Mess Media

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Are brakeless bikes safe?

KATU-TV, Portland, December 18, 2007

By Dan Tilkin and KATU Web Staff

The next time you are in downtown Portland, take a close look at the bikes passing you by, particularly the ones that bike messengers use.

You will often notice that their bikes are simplistic - no hand brakes, no coaster brakes - like the type you had when you were a kid.

When riders want to stop, they slow or lock their legs.

"I actually like it a lot better," said bike messenger Adam Leckie. "I feel like I have a lot more control."

The problem is, police say those types of bikes are against the law.

"The big issue for the traffic division is that they can't stop, or there's the perception that unless you're an expert in using them, it's like a time bomb, that you're going to end up going off the handlebars and rocketing into a car," said Sgt. Brian Schmautz with the Portland Police Bureau.

"It doesn't mean that people should be given tickets for things that might happen," said Attorney Mark Ginsberg.

Ginsberg was the defense attorney in the very first fixed gear case that went to trial. The case involved a rider who got a ticket and Ginsberg argued that the law does not clearly define what a brake is. He ultimately lost, but fought to change the state law.

Currently, Oregon law states that "a bicycle must be equipped with a brake that enables the operator to make the braked wheels skid on dry, level, clean pavement."

On Jan. 1, a subtle change will be made to the law, which will then state that "a bicycle must be equipped with a brake that enables the operator to stop the bicycle within 15 feet from a speed of 10 miles per hour on dry, level, clean pavement."

Originally, the provision went on to say "except that a fixed gear bicycle is not required to be equipped with a separate brake." However, that language was dropped late in the process over one lawmaker's safety concern.

Fixed gear bikes are gaining in popularity. At River City Bicycles, a fixed gear bike is their top seller and they said 10 percent of them leave brakeless.

"The people who have the brakeless bikes aren't the ones crashing or getting into bike accidents," said Ryan Weaver with River City Bicycles. "It's the ones traveling at high speeds with coaster brakes."

According to Portland police, they never target "fixies" and write less than two dozen tickets a year.

"I know for a few people this is the only issue that exists, but for us, just put a brake on your bike for crying out loud," said Sgt. Schmautz. "It's the law and nobody will bother you ever again."

As for whether the bikes are more dangerous, there are no statistics. When we looked at more than 1,500 crash records, we realized no one keeps track of how many accidents involved "fixies" without a traditional brake.




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