AUSTIN (KXAN) — A typical day for Senior Police Officer Rheannon Cunningham usually requires spending a few hours of her work day either talking about bicycle safety or even getting on a bike herself, which she doesn’t mind at all since she’s already an avid cyclist. As the Austin Police Department’s first and only officer dedicated to bicycle safety, Cunningham’s ultimate objective is to make the roads safer for all users, not just bicyclists.

“I’m a cyclist on my own, so I get to combine my passion for bikes with my job to help make the roads safer for everybody,” says Cunningham, who started her new position three months ago. “With our goals for Vision Zero, this is one component to make the roads safer and they assigned me to it as a full time position.”

A new initiative Cunningham helped launch is the city-wide “Safe Passing” operation. The operation uses two bicycles that are outfitted with a tool that measures the distance between a vehicle and a bicyclist. The bikes also have a mounted readout display that shows the measured distance so officers who are conducting the sting can immediately determine if a violation is occurring.

“These operations focus on education and enforcement of the city’s Vulnerable Road User Ordinance (how closely a vehicle passes a bicyclist,” explains Cunningham, who is involved in every Safe Passing operation.

In Austin, drivers who are passing a cyclist must leave at least 3 feet between their vehicles and the cyclist. For large/commercial vehicles, 6 feet is the legal minimum.

Since operations started in August, nearly two dozen drivers have been cited for egregious violations. In these cases, Cunningham says the officer on the bicycle was able to reach out and touch the vehicle. Another 22 drivers were cited for other violations such as texting while driving and driving in the bike lane.

Senior Police Officer Rheannon Cunningham on patrol during a Safe Passing operation with another officer. (Austin Police Department)

“We also educate and enforce violations by bicyclists if we see them while we’re out running these operations.”

The initiative has issued six citations and two warnings to bicyclists, most of which were for running stop signs and running red lights.

For Cunningham, these types of initiatives and overall push to make Austin roads safer are items she’s been working on for years. In 2013, she started a safe biking program, which was the impetus for this larger operation. In addition to her normal patrol work, she also worked as a liaison with the cycling community to identify problems and solutions.Breakdown of Safe Passing

  • Operations hours: 18
  • Motorist VRUO Citations (egregious violations): 21 (typically under 30″ passing distance0
  • Motorist VRUO Warnings: 28
  • Motorist Violations (other): 22 (distracted driving, etc.)
  • Bicyclist Citations: 6
  • Bicyclist Warnings: 2