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Kill a Cyclist and Get Away With It?

By Samantha Shimogawa

According to the U.S. Department of Transportation’s “2010 Motor Vehicle Crashes: Overview,” more than 4,000 cyclists were killed and 70,000 injured throughout the United States. One of those fatalities was Greenacres, Wash., cyclist Patricia A. Lambie, a 46-year-old woman who was struck while riding alongside a teenager participating in an organized relay run race on Highway 41 in Northern Idaho. In July of 2011, 44-year-old Michael Wang was killed while riding in downtown Seattle by the driver of an SUV who subsequently fled the scene; the culprit has yet to be caught. On August 12, 2011, Dustin Finney, 28, was hit by an allegedly intoxicated driver and died at the scene in Portland, Ore. This past March, Kelowna, B.C., resident Gordon Wilde, 50, died from injuries he received in a collision with a semi.

Take photos of the accident scene "as is" to fortify your case. Photo by Bicycle Paper Photo by Bicycle Paper

Take photos of the accident scene "as is" to fortify your case.

As awful as these cases are, they are only the tip of the iceberg, and not all result in death, as many of the accidents leave cyclists handicapped or impaired for life. On the morning of October 22, 2008, Dr. Ed Farrar was making his usual ride on Skyline Drive in Wenatchee, Wash., when he was hit, head-on, and then run over by a Ford Crown Victoria driven by a private security guard on patrol. The guard’s clipboard had fallen to the floor and, while reaching to retrieve it, he veered into Farrar, nearly crushing the cyclist’s body in half and costing him an inch of his spinal cord.

Though Farrar survived, his life will never be the same. Because of one mistake, one distraction, one second looking away from the road, Farrar will never be able to perform surgery as he used to, or even walk. In response to the collision, the driver was convicted of negligent driving to the second degree and fined $250.

Under normal circumstances, an accidental death would be investigated thoroughly and the person responsible could be charged and punished for the life that has been cut short. Somehow, it often doesn’t seem to be regarded similarly when it’s a driver who accidentally kills a cyclist, even though the end result is the same.

This dichotomy has been observed again and again. On the afternoon of July 22, 2011, teenage driver Nicholas N. Natale hit an unsuspecting John Przychodzen on the shoulder of Juanita Drive in Kirkland, Wash. Przychodzen, 49, died at the scene. Natale was given a $42 ticket for changing lanes unsafely. He served no jail time, no mandatory instructional classes on driving safely, and no community service.

Arguably, Natale will have to live with the fact that he has killed a man and that, therefore, his punishment is actually much greater than the ticket’s value. However, most parking infractions are about $40, which begs the question: is someone’s life equal to a mild parking infraction?

It is incredibly infuriating for many to penalize someone who has eradicated a life by charging them such a minimal amount. If the government can stamp a $40+ ticket on an individual for leaving a car in the wrong place, how can that same government decide that accidentally killing a cyclist deserves a similar level of punishment?

Frequently, drivers are not convicted of any infraction unless hitting the cyclist resulted from a moving violation or driving under the influence. Even then, the driver is usually punished solely for the traffic violation, while the death is oftentimes ignored in the prosecution process. Transportation Nation, an online publication based in New York City, mentions a case that was initially tried as manslaughter but that ended with a conviction of “driving with a suspended license.”

 Photo by Bicycle Paper Photo by Bicycle Paper

Furthermore, Yale Daily News reports that on August 23, 2011, a truck driver hit cyclist William O’Grady in New Haven, Conn., causing him injuries that cost him his job, and yet the driver was given only a verbal warning. This kind of leniency tends to send the message that driving without caution is no big deal, even if it ends up hurting someone.

Recently, evidence that many accidents between drivers and bicyclists are due to the driver’s negligence — not the rider’s — has been mounting. The Seattle Times discloses that between 2008 and 2010, of the 14 cyclists that were hit by cars along Dexter Avenue, a popular bike route in Seattle and where Michael Wang died, the driver was at fault in nearly every case, oftentimes for failing to yield to the rider. A 1999 study by Charles Komanoff and members of “Right of Way” discovered that it is the cyclist’s fault less than 10 percent of the time in car-bicycle accidents. So why aren’t these drivers punished for the consequences of their actions, one would ask.

Prosecuting a driver is harder than many might think. To punish someone for the act of killing a cyclist, judges would have to sentence the motorist with vehicular homicide, a serious crime that requires proof of deliberate intent and can result in punishment of up to life imprisonment. This requirement also creates a difficult barrier for cases where drivers are careless. The step down from vehicular homicide or assault is reckless driving, which is what some drivers end up getting charged with for unsafely changing lanes, failing to yield, etc. However, if prosecutors do not think that they can find evidence of careless and negligent driving, there is little chance that they will move forward with the case.

 Photo by Darren  Dencklau Photo by Darren Dencklau

In an effort to remedy the situation, the Washington State passed the Vulnerable Users Bill (HB 1339). This bill creates a new traffic infraction that punishes people found to be driving negligently, resulting in death, great bodily harm or substantial bodily harm to other road users.

Although Governor Gregoire signed it on May 16, 2011, HB 1339 won’t be enacted until July 1, 2012, as time is needed to allow the State to make changes to its ticketing systems and court computers. The bill aims to protect pedestrians, cyclists, moped users, people riding horses, and others by penalizing motorists much more severely. Under the new law, fines could reach $5,000 and licenses would be suspended for 90 days. Alternatively, the driver could choose to perform up to 100 hours of community service in traffic safety or driver improvement, complete a state approved traffic safety course, and pay a $250 fine.

While many are happy in Washington with the vulnerable user concept, others are unsatisfied and even disturbed. On March 3, 2011,

Kitsap Sun reported Republican Bill Hinkle saying, “We can have a terrible tragedy that is an accident ... We’re now going to create two tragedies. Not only is one life destroyed, we’re going to destroy two. I think this bill goes too far.”

On the other hand, Seattle’s cycling attorney John Duggan disagrees, commenting that penalizing people for their part in an unfortunate accident shouldn’t be seen as destroying their lives, but enhancing it.

“It gives them the opportunity to do some good in a horrible situation [...] and the chance to make the situation a little better,” he remarks.

Duggan goes on, expressing his support of the bill, praising its wording as substantial and explaining, “Almost every case I get, the driver should be charged under the law.” He also adds that the bill’s harsher penalties [than current laws] will carry a little more weight.

Ride of Silence participants honoring those who have been killed while riding.  Photo by Bicycle Paper Photo by Bicycle Paper

Ride of Silence participants honoring those who have been killed while riding.

“All that helps to raise awareness and educate,” he says. His only caveat for the bill is the knowledge that it may not make as huge of an impact as many are hoping.

“As a deterrent, most of the public doesn’t even know it’s out there [...] it’ll be a slow process. People will have to be cited for it. Then eventually it’ll trickle down that people need to be more careful. It’ll take time,” he says.

Similar bills are already active in other states, including Delaware (SB269), Maryland (HB 363), Massachusetts (HB 4459), New York (VTL 1146), and Oregon (HB 3314). The latter, which was passed in 2007, has served as the model for many of the other vulnerable user laws, but is much harsher than Washington’s. A person found guilty must complete a traffic safety course as well as 100-200 hours of community service. If the driver does not fulfill these tasks, he/she can be fined up to $12,500 along with a suspension of driving privileges for one year.

Yet however airtight the bill sounds, there’s apparently a problem with how it is enforced, according to Margaux Mennesson, Communication Director of Bicycle Transportation Alliance Oregon. Officers on the scene often feel uncomfortable citing drivers as being at fault for a crash, but without that call, the case doesn’t progress through the bill.

In response to this issue, Oregon passed SB 415 on June 7, 2011, giving police the authority to note that the offense “appears to have” contributed to an accident rather than citing the driver as the cause of it. While this seems to have helped improve enforcement of the Vulnerable User Bill, Mennesson explains that it shouldn’t stop there.

“The legislation is improving the situation but there’s still a lot to do,” she remarks. The government shouldn’t only concentrate on the aftermath of what happens, but also the source of the problem. She mentions developing infrastructure, so that the crash doesn’t occur in the first place.

“The first step is dedicating funding to build the infrastructure — separated facilities, wider bike lanes, giving people a safe place on the road. But it takes a certain amount of commitment,” Mennesson explains. She also expresses the need for better education for all users regarding how to behave on the road and to drive or ride more predictably and safely.

Though many states do not have identical pieces of legislation, they compensate with something akin. In Idaho, bicycle safety laws clarify what drivers and riders can and can’t do, and the penalty for breaking such laws is a maximum of six months jail time and a $1,000 fine.

Are they as effective as vulnerable user laws? Maureen Gresham, Bicycle and Pedestrian Coordinator at the Idaho Transportation Department, states that any law that lays out the rules for roadway users helps promote safety. Though she explains that there aren’t any cut and dry numbers to show it, it’s undeniable that the bicycle safety laws have created a smarter and safer way to share the road.

Like Duggan mentions, she stresses the importance for people to actually know and understand the laws and be predictable in their actions, as many times unpredictability is what results in collisions, injury, and death.

“If people were more familiar with the actual rules of the road, then things would be a lot safer,” she says.

Although legislation is doing a lot to improve the situation, there is still much work to be done, and the Vulnerable Users Bill and other bicycle safety laws out there are only the beginning. As more attention is brought to the issues cyclists face on the roads, more work will be done by those who can make a difference; and that means all of us.

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