Surely you've seen the fleet of pedicabs touring Seattle—giant tricycles manned by drivers and equipped with a bucket seat for passengers. They cruise slowly along the waterfront all summer, offering tourists scenic rides. They circle around stadiums at every sporting event in town, offering zero-emission, short-distance transportation alternatives. They even sun themselves outside the Puyallup Fair to truck tired fairgoers back to their cars.
The pedicab industry is growing, according to the Seattle Pedicab Operator's Guild (seaPOG), but the industry has few regulations. The 15-member guild is trying to change that. You see, most pedicab operators are self employed—either they own their own trike or they rent one—so there's no measure of the trike's safety or the operator's street safety. Since January, the guild has been working with the city to draft legislation to make pedicabs safer—including rear-light, brake, and safety belt requirements. The guild also wants to make training requirements standard for all pedicab operators.
But one city department hasn't been cooperating, says Daniel deCordova, spokesman for seaPOG: the Seattle Police Department. Not only has SPD refused six invitations to help draft safety regulations for pedicabs, since July 1, pedicab drivers say that SPD's traffic division has started routinely ticketing them for not wearing helmets. "Instead of working with us, they're coming after us," says deCordova. "Before July, there were no helmet tickets being issued, ever. Now our drivers are being kicked off their trikes. We've even had passengers threatened with citations. [Police officers] are creating a hostile environment where there doesn't have to be one."
Sgt. Sean Whitcomb, spokesman for SPD, didn't have statistics on citations for pedicab drivers. But he argues that most officers issue helmet warnings, not citations, but that anyone violating King County's helmet law is taking the risk of a $103 ticket. "Everyone benefits from wearing a helmet," says Whitcomb, "whether you're on skateboard, bike, horse... the sole responsibility of our traffic officers is to enforce traffic safety and education. Frankly, I'm more concerned that passengers aren't required to wear helmets."
But pedicab drivers argue that helmets don't improve safety, and requiring passengers to wear helmets is impossible (they'd either have to be carrying their own or don on a 'public helmet,' which would be unhygienic and might not fit).
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"As far as we can tell, there's never been an incident on a trike where a helmet would’ve helped," says deCordova, because "trikes don’t fall over." deCordova sites the fatal pedicab accident in 2008. "That cab wasn't street legal," he says. "It didn't have the appropriate brakes and it was run by an inexperienced driver. Those are the kinds of issues we're trying to fix through legislation."
Drivers also argue that potential passengers won't get in a cab with a helmeted driver. "They see the helmet and think the bike is unsafe. Then they walk on by to the next cab, even if it's got broken spokes and is manned by an unwashed tweaker," deCordova explains. "That's why no major US cities require helmets for pedicab operators."
deCordova adds that trike safety comes from having an experienced operator behind the handlebars, and that won't happen if SPD continues to kill their business. "We can’t keep competent pedicab operators," says deCordova, who explains that it takes at least a month to safely train a driver. An experienced driver can pull in $150 a day if they aren't fined by SPD and forced to push their trikes home.
"It’s a decent job, you get exercise, and you're removing carbon-powered transportation from the community," deCordova says. "These officers are supposed to be making sure we’re safe, and instead they're giving us a hard time. I've had officers scream at me. Others have had their passengers booted out and threatened with citations. How is that improving public safety?"
deCordova says that the guild hopes SPD will come to the table and start working with them on crafting legislation to make their profession safer. The guild hopes to present their ideas to the city council's transportation committee later this year.