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Editorial: Blaming the messenger

Council needs to put the brake on an overreaching bill

Thursday, September 09, 1999

One of the more colorful facts of life in Pittsburgh is the bicycle messenger, who can be seen daily hunched over a racer, zooming through clogged city streets.

A fact of life for the messengers themselves is traffic - lots of it - and that means conflicts and accidents involving motorists and messengers.

Those skirmishes are the concern of city Councilwoman Valerie A. McDonald, who wants to address them in a bill aimed at regulating Downtown bike messengers.

Along with requiring messenger service firms to obtain permits from the city and having each bike be registered, her bill would require that their bicycles be affixed with flags one foot above the operator's head, designating the bike's identification number. It also would require the messengers to wear shiny safety vests and give hand signals for turns and stops, as well as insist that they carry photo identification on the job.

Well-intended though her bill may be, many of its provisions are rendered unnecessary by one simple fact: There are already laws in place that apply to both bicyclists and motorists.

Bicyclists and motorists are obligated under state law to follow Pennsylvania rules of the road, also known as Title 75 or the vehicle code, and there are penalties already in place for those who choose to ignore those rules.

If part of Ms. McDonald's intent was to impress upon the messengers and their bosses how seriously they should take their jobs, that appears unnecessary, too.

Messengers who are caught disobeying traffic laws face the loss of their jobs at most firms. Triangle Messenger Service, for example, by far the largest operation in this region, provides strict guidelines in an employee handbook everybody working there must read.

The firm says it fires anyone who has two at-fault accidents in a 12-month period, and employees are required to report any accident in which they are involved.

As it is, there are an average of only three to four accidents a month at Triangle, and most of those don't involve other people. If the messengers do not wear helmets and are caught, they are fired on the spot, and they are held responsible for paying any traffic tickets they receive on the job.

In sum, Ms. McDonald's bill is overreaching and unnecessary, and in its present form should not be approved by City Council.

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