Sunday, January 17, 2016

Blaming Bicyclists and Pedestrians For Being Killed By Motorists

My sister was stunned. Her 13-year-old son went up to pray at a part of the service when people pray for thanks of miracles.

What was her son, Shalom, praying about?

My sister Leiba had no idea.

She asked Shalom, "What were you praying for?"

My nephew told his mom, "I was riding my bicycle and a car hit me and I survived."

*   *   *

The motorist who drove his car into Shalom and his bicycle never stopped, It happened two months ago in the Aventura area of Miami-Dade County, about 20 miles north of Miami.

My sister never knew about it. Shalom kept it a secret because he didn't want to upset his mom about his near-death.

He wasn't hurt enough to catch my sister's attention.

But a motorist driving behind the hit-and-run driver saw it all unfold in front of her.

She drove up to the hit-and-runner and screamed to him, "Stop! You just hit a little kid!"

It didn't matter. He drove away.

Shalom was OK. He was wearing a bicycle helmet he received when I held my last Bicycle Bash festival in Tampa in Nov. 2012. Thank God Leiba and her family came to Tampa that Sunday in early November when Shalom received his bike helmet.

*   *   *

It's not just bicyclists. Pedestrians also are getting hit and killed by motorists. In Hillsborough County, Fla., the county that includes the city of Tampa, a record 51 pedestrians were killed by people who drove cars in 2015.

A week ago here in Las Vegas, a woman from Korea in town for a giant electronics trade show was walking on a sidewalk at 5 a.m. when she was killed by a bus driver who was behind the wheel of a local public bus that jumped the curb and snuffed this innocent woman's life.

What was the bus driver's reaction when a witness told him moments after he killed this woman?

"Shut the fuck up. She jaywalked," the bus driver told the witness that early Saturday morning on Jan. 9.

Don't believe me? Just read it here.

Don't trust police reports that pin the blame on the bicyclist. In 2014, a long-distance bicyclist from Canada was killed in Mississippi, where state police took a truck driver's word and said the cyclist, Iain Gerrard, was biking against traffic and even appeared to swerve into the truck as if wanting to commit suicide.

But a driver witness said he saw Iain driving with traffic on the road with the truck coming from behind. The Star from Canada reported about the botched investigation into Gerrard's death.

The Gerrards hired a New Orleans lawyer who specializes in bicycle law. Lawyer Charlie Thomas, in turn, hired a crash reconstruction expert, according to The Toronto Star. The lawyer's investigator concluded, according to The Toronto Star story:

that Iain was hit from behind and that the truck driver would have had at least 14 seconds after seeing Iain to change lanes and pass safely.
In Mississippi, vehicles are required by law to leave a minimum of three feet when passing a cyclist.
This is a result of the driver of the 18-wheeler, who’s either willfully distracted, he’s choosing to be distracted in the cab. He’s choosing not to give three feet to the cyclist he’s overtaking,” Thomas, who has been representing the family in a now-settled civil suit, said in an interview.

*  *  *

It's not only motorists killing bicyclists and pedestrians. It's the fact that bicyclists and pedestrians are often blamed for their own deaths -- a blame-the-victim mentality that I have seen first-hand at Departments of Transportation, in police reports and even in newspaper editorials such as this one in the Las Vegas Review-Journal.

If only bicyclists and pedestrians followed the rules and they would still be alive, we're told by the oracles of transportation

But newspapers don't have to blame the victim. Here's an editorial in the Tampa Tribune that tells DOT engineers and road designers to start creating roads that make it safe for pedestrians to cross the road.  And it advises motorists to change one habit -- just slow down.

I've seen so many six-lane suburban roads with intersections a mile apart where road designers expect pedestrians to walk a mile to get to a place across the street. No wonder they cross mid-intersection -- would you want to walk 3/4 of a mile down the road, cross it and then walk that 3/4 of a mile back just to reach  destination across that street?

Yet when a motorist kills a pedestrian or bicyclist, the police report is one sided; that is, it reflect's only the motorist's version, which is usually, "She was walking outside the crosswalk" or "He swerved his bicycle right in front of me."

Or, she was jaywalking.

You know, just like what the Las Vegas bus driver said after he killed a pedestrian on a sidewalk.

*    *    *

I've seen it first-hand. Several years ago, I was invited to a local DOT meeting in Tampa where a consultant rolled out a "safety" campaign that didn't address the way motorists drive their two-ton vehicles.

It was based on the "fact," I was told, that most crashes of motorists hitting pedestrians and bicyclists were because the pedestrian and bicyclist was at fault.

That's plain bullshit.

A South Florida reporter, Janine Zeitlin of The New-Press in Fort Myers, crunched the data and concluded:

" . . . motorists were twice as likely to have been the main cause of bike crashes, mostly by failing to yield, than to have been blameless. Most impacts happened at angles at intersections."

Check out Zeitlin's report here.

*   *   *

Motorists fail to yield the right-of-the-way to bicyclists and pedestrians.

Yet. it's the bicyclists and pedestrians who are blamed.

That's not the case in England and France, where people who drive their cars into pedestrians and bicyclists are AUTOMATICALLY considered the one to blame.

That because a motorist is piloting a 4,000-pound machine and a pedestrian and bicyclist have no body armor.

Of course pedestrians and bicyclists need to be vigilant about their safety and not pull stunts out on the roads.

But when they screw up, they suffer the ultimate accountability punishment; that is, they're the ones who suffer and get hurt or killed.

But when motorists screw up, they're not injured or killed. Their screw-up inflicts pain and sometimes death on the most vulnerable of our roadways.

*    *    *

Our squawking about all of this is slowly changing how the justice department treats motorists who kills bicyclists and peds.

Outside Tampa, a driver who killed bicyclist Robert Niedbalec nearly five years ago on a road I used to ride my bicycle was sentenced to 13 years in prison. The motorist was sentenced more than three years after he killed Robert. But justice was served here after a man lost his life because he went out for a bike ride on a February Sunday afternoon bike ride.

In Delaware, a motorist who killed a bicyclist received more than eight years in jail in connection to his manslaughter charge.

And more recently in Oklahoma, a motorist was charged with manslaughter for killing a "Bike and Build" bicyclist.  The cyclist, Patrick Wanninkhof, was 25 and biking across the country with 25 other Biker and Build cyclists who were pedaling from California to Maine and building homes along the way.

Cynthia Finnegan knows the pain of losing a bicyclist she loved. Her son Matt was pedaling on the Strip on a Monday morning around 8 in early August, doing a bike tour with a customer. That's when a motorist by the name of Breanna Jimeno, a 23-year-old Las Vegas woman, drove a 1998 Ford Mustang into Hunt from behind.

Hunt was only 37, leaving behind a wife and two small kids. A month later, about 500 bicyclists staged a memorial bike for Matthew. He was among nine bicyclists killed in the Vegas valley in 2015.

His mom, who lives in upstate New York around the Albany area and works at the Albany Times-Union newspaper, rides a bicycle and remembers her son always. She wrote this to me in an email:

Here is another thing that really bugs me. In Nevada hitting a bicycle and killing someone is a misdemeanor (vehicular manslaughter)! As long as you are not drunk, don't leave the scene etc. you have the right to run over a cyclists. And you can't sue the person who hit your loved one because they can file bankruptcy and have it discharged. It still hurts and he was the "safety first" guy who would not even let me move on a bike until he checked my helmet. I just had to write.

Jimeno will have a court date one day. But too many get away with hitting bicyclists, like the man who drove his car and struck my nephew two years ago.

We need education and re-education. We need to radically change the way we educate people about how they drive their cars and bicycles, too.

Bicyclist Alan Snel lives in Las Vegas, works as a journalist and used to lead an alliance of retail bicycle shops in the Tampa Bay area that made a difference there,


Unknown said...

I live in suburban Manatee County, about an hour's drive S. of Tampa. I feel tolerably safe riding my recumbent trike at 5 mph around the 'ol trailer park, but on local thoroughfares I sick to the sidewalks, which is legal in Florida. Around here, cycle traffic on sidewalks far exceeds walking traffic. I'm full aware that the "cyclists as drivers" people say it's safer to ride in the traffic lanes than on sidewalks, which may be so if you wear spandex and go 30 - 40 mph. I am very careful at intersections and driveway crossings, which are the main places cyclists and walkers seem to get killed by carists.

I am 100% glad that for me cycling is a recreation and relaxation thing. I work at home and own a car, so if I don't feel like riding -- for instance on days like today, when the outside temp. is a chilly 55 -- I don't. Those who have no choice.... I feel for them, I really do, and periodically I badger our county commissioners about better and more consistent sidewalks and bike paths, but that's slow going since they are more aligned with the concerns of richie-rich developers than with people who ride bikes to work.

Unknown said...

My commute is in Ohio. I could argue that the commmuity laws resticting sidewalk riding are invalid without signage, but if I had to stop for every driveway, as required by law for sidewalk riding, I could not reasonably ride to work. Bike paths and sidewalks are not suitable in most cases for commuting. They are not generally provided such that crossings are limited, pedestrian traffic seperated, and in numbers and locations to reach all buisnesses and homes.