane was not wide enough to permit a vehicle to pass safely, this was my assessment, my choice.  Sergeant Nielsen replied that he “didn’t know that one,” referring to CVC 21202. Since it was not included in his synopsis he had the other officer look it up.  He repeated numerous times that he would “let the judge decide.”

We continued our debate while the other officer searched, Sergeant Nielsen repeated that since I was moving slower than the speed of traffic, I had to move to the right.  I repeated that for my safety I took the lane, such as the law allows.  My friend then told the officer how minutes before he started yelling at us we were honked at and I was swerved into by a motorist in a large Mercedes sedan.  Sergeant Nielsen shrugged.  He asked if we ever rode with the Midnight Ridazz, I replied that I had, but big group rides weren’t really my thing.  He said, “They’re a bunch of idiots.”  My friend asked if he had heard about the group of cyclists that were hit by a girl who was drunk and texting, late the night before.  He responded in the affirmative and said they were blocking the road.  I was baffled but wanted to confirm what had just heard. I asked if he thought “it was the cyclists fault for getting hit by a drunk driver”?  Sergeant Nielsen replied, “Yes.”

The other officer produced a book that contained CVC 21202, it stated that bicycles moving slower than the speed must stay as far to the right as “possible”, except when passing another vehicle or preparing for a left turn.  I told him CVC 21202 was much longer than this printed version, I suspected it was an old printing.  Sergeant Nielsen replied that he could have the other officer look it up (on the internet, in the squad car).  The officer went to the car, Sergeant Nielsen told me that if I was wrong he was going to write me a ticket.  The officer came back and told us that it said we had to ride as far to the right as “practical.”  I asked about all the exceptions, such as substandard width lanes.  He said no.

Sergeant Nielsen then told us that he “rode bikes, too.”  He portrayed himself as a cyclist, and compared my action of riding my bicycle in the way of cars to someone who spits chewing tobacco juice on the sidewalk; “there’s a right way to do things.”

He continued that he could let us go, but that I was trying to be “macho,” “alpha dog.”  I replied that I was doing nothing of the sort; I was merely standing up for myself, my personal safety, and the safety of those I ride with.  I could tell there was no way out but to give in. I told him I understood what he was saying and that it was possible for a car to pass me safely within the lane and I could have been riding farther to the right.  That was it. Sergeant Nielsen decided he had won, shook my hand and sent us on our way.

I felt totally defeated that I had given in.  I had let the bad guy win.  I knew I was right.  Sergeant Nielsen had begun the day thinking he knew the law, that bikes should get out of the way of cars.  I wondered if, like me, he would go home, look up CVC 21202 and discover he was totally wrong.  Everything he had told us was wrong.  His opinion that the lane was wide enough to permit passing is a valid one.  I happen to disagree, I ride my bicycle all over Los Angeles every day;  I know when to take the lane, I know when I don’t need to.  Now I know I need to carry CVC 21202 everywhere I go.

Alex Thompson

Bikerowave co-founder, Cyclists' Bill of Rights co-author, President of Bikeside, and Math Phd. HULK SMASH straight from Michigan!

23 thoughts on “Culver City Crash: Sgt Nielsen – it was the cyclists’ fault.

  1. Thomas,
    When you are pulled over by a wilfully ignorant, deeply stupid, heavily armed, power-mad mouthbreather, your primary goal is to get out of there without getting ticketed, arrested, beaten, or shot. You did that. You win.

    You can still go speak to his supervisor if you want to. If you do, you’ll be mentally prepared, armed with a copy of the actual law, and not in danger of being punished if the officer doesn’t understand the law.

    If you still feel defeated, remember how lucky you are that you get to be you, while he’s stuck being a slow-witted asshole for the rest of his life.

  2. I fully understand and sympathize with Thomas. Who wants to get a ticket?

    Part of it is cyclists have an image problem because to some extent we have come to deserve it because many riders to not give right of way to other road users when they should do so.

    (I think it’s OK to run stop signs and stop lights in certain circumstances, but it’s never OK to violate right-of-way rules)

    More important, we are not organized, and we are not sufficiently prepared to defend our rights (myself included).

    However, I really think that we may have to start going to court over these matters. We then attract the attention of the judiciary and the court reporters. It is important that if we don’t win, at least we get our message across.

    These police officers may have been unpleasant and mis-informed, but at least they took the time to go and consult CVC21202, even if they cherry-picked to your disadvantage.

    Messages and tactics I consider useful are:
    – Regardless of the officer’s behavior, never let hostile feelings develop. He will immediately pick up on these. Approach it like you’re working with him to solve a problem.
    – Take a deep breath, get calm, and start the conversation with a 50-50 approach rather than telling the officer he is wrong. Maybe saying you understand why he has pulled you over, but will he take a second to consider the situation from your perspective?
    It is important to get across the following:
    – I wish to cooperate and share the road with other users, and use safe conduct.
    – The CVC (and most other state codes) is designed primarily for motor vehicles and is not always practical and safe for bicycles. Therefore, sometimes difficult situations will arise as a result of my attempts to be safe on the road. I’m not being arrogant, I’m just trying to get from A to B safely.
    – In most cases maximum speed of a bicycle is 18-20 mph.
    – Usually when I occupy the full lane, it is because it is not safe to ride close to the road’s edge (point out what exactly gives you cause for concern).

  3. Here’s the thing: in California, bicyclists are drivers but bicycles are NOT vehicles. Ergo, things in the CVC that apply to vehicles only (and not to drivers) do not apply to cyclists. Things that apply to drivers do apply to cyclists. It’s a fuzzy area, but an important one.

    Also, the CVC code he quoted regarding impeding traffic was 22400(a) ( ). You’re covered by 21202(a) (from CVC division 11, chapter 1, article 4 – ), as follows:

    21202. (a) Any person operating a bicycle upon a roadway at a speed less than the normal speed of traffic moving in the same direction at that time shall ride as close as practicable to the right-hand curb or edge of the roadway except under any of the following situations:

    (1) When overtaking and passing another bicycle or vehicle proceeding in the same direction.

    (2) When preparing for a left turn at an intersection or into a private road or driveway.

    (3) When reasonably necessary to avoid conditions (including, but not limited to, fixed or moving objects, vehicles, bicycles, pedestrians, animals, surface hazards, or substandard width lanes) that make it unsafe to continue along the right-hand curb or edge, subject to the provisions of Section 21656. For purposes of this section, a “substandard width lane” is a lane that is too narrow for a bicycle and a vehicle to travel safely side by side within the lane.

    (4) When approaching a place where a right turn is authorized.

    (b) Any person operating a bicycle upon a roadway of a highway, which highway carries traffic in one direction only and has two or more marked traffic lanes, may ride as near the left-hand curb or edge of that roadway as practicable.

    Amended Sec. 4, Ch. 674, Stats. 1996. Effective January 1, 1997.

  4. I am not a rider, but I have friends who I care about who are.

    Below is a letter I wrote in response to an LA TIMES article on June 20th about the Culver City incident.

    It’s a shame that a few bad riders give the rest of you a bad rap.

    Could someone please tell me how conscientious, law-abiding cyclists can condone the behavior of whatever this was I encountered on the evening of June 14th in Hollywood?

    I sincerely thank you.

    Dear Mr. Blume,

    I was very interested to read your article about Cyclists in today’s California section of the Times, and I wanted to share an experience I had last Tuesday night (June 14th, the night before the 11 riders were injured in Culver City)

    Last Tuesday night, I was heading home from Downtown via surface streets. It was about 10:45pm when I was heading North on Gardner (towards my street Hollywood Blvd) and I arrived at a red light at Sunset Blvd. & Gardner.

    The light turned green for me, and in what feels like a millisecond before I was about to press on the gas pedal, a MASS of bike riders coming from the West on Sunset Blvd blasted through THEIR red light.

    Not only was a scared to death. I realized I could so easily have injured or killed 1 or more of them. I had a green light. Thankfully, as a conscientious driver, knowing that way too many motorists in this city run red lights, I always make a point of looking both ways before going on my green.

    But this…these riders — a pack of anywhere between 50-100?? — had the gall to break rules of the road?? And they wonder why motorists are hostile towards them?? I was appalled. As well as shaken.

    Who were these people? And where were the police? This was obviously not a ride/race sanctioned by the city. The riders actually had the nerve to scream at me to “Hold on. Stop.” When it was my right to drive through my green light. One of the riders completely wiped out before he even got through the signal. Hit the curb wrong I guess. And finally some of his comrades stopped to assist him. Based on how he fell I wouldn’t be surprised that he suffered a serious injury. Self-imposed.

    I felt compelled to write because – seeing your article today – I realized how pissed off I was/am about this. I know there are riders out there who are conscientious & law-abiding. I can count several friends among them. And frankly, I admire their bravery — to ride the streets of this city with not only some hostile drivers, but simply poor drivers.

    But this group — don’t the cyclists get that it takes riders like these to give the whole cycling population a bad name? Or do they just not give a damn about anyone else but themselves?

    And again, I can’t stop thinking about how I could have killed someone that night. That could have so easily happened, and that’s scary.

    What right do these riders have to break the laws so blatantly?

    Anyway. Thank you for listening. Don’t know what it will accomplish, but I’m glad to say it “out loud”.


  5. Yup, I’d say 21202(a)#3 there covers you completely. It’s important to take the lane for your own protection. Giving a false sense of space for a car next to you is dangerous. Usually in these situations you’ll not only find yourself being passed far to closely by motorists, but you’re usually in the door zone at the same time.

    Regrettably this sort of sentiment is typical from the police. Last week Officer Battez told me, “We can’t get all of you, but we can get some of you. Tell your friends I’m coming for them.” My friends!? This was in reference to some kids the officer had passed that apparently were riding the wrong way, on the wrong side of the road. I didn’t matter that I wasn’t these kids, but the mere fact I was on a bicycle in the area put me in the same category as those retards. Since I was standing still while a friend fixed their bike he clearly assumed we were up to no good and being hooligans or vandals.

    Then, it all went south as he told us to ‘leave the area’ (for what reason I have no clue) and I said we were waiting for our companion to fix their bike. I was told I was resisting his order and then given a citation for riding on the sidewalk, despite the fact I was standing on the sidewalk, holding my bike. My person was searched and he just kept saying “This is what you get. Are you happy now? You got what you wanted.”

    Thanks Officer Battez, thatnks for taking out your hate for other cyclists on a law abiding one. Sorry you didn’t find the drugs you were hoping for in our bags. I too had to put my tail between my legs and just nod as he screamed at me and told me I should be happy he wasn’t writing me up for “illegal assembly”. Anytime I spoke he would interrupt and just say, “DO YOU WANT TO GO TO JAIL!?” Yet another police officer using their station to go on a personal power trip. It’s no wonder many Americans have no respect for them.

  6. @ Daniel – did this happen in LA? You can’t be ticketed in LA for riding your bike on the sidewalk unless done “with a willful or wanton disregard for the safety of persons or property”. If you were in Culver City, were you in a residential district? They can only pop you there if you ride on the sidewalk in a “business district” (which has a loose, poor definition in the CVC).

  7. Actually jenniX, because of CVC 21200(a), everything that applies to the operators of vehicles applies to bicyclists. That’s what “same rights and responsibilities” means.

    The difference comes when the code says “motor” vehicles. When the code uses the word motor then it doesn’t apply to bicycles.

    Alex, when you were going back and forth about the law, it probably would have helped if you had pointed them specifically to 21202(a)(3) which is the part that contains the exception for and definition of substandard width lanes. It would have helped them find it more easily.

  8. There is a far easier way to deal with this. Don’t argue with the police, let them right you a ticket and then go to court. A judge would have thrown the ticket out on two seconds once you showed him you were not in violation of the law. The police officer had already decided you were guilty and nothing was going to change that.

    You should file with the police review board, everything the officer said about the Midnight Ridazz and cyclists in general showed he was biased when he tickted oyu.

  9. I too have gotten harassed on multiple occasions by Culver City PD for not riding to the right. A year ago they gave me a ticket for it, I fought it it, and the ticket was dismissed. I did a trial by written declaration. I don’t think the officer filled out his forms at all.

    While doing my research for the ticket I found a funny section in the Culver City Municipal Code:

    Culver City Municipal Code:

    “7.04.230 RIDING IN A GROUP.

    “Persons operating bicycles upon a roadway shall not ride more than two abreast except on paths or parts of roadways set aside for the exclusive use of bicycles.”

    Thus in Culver City you are legally allowed to ride two abreast, as the municipal code prohibits riding more than two abreast. I now keep a printout of the entire CVC 21202 and this code on my person whenever I am riding. I am looking forward to pulling it out next time I am pulled over for riding in the lane.

  10. That’s really interesting, Greg. I’m not entirely sure that they’re allowed to make up their own traffic laws like that. I’d like to hear a lawyer weigh in.

  11. Greg, that municipal code would probably not hold up in court because it violates CVC 21. Local governments are not allowed to make up their own rules of the road except for a very small number of things which they are explicitly permitted to do by the CVC. The CVC makes no provision to allow local governments to regulate how many bicyclists may ride side by side, therefore they don’t have the right to do so.

    Example: Local governments are permitted to restrict use of bicycles on the sidewalk by CVC 21100(h).

    Unfortunately, if you got a ticket for violating that municipal code, you would probably have to take it to appeals court, since it is a matter of conflict between two laws.

  12. @billdsd – the key verbiage in California is “drivers”. Legally speaking, bicyclists are drivers without vehicles, as bicycles are not vehicles under CA code. Where the code references persons operating vehicles (a.k.a. “drivers”) it applies to cyclists, but where it refers only to vehicles (such as CVC22400.b) it does not apply to cyclists.

    In other words, it ain’t whether or not you have a motor that makes you a driver.

  13. @jennix: For 22400(b), the easier to understand thing that saves bicyclists is this: “Subdivision (b) of this section shall apply only to vehicles subject to registration.” so yes, a bicycle is not technically a vehicle under the CVC and it’s not subject to registration by the state (though it might be subject to registration by the local government). We’re outside of 22400(b) either way.

    The other thing about 22400(b) is that I’ve been all over California (born and raised here and I’m 47) and haven’t seen very many minimum speed limit signs. Have you?

    Usually when people bring up 22400, they’re talking about 22400(a), which anti-bike people misinterpret as prohibiting bicyclists from using the road if they can’t keep up with traffic.

    “22400(a) No person shall drive upon a highway at such a slow speed as to impede or block the normal and reasonable movement of traffic, unless the reduced speed is necessary for safe operation, because of a grade, or in compliance with law.”

    Note that it does not say vehicle there at all. It says “person”.

    The thing that gets bicyclists out of 22400(a) is grade. I’ve had my bicycle up to 55mph with the help of a friendly grade. I go 20mph on a 0% grade with no wind because that’s as fast as I can sustain on that grade without a tail wind.

    22400(a) does not prohibit anyone from using the road if they physically can’t keep up. That’s why the grade exception is in there. It just requires them to keep up if they can. It was almost certainly not put in there for bicyclists, but it works for us anyway.

  14. I forgot to mention that CVC 21754 was amended this year to remove the word “motor” so that bicyclists could legally pass on the right when the vehicle being passed was making a left turn or in a business or residential district where there is enough space for 2 or more lines of travel.

  15. My point was that Culver City Municipal Code itself basically says that riding two-abreast down Culver City streets is legal.

    Culver City Police seem to be ignorant of even this fact when they tell you you have to ride single file: No, Culver City municipal code says you can ride two abreast!

  16. Do all of you realize that CVC 21202 is the problem, not the solution? Without this cyclist hostile and utterly discriminatory law, cyclists would be treated as all other drivers and would be subject to the requirements of CVC 21654, which grants all slower drivers the right to use the right hand lane for traffic, and only requires riding near the curb or edge, for all drivers, when no marked lanes are present. 21202 OTOH, forces cyclists to justify their position within a marked lane and no matter what the text reads, a police officer and judge can simply disagree, and the cyclist pays a fine for doing what all others drivers have an explicit right to do, namely control a lane.

    On the subject of CVC 22400(a), the CA version of the law is poorly constructed since the law is not intended to be non-motor vehicle driver law. 43 US states have an equivalent form of this law but in instead of “No person shall drive upon a highway…”, the laws in these states read “No person shall drive a motor vehicle upon a highway…” or “No motor vehicle shall be driven upon a highway…”, etc. Only CA, TX, MI, NH and OH have wording that can be construed to include bicyclists (and two states have no such law: HI and MA). Sadly the police in CA often interpret 22400 as excluding bicyclists from roads with speed limits above bicycling speeds. This is of course stupid, but sadly very common. Until CVC 21202 and CVC 21208 are repealed, and CVC 22400 is amended to apply only to motor vehicle drivers, bicyclists will continue to be treated as road kafirs, an underclass with lesser rights than other drivers.

    One final note about the municipal ordinance in Culver City: CVC 21 precludes ordinances like the Culver City two abreast ordinance, which is illegal and unenforceable, since it conflicts with the uniform provisions of the CVC. Many cities in CA write municipal ordinances that are illegal, so just because a city has enacted an ordinance, especially when it is a bicycling ordinance, there is no guarantee that such ordinances are legal.

    As your CABO state representative for District 7, I can tell you we are waging an uphill battle to make the laws fair and equitable to cyclists, because far too many “bike advocates” don’t realize that 21202 doesn’t grant rights, instead it takes them away, and that patching such bad laws with 3-foot passing laws does not alter the fundamental disadvantage under which cyclists now endure. Why? Because with CVC 21202 on the books, an officer can always cite a cyclist for 21202, or give no citation, and ignore any passing laws or any questions of motorist fault, since the tools for blaming the cyclist are always readily at hand. If all of you really want equal rights, then you need to first and foremost recognize that you operate in a kind of bicycling apartheid, wherein, when you are slower than other traffic, you have to justify using the roadway as a driver, unlike other drivers, whose use of the right hand lane per CVC 21654 is not questioned.

    – Dan Gutierrez –
    Long Beach, CA
    (562) 244-4145 Cell

    Organizational Affiliations
    Long Beach Cyclists, Founder and Technical Advisor
    Aerospace Cycling Club, Founder and Current President
    SouthBay Westside Transportation Mgmt. Assoc., Board Member

    CA Assoc. of Bicycling Organizations (CABO), District 7 Director
    CABO Education Committee Co-Chair
    Caltrans District 7 Bicycle Advisory Committee, Policy Chair

    League of American Bicyclists (LAB), Certified Instructor, LCI #962
    Dual Chase Productions LLC, Co-Creator
    Dual Chase video hosting at Cyclist View
    YouTube Channel:

  17. Dan, 21202 is the law right now and as such, it’s best for us all to understand it and know how to use it to maintain our rights in the road.

    I don’t support repealing 21202 UNLESS 21654 also gets reworded so that the interpretation that you gave for 21654 is more clearly stated. As it is right now, it would be too easy for law enforcement and judges to misinterpret it and make it effectively another FRAP rule without all of the explicit exceptions in 21202.

    We also need 22400(a) to be reworded as you suggested. I’ve been seeing the 22400 argument more frequently of late.

  18. When a heavily armed man stops you on the street you should agree with everything he says up to and including giving him your wallet. Just because he is a police man do not assume he not going to hurt you. You should agree with him, apologise, and hope he goes on his way. Debating the law on the street won’t work. If his buddies had not shown up, the whole transaction could have gone bad.

    Congratulations on getting out of the situation intact.

  19. @BillSD – Yes, 21654(a) would be better split into two laws, one covering the case for marked lanes and the other for unlaned roadways, with the latter having any necessary bicyclist specific exceptions. So you appear to me to understand what needs to be done. This will not be easy, but it is the right thing to do to remove the present discrimination. I don’t expect special privileges when I use a bicycle, just the same rights I have when I use a car.

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