A Driver’s Responsibility

November 29th, 2013 by Andrea Bennett

A provocatively titled article probes automobile drivers’ accountability to cyclists.

Brought to you by Liberty Mutual's
The Responsibility Project

“Is It O.K. To Kill Cyclists?” poses an opinion piece in the New York Times by Daniel Duane. Of course it isn’t, most would respond – but as Duane writes, examining how rarely drivers are charged with serious offences when they hit a cyclist, particularly if they are sober, indicates an alarmingly high disregard for cyclists.

“Laws do forbid reckless driving, gross negligence and vehicular manslaughter,” he notes, but according to Ray Thomas, a Portland, Ore., attorney who specializes in bike law, jurors identify with drivers. “Convictions carry life-destroying penalties, up to six years in prison.” But as Thomas points out, jurors “just think, well, I could make the same mistake. So they don’t convict.” Because of the low conviction rate, “police officers and prosecutors don’t bother making arrests. Most cops spend their lives in cars, too, so that’s where their sympathies lie.”

After Duane saw an SUV hit another cyclist while he himself was on a bike, he began noticing “cyclist killed” news articles, notably those in which “the truck driver stayed at the scene and was not cited,” or the case in which a teenager ran over and killed a cyclist from behind and was issued only a $42 ticket for an unsafe lane change because he hadn’t been drinking, and according to the police, hadn’t been driving recklessly.

While he cites League of American Bicyclists data that show 850,000 people commute to work on a bicycle in the country, and that it is the second most popular outdoor activity after running, “the social and legal culture of the American road, not to mention the road itself, hasn’t caught up.”

But cyclists aren’t all absolved of guilt. It doesn’t help, Duane writes, “that many cyclists do ignore traffic laws. Every time I drive my car through San Francisco, I see cyclists running stop signs like immortal, entitled fools. So I understand the impulse to see cyclists as recreation risk takers who deserve their fate.”

Still, he writes, studies suggest that drivers are at fault in more than half of cycling fatalities. “And there is something undeniably screwy about a justice system that makes it de facto legal to kill people, even when it is clearly your fault, as long as you’re driving a car and the victim is on a bike and you’re not obviously drunk and don’t flee the scene.”

Duane calls for better infrastructure, and more bike lanes to separate bikes and cars. Treehugger’s Lloyd Alter would add sideguards on trucks, and an admonition to bikers to obey the law. What other measures would help prevent cyclist deaths? Should police more frequently cite drivers involved in cyclist accidents? Weigh in.