Motorists are discovering a new trend and distraction on local roads. Across the North Shore, teenagers on bicycles have been playing chicken with cars — pedaling into oncoming traffic, swerving their bikes close to vehicles and popping wheelies in the middle of the road. Sometimes they are in pairs and other times in groups of up to a couple dozen.
Children playing chicken with cars has become a hot topic in various Facebook community and parents groups. Members of the Smithtown Moms Facebook group have witnessed 20 children on bikes spreading out across Meadow Road in Kings Park, doing wheelies. In the Three Village area, junior high schoolers were seen cutting off cars at Bennetts Road and Route 25A and laughing about it.
What police officers are doing about it
When it comes to the incidents, Suffolk County Police Department’s 4th Precinct is hoping to get ahead of potential injuries and fatalities in its community as well as the whole of Suffolk County. Officers have compiled a video with clips of teens creating havoc on streets such as Meadow Road in Kings Park, Commack Road near the entrance to Northern State Parkway in Commack and Lake Shore Drive in Lake Ronkonkoma. While the video includes clips from Smithtown, 4th Precinct officers said the cases can be used as examples at any precinct.
The purpose is to use the video to educate parents after officers stop a youth for reckless bicycling. In these circumstances, the law enforcers confiscate bikes and bring the teenagers to the precinct. Parents are then called, according to Deputy Inspector Mark Fisher. He said many ask why the police department is putting so much effort into the trend.
“The realities are it’s a tremendous danger,” Fisher said. “I would say it is as deadly as heroin. In some ways, on a particular day and time, because you are going in front of cars, and you are risking people-on-the-road’s lives. In a lot of ways, it’s a tremendously big deal, because if one 14-year-old gets killed or his life changes dramatically because he’s crippled for life. We want to avoid that.”
Commanding Officer Michael Romagnoli said it’s not a new problem, but the number of incidents has increased over recent months. The police department does not want to dissuade people from riding their bikes, he said, they just want them to do it safely.
“They’re going in front of traffic, trucks, cars. It’s like the thrill of being in that unsafe position that they’re looking for.”
— Captain Karen Kolsch
“We’re not against them riding their bikes,” Romagnoli said. “Bicycling is actually a great sport. I’m not even opposed to the stunts provided that they are not doing it in the middle of a highway or a road. It’s not the location to do that. They are subject to vehicle and traffic regulations.”
Romagnoli said many teenagers might not realize how dangerous it is.
“The control of the bicycle is the steering, the handlebars,” Romagnoli said. “Right now, they are relying on balance, and they are relying on a motorist not to hit them when they are doing that swerve. Because they can’t predict how the motorist is going to react to their actions.”
Captain Karen Kolsch agreed.
“They are not doing the stunts on the side of the road to see how long they can do a wheelie,” Kolsch said. “They’re going in front of traffic, trucks, cars. It’s like the thrill of being in that unsafe position that they’re looking for.”
The officers said the intent of the 4th Precinct’s video, compiled by Officer Kelly Neeb, is to provide an opportunity to educate parents on how dangerous the situations are instead of punishing the riders. In turn, they are hoping the video will create a conversation between parents and teenagers.
Just like many teens take to social media to post their stunts, Neeb takes to the same resources to see what the bicyclists are doing on roads and how parents are reacting to the tricks in Facebook groups. The officer even found one bicyclist post a flyer that was circulating on social media warning children and parents about the dangers. On the Instagram account 631vinny, the user posted about the flyer, “That’s funny. I can honestly care less.”
“To them, it’s a big joke,” Neeb said.
Recently, after the Meadow Road incident where the officers brought the group of bicyclists to the 4th Precinct, parents were upset at the officers when they first arrived to pick up their sons. Fisher said once they explained what the teenagers were doing on the roads, and they showed the parents the video, their anger subsided.
“The last thing we want to do is go to a home and tell their parents that your child was struck by a vehicle.”
— Commanding Officer Michael Romagnoli
What parents can do
The officers said parents need to sit down with their children and ask who they are spending time with and discuss the rules of the road. Bicycles are treated as vehicles, and their handlers must follow the same laws as cars and trucks.
“The last thing we want to do is go to a home and tell their parents that your child was struck by a vehicle,” Romagnoli said, adding an accident between a car and bicycle would be a tragedy to the motorist too.
Romagnoli said as the sun goes down it becomes difficult for drivers to see with little to no adequate lighting on many roads. Due to this, bicyclists need to have lights or reflectors on their bikes, so they can be seen. The commanding officer added that to compound the problem, many riders are not wearing helmets.
Fisher said parents should be aware that most rides start out harmless.
“A lot of this starts as a bike ride, and then it progresses to the stunts,” Fisher said. “They want to outdo each other. They have some games where they get points for certain stunts.”
Neeb also suggested that parents check their children’s social media activity from time to time since some post videos of their stunts or invitations to meet up. She said even conducting general research online can help parents educate themselves as to what is going on with young bicyclists. One YouTube account 631.BikeLife shows some of the stunts.
Kolsch said it’s understandable that parents are glad to see their teens outside doing something physical and may not realize what they are up to.
“A lot of this starts as a bike ride, and then it progresses to the stunts.”
— Deputy Inspector Mark Fisher
“They’re thinking they’re not sitting inside with the Xbox all day and so happy to see them doing something they think is good,” she said.
How motorists can be vigilant
The first step is for motorists to be aware that this is happening on local roadways, and the officers said drivers should treat reckless bicyclists as they would any other hazard in the road. Slow down, stop if you have to and let the hazard pass. They also said to call 911 and to be as descriptive as possible, including descriptions of bikers and bicycles, location, number of riders, if they were swerving, crossing double lines, standing on their bikes or anything else that will help officers.
Romagnoli suggested treating an incident with a reckless bicyclist the same as “following behind someone who may be an intoxicated driver.”
If pedestrians encounter problems with a bicyclist on a sidewalk or while they are crossing a road, they also should call 911.
Motorists should avoid altercations with the bicyclists, and if an accident occurs, especially when a rider has been hit, Kolsch said drivers involved should not leave the scene and make sure to get all witnesses’ contact information.
Anyone with information about such incidents also can call 631-852-COPS.
Spreading the word
In addition to the 4th Precinct officers open to sharing the video with other precincts, Fisher said they also are reaching out to school districts to see if they can show the video in schools to let parents know this is happening.
The officers said while there can be incidents where bicyclists can be brought up on charges or parents can be fined, depending on what transpired and the age of the teenager, they’re hoping to avoid such a situation with the educational video.
“We’re not looking to arrest people,” Kolsch said. “We’re looking to keep people safe.”