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Officers did not know correct speed limit in Central Park

In law enforcement circles it's generally accepted that the basic idea is to enforce laws that actually exist rather than ones you’ve made up or perhaps think should exist.

If you don’t adhere to this principle things can quickly become messy and embarrassing, as the New York Police Department is discovering.

Officers in Central Park have been using radar gun speed traps to catch cyclists and issue tem with tickets for exceeding a 15mph speed limit. At $140 a time the civic authorities appeared to be on to a nice little earner until it was pointed out that the speed limit is not 15, but 25mph in the park.

The net result is that in addition to cancelling the tickets, officers, who are said to have been confused by some outdated signage, have been visiting the wrongly ticketed riders to apologies for their mistakes.

But according to a local advocacy group, Transportation Alternatives (TA), the NYPD has been acitively targeting cyclists in both Central Park and Prospect Park recently. The group claims that while 160 speeding tickets were handed out to drivers in Central Park in the whole of 2010, already this year 230 such tickets have been slapped on cyclists.

“The NYPD is writing tickets for laws that don't exist. The speed limit in Central Park was not known to them when they started this blitz,” said TA executive director Paul Steely White. And despite the lack of a helmet law the group says it has also received complaints from cyclists sanctioned for not wearing a protective headgear.

In the wake of the furore there appeared to be a tacit admission from one city official that cyclists had become seen as a potentially lucrative stream of income by civic authorities.

“It is true that we need to get revenue, but we should not target particular groups [when] trying to get the revenue the city needs,” said Councilman Ydanis Rodriguez.

He proposed a new local law that would smooth cyclists’ journeys through Central Park by using flashing amber traffic lights giving pedestrians priority but allowing cyclist to pass through junctions without stopping at times when there is no motorised traffic there.

“We all want safe streets,” said Councilman Brad Lander, who proposed the new legislation along with Rodriquez. “Safe streets require smart enforcement.

“If our goal is safe streets, giving out tickets to people who are riding fast in Prospect Park and Central Park is not a way that we are going to effectively use police resources,” he said.