With the Charlottesville Police Department handing out more tickets to bicyclists, riders should watch not only the rules of the road, but also the strokes on the keyboard. Bicyclists can receive demerit points if the police and courts don’t accurately document the offense.

At the heart of the matter is the information contained on the summonses issued by a police officer and a computer database field recently added to Virginia’s court case management system. The field, when checked, is intended to prevent tickets issued to bicyclists from being sent to the Virginia Department of Motor Vehicles.

“The courts have the ability to indicate in their systems when convictions are from bicycling infractions,” DMV spokeswoman Pam Goheen confirmed in an email.

Absent the database notation, bicycle convictions appear just like other traffic tickets, which can result in demerit points being added to the offenders’ driving records, a circumstance that can increase vehicle insurance premiums.

The bicycle checkoff field was added to the court’s case management system in November 2010, according to Paul DeLosh, director of judicial services with the Supreme Court of Virginia.

DeLosh confirmed that the field, when selected, prevents the case from being transmitted to the DMV.

The opportunities for Charlottesville’s General District Court to make use of that field have increased over the past year.

Charlottesville police data show that 26 bicycling traffic tickets have been issued in the city in the past two years — nine in 2012 and 17 in 2013. Only one ticket was issued in Albemarle County during the same two-year period.

City police Lt. Ronnie Roberts said police officers will enter the word “bike” or “bicycle” on the summons where they would otherwise enter the vehicle make and type. The police department records this information in a database of traffic violations separate from the court’s database.

“The original document is sent to the courts and that’s what the judge and clerks work off of,” Roberts said.

University of Virginia student Ian Feeney learned what happens when the record isn’t clear in the court database. He received demerit points on his license for at least one ticket while riding on his bicycle in Charlottesville.

“I was pulled over twice in the past year and a half and both times it was stated I was on a bike,” Feeney said. “I went to court the first time and argued it down to half of the original fine. I pointed out the monetary charge would have been double what was placed on the reckless driver in front of me [in court].”

A review of Feeney’s court records shows that the police officer documented he was riding a bike for both tickets. However, despite his court appearance for the December 2012 ticket, the bike checkoff was not selected in the court’s database for that infraction, which resulted in the record being sent inadvertently to DMV.

Feeney’s October 2013 ticket was entered as a bicycle violation by the court and would not have gone to the DMV.

Asked about the data entry process, Charlottesville General District Court clerk Mary Alice Trimble said it was her office’s policy not to provide comments on the record to the media.

The DMV’s Goheen said a bicycle ticket could be eliminated from the driver’s record in these situations.

“If one should pass through to DMV and is brought to our attention, DMV would confirm with the court and have it deleted,” Goheen said.

Local cyclist Ruth Stornetta, a member of the city’s Bicycle and Pedestrian Advisory Committee, said bicycle enforcement is one part of a so-called “Five E’s” program to improve a city’s bike friendliness.

“I think it’s great to have the enforcement for bikes, as well as motor vehicles,” Stornetta said. “One of the things we really emphasize in the bike advocacy community is that there is a five-prong effort to improve cycling facilities — education, engineering, evaluation, encouragement and enforcement.”

“When evaluating the bike-friendliness of a city, often enforcement is not so good,” Stornetta said. “I’m glad to see Charlottesville is taking steps in that direction.”

Roberts and Feeney both had some advice for bicyclists heading to court.

“If I was a person who was the recipient of a ticket and I was on a bike, I would make sure to follow up with the courts before the trial date to make sure it is clearly indicated to the courts that it is a bicycle violation,” Roberts said.

“I would say to check in with DMV afterwards,” Feeney advised. “Make sure that the proper action was taken by the DMV and that your bike is mentioned on the court summons.”

“It’s incumbent upon all of us to share the road together and understand the regulatory issues,” Roberts added. “We just need to remember to be courteous to other people. The road is not a place to take out your frustrations on other people.”

Bicycle traffic tickets in Charlottesville
Location of bicycle traffic tickets issued in city of Charlottesville (2012-Orange; 2013-Red)
Source: Charlottesville Police Department; Map by Charlottesville Tomorrow