Break the cycle: Why stronger laws will save bikers and curb reckless drivers
For the last week, people have been forwarding me this New York Times op-ed by Daniel Duane, which has the attention-grabbing title of “Is it O.K. to Kill Cyclists?” (In short: no. Or: maybe. We’ll get back to that.)
Duane describes himself as a convert to cycling because he likes the shorts, and the wind in his hair, and because it’s what the cool kids are doing these days. But as of press time he is having a hard time biking anywhere but on remote country roads and on the stationary bicycle in his basement, because fear of death. Specifically, fear of the kind of death where no one gets punished for killing you, because in the cities closest to Duane, especially San Francisco, there have been a series of well-publicized stories recently about accidents between cars and cyclists where the cyclist winds up dead, and the driver, even when clearly at fault, winds up with only a ticket.
“There is something undeniably screwy,” Duane writes, “about a justice system that makes it de facto legal to kill people, even when it is clearly your fault, as long you’re driving a car and the victim is on a bike and you’re not obviously drunk and don’t flee the scene.”
Commentators on this strange state of affairs, he adds, fall into two camps: “cyclists outraged at inattentive drivers and wondering why cops don’t care; drivers furious at cyclists for clogging roads and flouting traffic laws.” Duane attempts to find middle ground between these two groups and arrives at this conclusion: “Everybody’s a little right.” He goes on:
So here’s my proposal: Every time you get on a bike, from this moment forward, obey the letter of the law in every traffic exchange everywhere to help drivers (and police officers) view cyclists as predictable users of the road who deserve respect. And every time you get behind the wheel, remember that even the slightest inattention can maim or kill a human being enjoying a legitimate form of transportation. That alone will make the streets a little safer.
As someone who spent over a decade riding the mean streets of San Francisco that Duane is too scared to venture out of his basement and pedal through, I would say: Sir, we can do a hell of a lot better than that.
For example: One of the accidents that Duane mentions is the case of 24- year-old Amélie Le Moullac, who was killed by a truck last August while she was biking to work. At first, the officers assigned to the case said that Le Moullac was at fault. Then Marc Caswell, a program manager at the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition, checked with several stores near where the accident had happened. Not only had none of the stores been contacted by the police, but it turned out one of them had footage of the accident showing that the truck had failed to signal and then turned directly into Le Moullac. Her issue was not that she wasn’t following the rules. Her issue was the truck.
Trying to make our streets safer by telling drivers to be better to cyclists, and by telling cyclists to try to look more responsible to drivers, is a pleasant notion. But, as pretty much all of human history points out, it’s not easy to get everybody to stop being a jerk.
Which is why, in times like these, it’s important to turn away from platitudes and towards the imperfect but nonetheless occasionally effective jerk management system that our ancestors have passed down to us: government. Specifically, the time has come to figure out how to take away the driver’s licenses of those people who are found unequivocally at fault for killing or injuring cyclists and pedestrians.
This will not be easy. Today, if you are a pedestrian or a cyclist, and you get hit by a car, it is very, very hard to persuade the police to file a report about that accident. It is even harder to persuade the authorities involved that you didn’t do something to bring this on yourself. But things weren’t always this way.
In the early days of the automobile, judges and juries tended to rule against drivers. As cars became more prevalent, attitudes began to shift. In the ’20s, under pressure from the automobile industry, cities began passing anti-jaywalking laws. Other laws followed, mostly on the state and city level. Rules that once automatically suspended the driver’s licenses of people convicted of vehicular manslaughter were cancelled, and the sentences became lighter for I-Accidentally-Killed-This-Person-With-My-Car situations.
The change had a lot to do with how much America was driving. As more people drove, more people felt sympathetic to drivers. Even today, says Gary Brustin, a lawyer who founded the National Legal Affairs Committee for the League of American Bicyclists and who often represents cyclists in civil cases, “most people on juries see cyclists through a windshield” rather than out on the street, as cyclists themselves.
Those laws changed once, and they can change again. In the last few years, some cities and states have passed something called “vulnerable roadway user statutes” which create a higher penalty for careless drivers if they harm not only cyclists and pedestrians, but skateboarders, horseback riders, and people riding around on farm equipment. Other cities have created fines for people who door cyclists or speed past them too closely. It has been argued that these are just laws, and implementing them is another thing entirely, but still: new laws!
So: Laws are one thing. What else? I talked to Leah Shahum, the executive director of the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition, which has, along with other cities, been thinking a lot about this issue. To her, the best thing we can do to protect cyclists and pedestrians is to make sure that the laws that are already on the books get enforced. That means:
If you or someone you know is in an accident with a car, make sure that a police report is filed.
Police officers will, at times, tell you that they can’t file a police report unless you’re injured, Shahum says. That’s not true. Do it. For one thing, you might be so hopped up on post-accident adrenaline that you won’t notice that you’ve been injured until after the officer is gone. For another thing, if someone’s not a great driver, maybe it’s time for them to get a refresher course on road protocol at Comedy Traffic School.
It may sound paranoid, but Shahum has seen enough spotty police reports to advise interviewing any witnesses yourself and taking down their contact information, just in case they don’t make it into the police report. Look around and check local businesses for security cameras that might have recorded the accident.
Do all this sooner rather than later. When the footage of Amélie Le Moullac’s accident was discovered, it was only few hours away from being erased, to make way for the next week of security cam footage. Not all police know what the actual rules are. You can be that handsome stranger who reminds them. Interested parties can find much more detailed information about what to do at an accident scene here.
If the police in your town have started ticketing cyclists, make sure they’re doing it in a way that actually helps make cycling safer.
Ticketing cyclists for breaking traffic laws in areas where there have been a lot of car/bicycle/pedestrian accidents is actually good public policy. Setting up ticket traps in areas where cyclists roll through stop signs because they are in little to no danger of getting into an accident is just bad police work, and makes everybody hate everybody.
Sometimes, it’s just time to sue.
Money talks. Not so long ago, there was another type of case where police often refused to file police reports or make arrests: domestic violence. Many factors went into changing that practice, but lawsuits like Scott v. Hart in 1976 were credited with creating a clear financial incentive to do so.
Get to know your allies in public office.
This is actually a worthwhile thing to do whether you give a damn about bikes or not. If that doesn’t work, run a campaign and get someone elected that you like better.
Get a hold of the data concerning where the most frequent bicycle and pedestrian and use it to map out where the most dangerous (or frequent) accidents are occurring. Make sure that your city uses it for future policy decisions on streetscape improvement.
Hey, the Netherlands does it. They have laws that would give most American drivers an apoplexy, but they also have impressively low per capita bicyclist fatalities. I’m sure we’re all (cyclists or not) tired of hearing about the Netherlands and how great they are and how we should do everything they do, but: We could do worse.