Traffic fatalities in Austin are a huge problem. Many involve bicyclists. As the city encourages people to give up their cars to commute downtown, police are trying to stop the skyrocketing number of fatalities.
FOX7's Jenni Lee went out with APD as officers conducted the first undercover bike initiative.
Officers were on bikes, unmarked cars, and in a van. It was Austin Police Department's first undercover operation for bike safety.
"We are trying to educate motorists about the three foot passing rule, and six foot which is the City of Austin's Vulnerable Road User Ordinance," Officer Rheannon Cunningham said.
While plain-clothed officers ride bikes, chase vehicles are nearby, ready to nab drivers. We followed in an unmarked van and also hooked up a small camera on an officer's bicycle.
The operation's roll out started in east Austin. Cesar Chavez Street and MLK Jr. Blvd are considered hot spots.
"I never use Cesar Chavez. I've seen people get hit on there," said bicyclist John Zarate.
Both streets don't have bike lanes. Police say drivers in these areas often don't allow bicyclists the three feet required by law. Commercial trucks and buses must allow six feet. A Capitol Metro bus driver doesn't and gets a ticket. It's a class C misdemeanor, the same as a speeding ticket.
"A few that were dangerously close, I could have easily reached out and touched which is definitely way too close," APD SPO Matt Wright said.
Cesar Chavez is one lane of traffic each way. Police say drivers must find a safe way to pass the bicyclist.
The driver of a tan Buick doesn't and gets pulled over. It turns out she has outstanding warrants, one for driving with a suspended license, and one for not having a driver's license. She immediately goes to jail.
MLK Jr. Blvd is two lanes of traffic each way. Police say drivers behind bicyclists here must completely switch lanes. They say some drivers straddle the lane instead of vacating it.
Officers say three feet is generally an arm's length plus a foot.
As Austin's biking community grows, police say so does the need for education and awareness, especially when we saw a record year of traffic fatalities in 2012. Seventy-eight people died. So far this year, we are outpacing the number of traffic deaths, 29 so far this year. Compared to the same time last year, 26 people died in traffic collisions.
John Zarate says he was almost one of those fatalities when a driver hit him while he was cycling.
"He was following his dad and I think he just had it in his head, I'm following dad, ran right into me and side swiped me, he knocked me 30 feet," Zarate said.
He's glad police are conducting the bike safety initiative. Police will continue the operations citywide, hoping to change behavior and reduce the number of traffic fatalities.
"Your chances of being killed in a traffic accident are greater than being a victim of murder in this city," said APD SPO Jose Ynostrosa.
Austin police will be conducting the bike safety initiatives every week. Officers will switch the focus to target bad bicycling habits in the summer.