Want to Get Away With Murder? Just Run Over a Bicyclist

A drivers license in the wrong hands can feel like a hunting license to bicyclists who have few legal protections and even fewer enforcement options negligent drivers. When bikers are injured or killed, police are often reluctant to investigate why.
September 22, 2010, 3pm PDT | Anonymous
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It's open season on bikers because America's traffic laws are a joke.

Former North Carolina firefighter Charles Alexander Diez was sentenced to 120 days in prison after he shot cyclist Alan Simons in his head.

According to Mountain Xpress, the incident began when Diez stopped his vehicle to say it was not safe for Simons to ride with his three-year-old daughter in a child seat. The altercation quickly escalated and Diez pulled out a gun and shot Simons as he walked away from the row. Simons' wife was also present when he was shot. According to police, the bullet ripped through Simons' helmet, which stopped it from piercing his skull.

According to Mountain Xpress:

Convictions on such a charge result in an average 20-39 months in prison for the defendant. But in the sentencing, Superior Court Judge James Downs found that Diez's military service, along with testimony from former colleagues about his good character, were mitigating factors, and chose to sentence him to 15-27 months instead. Downs suspended all but four months of that sentence unless Diez breaks the law again in the next 30 months.
Good character indeed. Way to go North Carolina legal system!

People convicted of abusing their pets often receive stiffer penalties, a commenter on Streetsblog named Jeffrey Early said.

The Simons shooting, bears more resemblance to road rage incidence, but the attitude of the court proves that cyclists rights are secondary to cars. It's ludicrous to imagine that a cyclist shooting a firefighter would be treated so favorably by the court.

The importance of strengthening laws for cyclists are obvious. First of all, bikes are expected to observe the same traffic decorum as drivers and they can be and are ticketed for violations such running red lights, riding on the sidewalk or going the wrong way in traffic.

Beyond personal safety, we should be encouraging more people to ride bicycles as a way to kick out addiction to oil, increase health and reduce obesity. Numerous other benefits accrue in communities where cycling is promoted, but this can only happen when bikers feel safe and that the legal system is working to protect them.

"The legal system is not making traffic safety a high priority and budget realities make traffic the poor cousin that never really gets much attention in the family," said Ray Thomas, a founding partner of Swanson Thomas & Coon, a Portland, OR law firm that specializes in personal injury law and cases involving cyclists. "In police circles traffic enforcement is similarly disadvantaged because scarce resources are dedicated to violent felonies, not intersection collisions," Thomas said.

When cyclists are injured or killed by cars, the most common response offered by drivers is "I didn't see him," or "he just popped out of nowhere," which by are often enough to absolve a driver or any and all responsibility.

"Laws and the legal environment are important, yet really only come into play when something bad happens," said Andy Clarke, president of the League of American Bicyclists. "It does seem as if motorists that hit cyclists typically get insignificant penalties from minor charges leveled against them – often completely out of synch with the serious impact of such collisions."

Cindy Whitney was struck and killed on her bicycle on a road in Canyon, TX, when Gaige Sippy swerved his pickup into her. Sippy went before a Randall County grand jury in August and said the accident occurred as he bent down to pick up his phone which he had dropped. No charges were filed. Whitney's tragic death is just one of hundreds that will go unpunished, as a Google search of the term "bicyclist killed, no charges filed" proves.

"Part of the challenge is that there is rarely any intent to cause harm on the part of the motorist, which is usually required for more serious charges – and most states don't have a "causing death or serious injury by careless driving" or some such equivalent," said Clarke.

If it is plausible that there was nothing a driver could have done to protect a dead cyclist, why are we as a society proposing to punish this person?

After all, to be negligent, a "reasonably prudent person" must fail in his or her duty to protect another individual. Dead bikers tell no tales, which makes proving negligence a little tough

"That's the goal behind vulnerable road user laws – to give the police and courts a charge that has some teeth that doesn't require intent," said Clarke.

Even when a biker survives an accident, enforcement is lax at best.

Police often rush to assign blame to cyclists, who they accuse of failing to wear enough lights, or obey traffic laws, which is easier than launching an investigation.

A well-documented case of a hit-and-run in San Francisco shows just how loathe police are to follow up on traffic accidents when they involve cyclists. San Francisco blogger JWZ and his friend were run down on their bikes by a driver who fled the scene. Witnesses provided a photo of the car's license plate, as well as a description of the car and driver but, the San Francisco Police Department declined to investigate the incident, case 091-062-114. Upon subsequent inquiry the petitioner was told by the SFPD, "No action has been taken on your case, but you can call the DMV and get the person's plate if you want to file a civil suit," according to JWZ's blog.

The answer is the implementation or strengthening of vulnerable road user laws to ensure that pedestrians and bikers and other non-motorized road users are safe and have legal recourse. Ultimately, a the driver of a car, and a cyclist are equal, the fact that cyclists don't have a steel exoskeleton shouldn't make their rights a joke. Police should not be able to ignore biker's needs when they get rundown by cars, nor should people have to fear for their lives every time they get up on two wheels.

For many cyclists, myself included, a drivers license in the hands of some seems much more like a hunting license.

Thanks to Chikodi Chima

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Published on Wednesday, September 22, 2010 in AltTransport
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