07. The Idiot Police

  1. 01. A Free Ride
  2. 02. Railroaded
  3. 03. The End of the Line
  4. 04. Dumb Luck
  5. 05. A Bad Review
  6. 06. Happy Trails
  7. 07. The Idiot Police
  8. 08. A Wet Dream
  9. 09. Cycling Nemeses
  10. 10. Damn

Identifying a dangerous idiot quickly can be a life-saving talent, so over the years I have developed many techniques to do so. For example, a person who uses any of the following platitudes in seriousness can be immediately recognised as a dangerous idiot:

  • “Whatever it takes”
  • “Work smarter, not harder”
  • “Zero tolerance”
  • “Anything is possible”
  • “Evidence-based decision-making”
  • “Values-based management”
  • “No fear”
  • “Frank and fearless” (archaic)

This kind of idiot is relatively easy to spot. They have a propensity to rise to the top of the larger organisations that incentivise and congratulate moronic behavior, which is pretty much all of them. Proud of their success, the dangerous idiot rarely strings together a sentence without reference to one of these notions.

Thankfully, most idiots are less dangerous, at least to me. For example, I have to doubt the wisdom of any beer lover who doesn’t understand a clear glass bottle is the worst possible container for a beverage that is hyper-sensitive to light. I direct similar skepticism towards wine lovers that persist in preferring bottles sealed with corks  over screw-tops. Both represent their deliberate decision not to use their brains – but that is no loss to me, certainly.

One of the more perplexing low-level idiots I see frequently are the cyclists who balance helmets upon their head but fail to secure them with the strap. Any time a helmet might have to do its job, if it isn’t strapped on, it isn’t going to be there – with the possible exception of random objects falling from the sky. To ride that way provides all the discomfort and disadvantage of a helmet, with none of the protection. Why bother?

I’ve been a helmet wearer for a several decades now, but I can still understand why some folks dislike or even refuse to wear a helmet. There’s a real air of freedom that comes with helmetless riding. Those who still have hair don’t end up with it all flat and lifeless.  In return for these thrills comes a greatly increased risk of the brain being splattered all over the road, flat and lifeless. I figured that out at age twenty-five, when my brain, finally fully formed, decided it was worth protecting. Nevertheless, if others choose to take the risk, I say “Good for them!” And I conclude the loss of their brains is no loss to me, certainly.

Except that it might be. The issue with brain injuries suffered by individuals who’ve made stupid decisions is that they are not always fatal. That is, these arguably self-inflicted wounds can cost the healthcare system a lot of money in years of care and therapy.  So the loss of their brains can be an indirect loss to me, after all.

IMG_7404But what is the alterative? Even I wouldn’t suggest helmetless riders suffering brain injuries should be “put down”. I once told my boss that a hangover, although self-inflicted, was still a sickness. “If I shoot myself in the foot, you’d expect me to march?” (That left her utterly perplexed for a day or so.) No, it is best to remind myself of that haunting biblical adage “Idiots don’t decide to be idiots, they just turn out that way.” (Lamentations 4:21-22)

Building on this Judeo-Christian bedrock, in 1990 the Australian State of Victoria became the first place in the world to make wearing bicycle helmets mandatory: “the rider of a bicycle must wear an approved bicycle helmet securely fitted and fastened on the rider’s head…”  Victoria has a reputation for such “Nanny State” regulations that make it mandatory to use common sense as a matter of law. So bikes must have lights, front and rear, visible day or night from 200 meters, and a bell (not horn, not a whistle, a bell), amongst much else.

VicRoads helpfully provides a list of another hundred or so bicycle-specific infringements with the related fine. They start at $148 for things like “Riding improperly”, which I have to presume has something to do with Lycra. “Failure to comply with roundabout requirements” will also cost you $148, no matter how roundabout those requirements might be. The worst thing a cyclist can do is throw oneself under a train, as “Failure to give way at level crossing” comes with the highest bicycle-specific fine of $738. If that doesn’t teach a lesson, I’m not sure what will.

The thing is, it is rare that anybody actually enforces these rules. If cyclists — or motorists, for that matter — had to pay a $369 fine for coasting through a stop sign without coming to a full stop, they’d all have been bankrupt long ago. It may be that the rationale behind such nannitudes is that they codify good practice – and that most people, with or without common sense, will obey the law, for the most part.

If so, as a nanny, Victoria has a dark side. Victoria is one of the few places where suicide is not illegal. It remains unlawful to counsel, incite, or aid and abet another in attempting to suicide, and the law permits “such force as may reasonably be necessary” to prevent suicide. Yet, sometime ago the police were told it was no longer necessary to arrest the corpses they find stuck stickpin-like in the muddy shallows of the Yarra River after having leapt off the Westgate Bridge. In Victoria, the unsettled issue around suicide is neither moral nor criminal, but financial: who is going to pay for the dredging?

After completing our Australia Day delousing, I turned my attention to our next V/Line Free Ride. We were scheduled to leave Southern Cross Station at seven the following morning for Wangaratta. I realized we would have to leave home well before sunrise to allow time for the ride to the station and getting settled on the train. We rarely ride in the dark. Anal retentive former bureaucrat that I am, this sent me scrambling to research the regulations regarding bicycle lights in Victoria.

We set off at six in the morning, lights a-flashing. There was a strong following breeze on the foreshore, making the ride fast and effortless. Daylight broke as we approached Port Melbourne, where I spotted two police officers standing in the middle of the bike path. Their car was pulled over kitty-corner behind them, and both wore yellow fluro vests. One cop stood back while the other spoke with a little old lady on an ancient pushbike. When I say little old lady, I mean she was little – maybe five foot, a hundred pounds – and old – certainly over seventy.

We slowed as we approached, as they were blocking the path. I was uncertain what was going on. It wouldn’t be a bad idea to breathalyze cyclists the morning after Australia Day, I thought to myself. Were we supposed to stop? The police made no such indication. (Failure to obey traffic direction given by police officer, $295).

I considered riding around them, off the bike path across the nature strip to the foot path – but then I remembered it was a $148 fine to “Ride bicycle on dividing strip, footpath, nature strip or traffic island”. About ten meters away, I dismounted and started to walk the bike. Frank followed suit.

Then things got weird. The little old lady mounted her cycle, and just as she started to peddle away, the cop pushed her right shoulder – hard – sending her down onto the grass on her left shoulder. More than one startled passer-by now stopped and watched.

“That’s a little therapy for you!” the cop shouted. The woman rose, mumbling something.

“You said ‘fuck off’ to me!” the cop bellowed at her, angry to the point of being scary. The woman, still stunned, rubbed her shoulder and stared at him in disbelief.

I have had enough experience with police officers in my life to know that one does not want to insert oneself into such a situation. Frank and I walked our bikes along the footpath for a hundred meters, glancing back to check for further developments.20160208_100321I took a quick snap of the participants from a distance with my smartphone – pardon the poor quality.  We came to a public toilet block, which, frankly, I needed to use, anyway. When I came out, the cops were getting in their car, and the old lady was cycling towards us on the path, shaken. I jumped on my bike, and slowly peddled alongside her.

“I’m not sure what just happened there, but if you need a witness, I saw the whole thing. I saw him push you to the ground.”

The old lady looked genuinely surprised and pleased. “Why, thank you dear!” she said with an Irish brogue. “But there’s no point, it would do no good, just be a hassle…”

“What happened? Why did they stop you?” I had to know.

“He said I didn’t hand-signal before crossing the road. But I did! The bastards!” I got the impression this was not the first time she had been thrown to the ground by the police. “Thank you for offering, really, that’s very kind of you. But there’s no point.”

I have great respect, if not admiration, for the police. It is a very tough job. I chalked up the episode as evidence that even cops are idiots from time to time. I hope that when the two cops got back in their car, the idiot and his partner had a good enough relationship for the partner to say “Listen, mate, next time a little old lady tells you to fuck off, do me a favour and let it go.”

We rode off. I was a little paranoid that the cops had seen me take the photo and would re-appear demanding my phone to destroy the evidence. This is an unfortunate example of how inappropriate police behavior can undermine community confidence. Well, my confidence, anyway.

We boarded our train with time to spare, despite the sideshow.

Next stop: Wangaratta and the Murray to Mountains Rail Trail.