NO JUSTICE ISSUES:
Why is there no
justice for cyclists?
[Note: This article was originally written at the request of a now-defunct local publication. They wanted something reflecting how the lack of justice for cycling victims was a result of "conspiracy by the police", which is not actually why cyclists don't get justice, so my article was aimed more at the editors to address their misconception, than to the general public. Since then, I've updated it with some more recent examples. Unfortunately, with regards to lack of justice for cyclists, not much has changed over the last two decades.]
Drivers frequently face no penalties for hitting bicyclists, even when the drivers were clearly at fault. But simply blaming the police for this is lazy, because the police are just part of the problem. In fact, the lack of justice experienced by cyclists comes not just from the police, but also from drivers, prosecutors, judges, juries, and the media. It's not coincidence that they all play a part in this injustice, but it's not conspiracy, either; it simply reflects the bias that most people have against cyclists. This bias is not necessarily conscious or malicious, but it's there. And its existence means that people playing various roles in society will tend to act in ways that deny us justice. Let's look at some of the players, and then consider what we can do about it.
Drivers. It's not just that drivers hit us. It's that (1) they frequently intend to hit us, and (2) even if they don't, odds are good that they won't stick around to take responsibility. In recent local cases, witnesses say that it looked as though motorists intentionally hit Ed Anderson, Mark Bennett Brooks, James Morgan, and me.
Intention aside, half of the serious cases I know about were hit and runs. Think about that for a moment: The next time you look out across a sea of cars, consider that maybe half of their drivers, if they hit you, are quite willing to hit you and leave you for dead. That was the case with the local motorists who killed Tom Linsley, Robert Collins, William Sigtryggsson, David Moreno, and James Morgan (and the ones who hit but didn't manage to kill Jennifer Schaeffer, Mark Bennett Brooks, Jay Williams, Keith Hailey, Ed Anderson, and me). When we realize that about half the motorists out there are willing to leave us for dead if they hit us, it's not surprising that cyclists are on the short end of the justice stick.
In July 2003, a Cleveland DJ promoted violence against cyclists by encouraging drivers to:
Around this time, a Cleveland cyclist was purposefully run off the road. She suffered a broken rib and a concussion.
When local news reports about a cyclist killed by a driver, you can count on the Comments section below the article to be filled with people blaming the cyclist, even if the driver was clearly at fault. That goes for pedestrian victims, too. As one person noted, after a walker got killed by a car and there was an article about it online, "the majority of commenters indicated that Romano deserved to be killed because sometimes they see people jaywalk."
When an article reports on new infrastructure like bike lanes or bicycle traffic signal, the Comments section will be filled with people decrying the "waste of money" and calling city leaders "idiots" for trying to promote bicycling.
Why do drivers do this to us? Because drivers are people. And many people don't respect bicyclists.
Police. Officers may fail to ticket at-fault motorists who hit cyclists either because the police blame the cyclists for being on the road in the first place. This is not conjecture. Chuck Thomas relates a conversation with a local officer, saying, "[The officer] suggested that bicyclists should know that the streets are dangerous and not become indignant when we get hit by motorists violating the law." After Conrad Anderson was killed while cycling on a road shoulder signed as a bike lane by a speeding driver who tested positive for alcohol and two different drugs, the DPS officer told Anderson's daughter that Anderson shouldn't have been riding on the shoulder in the first place. When a Washington, D.C. cyclist was permanently disabled by a driver making an illegal left turn, the police insisted on citing the cyclist for running a red light (he didn't), and refused to look at the video evidence afforded by the city's own traffic camera that clearly showed that the light was green for the cyclist. Many officers, just like many people, have the attitude that when cyclists get hit, it's our own fault for simply being on the road.
With other officers the bias may be subconscious. They might not be aware of it, but it's evidenced by their failure to ticket or arrest at-fault motorists (e.g., the drivers who hit Devorah Feldman, Ben Clough, etc.).
The police also hurt us in less obvious ways, such as leaving crucial details out of press releases on collisions, which we'll cover below. The police may also sit on a case that they do have in their office. When a drunk motorist killed Tom Churchill, the police were tight-lipped for months saying only that the case was "under investigation". As soon as a TV news team interviewed me about this (and the fact that a drunk driver who killed a cop was charged in less than ten hours for her crime made it into the newscast), the police finally turned their case over to the District Attorney's office the very next week.
Perhaps most distressingly, the police may take no action against a hit and run driver even when witnesses have provided the license plate number. Jay Williams, frustrated that he couldn't get the police to take action against the driver who hit and run'd him, wrote to me for help. I asked a city councilmember's office for assistance, who in turn asked the police chief for an explanation. At that point the police finally went ahead and arrested the motorist. Should this be what it takes to get the police to take action on an injury hit and run case when the license plate number is known and witnesses are readily available?
My own experience was similar. After a motorist with a known license plate hit and run'd me, the police didn't contact me at all. I called the detective and found that the on-scene officers did not put any of the witnesses' names or phone numbers in the police report, so the detective had not attempted any investigation, and hadn't bothered to let me know. I explained that I had witness information, but the detective couldn't understand why I wanted charges filed, since the driver had agreed to reimburse me for the damage to my bicycle (so what more could I want?). After some persistence, the detective finally said he gave the motorist a simple traffic ticket for fleeing the scene, but didn't charge him with the more serious crime of intentionally hitting me in the first place (aggravated asault). I pursued this some more, but was ultimately unable to get the police to take any more action, or to even turn the case over to a grand jury so that they could decide whether more appropriate charges should be filed. The police also said they couldn't provide me any evidence or records that they had even sent the driver the ticket.
In another case, after a driver hit a pedestrian, the police report shows that they generally took the driver's side of it, despite that the driver was obviously biased, drunk, with an existing record of assault, aggravated robbery, and possession of cocaine, and who was violating parole at the time of the collision. (source)
Police officers themselves also get arrested for drunk driving in surprising numbers, all the more surprising since officers are so often willing to give fellow officers a pass. Here's just one example of many. (That officer was also driving 91 mph while drunk.) When police themselves are drunk drivers, it's no wonder they're not tough on drunks who kill and injure bicyclists.
Why do some police do things like this to us? Because the police are people. And many people don't respect bicyclists.
District Attorney's Office. While waiting for the case aganist the driver who killed Tom Churchill to go to a grand jury, the DA's office refused to even speculate or offer a wild guess as to when that might happen. The best range we could get them to agree to was betweeen "tomorrow and a year", and even that was given most reluctantly. The DA's office was greatly annoyed by my polite calls, and would not respond to any of my letters.
A mother whose son was killed by a speeding driver wrote to us to tell us that the D.A. wouldn't press charges against the driver because the child had been biking against traffic. We agree that the child shouldn't have been biking against traffic, but he paid the ultimate price for breaking the traffic law, his life. The motorist apparently paid nothing and didn't even get a ticket for her part in the law-breaking.
In a dramatic bit of irony, the Travis County District Attorney was actually convicted drunk driving. To top it off, after the incident she refused to resign. At least two assistant DAs were also caught driving drunk. (source 1, source 2) Drunk driving is so much a part of our culture that even those responsible for prosecuting it do it anyway. And when they do, it's no wonder that they go soft on drunks who injure or kill bicyclists.
Why does the DA and its staff act this way? Probably, because they are people. And many people don't respect cyclists.
Legislators. The local DAs are certainly not the only elected officials to get caught committing DWI. Texas State Senator Gonzalo Barrientos was also cited for drunk driving — not long after he publicly lectured a bicycle advocate that cyclists shouldn't expect funding for bike lanes and such until they started following traffic laws. Texas Rep. Naoimi Gonzalez (D-El Paso) also got busted for DUI, after which her colleagues essentially treated her like a hero:
If the Texas House's response to Rep. Naoimi Gonzalez, D-El Paso, getting busted for drunken driving is any measure, don't expect any new harsh DUI laws. The highly touted Dem was arrested on March 14 after allegedly driving her BMW into another car, shoving that one into a cyclist. After public outrage about the soft sentencing of former House staffer Gabrielle Nestande for the 2011 drunken-driving death of Courtney Griffin, Gonzalez might have been expected to keep a low profile. Instead, on March 18, she made a speech from the floor apologizing to her constituents and colleagues. While she seemed shaken and contrite, her fellow lawmakers treated her like a hero, with a standing ovation, bouquets, and high fives as she returned to her seat. Furious at their response, Texas MADD public policy liaison Bill Lewis said, "Cut out the flowers."
Like the local DA, Gonzalez also declined to resign. Why would she, after the stunning support she got from her fellow legislators?
Why do elected officials drink and drive? Because drinking and driving is essentially a part of our culture. And with that kind of culture, we can't expect them to be sympathetic to cyclists' concerns about safety. This is why legislators took about ten years to pass a law requiring three feet of space when passing cyclists after cyclists first started lobbying for it, and why Governor Perry vetoed it when the lege finally did pass it.
Juries. Michael Memon was drunk when he killed Tom Churchill on S. Lamar. His blood alcohol level tested at 0.08, which was just shy of the threshold for illegally drunk at the time, though the test reportedly wasn't administered until at least half an hour after the crash (giving time for his alcohol level to go down). It's clear that Memon was drunk, even though there's a chance he wasn't legally drunk under the laws at the time.
Tom was riding on the right-hand side of the road and was wearing a helmet when Memon hit him. It's likely that Memon was going too fast, since in a 30mph zone he should have had plenty of time to slow down after seeing Tom, and you generally don't flip your vehicle at such a low speed. Despite all of this, the grand jury decided not to indict Memon. Why? We can't know for sure, because grand juries don't write out the reasons for their decision (just like trial juries, which say only "Guilty" or "Not Guilty" with no explanation). But we can speculate. What else could it be, besides a feeling that the cyclist shouldn't have been on the road in the first place?
In the case of Melissa Graham, there was no question about whether she was drunk: her lawyer openly admitted that she was well over the legal limit when she hit and killed Andrew Turner and seriously injured his fiancé Heather Sealey near Bastrop. Police determined that Graham never once hit her brakes before hitting the cyclists. The cyclists were riding single file on the extreme right edge of the roadway and had rear reflectors, but Graham's defense argued that the cyclists were culpable for being out after dusk without lights, and two trials ended in hung juries.
Why do juries act this way? Because juries are made of people. And many people don't respect cyclists.
Judges. On my radio show in late 1998, I asked, "What does it take for a cyclist to be able to have action taken against a hostile motorist? Well, if recent news is any indication, it takes being local cycling celebrity Lance Armstrong." After Michael Carter ran Lance and his buddies off the road, Carter was charged with aggravated assault with a deadly weapon that same day.
But even Armstrong's celebrity was not enough to keep Carter in jail for long. District Judge Jon Wisser honored the request of Carter's lawyer to lower his bail by 90% (from $300,000 to $30,000), despite the fact that when Carter attacked the cyclists, he was already out on bail for tying up, beating, and raping his wife. Wisser noted of the attack on the cyclists, "No one was actually injured in the incident. In the scheme of things around here, it was not as serious an offense." If Judge Wisser really feels that way, we'd like to see him get his ass on a bike riding around Austin and see how he feels when some lunatic runs him off the road with a deadly weapon. Incidentally, Wisser is the judge who will hear the case against the motorist who ran a red light and killed cyclist Ben Clough in 1998. [Update: Since this article was first written, prosecutors offered a plea bargain to the motorist of community service. So for running a red light and killing Ben, she was never arrested, served no jail time, didn't pay any fine, and didn't even get a traffic ticket for running the red light.]
As for the judge in Melissa Graham's case (see above), here's an account of a witness at the trial, as reported in the March 1998 Cycling News: "It amazed and disappointed me to see the way the rights of the accused compared to the rights of the victims. Melissa Graham [the motorist] sat with her head lowered, crying and whimpering. She was allowed to show her emotions, but at the same time, Andrew's mother and father were not. Mrs. Turner let one tear fall and was asked not to re-enter the courtroom."
In March 2015, a Travis County judge was arrested for drunk driving. Judges are the people who decide the penalties (if any) for drunk drivers, including those who injuire and kill cyclists. If the judges are drunk drivers themselves, then they identify more with the criminals than the victims.
Why do judges act this way? Because judges are people. And many people don't respect cyclists.
The Media. When Ben Clough was killed, the Austin American-Statesman reported that a helmetless cyclist died in a collision at MLK and Lavaca, making it look as though a stupid, helmetless cyclist got what he deserved. What they didn't mention was that the driver ran a red light to hit Ben. How could they omit such a crucial fact? Simple: The police didn't tell them.
The Statesman gets most (or all) of its information about car-bike collisions from the police. This immediately puts the paper in a position of reporting only what the police want to be reported. The extremely brief press release from the police department made no mention of the fact that the driver ran a red light to hit Ben. (That fact wouldn't become widely known until the police Report was available several days later.) But the press release made damn certain to point out that Ben wasn't wearing a helmet, a fact the Statesman was only too happy to repeat.
But the fact that the Statesman was duped doesn't let them off the hook, because they're willing dupes. When the truth about the collision became known, the fact that the police had been less than forthcoming about the real nature of the collision, and had in fact shifted blame in their press release onto the cyclist, should have been a story in and of itself. But it wasn't. Not to the Statesman, anyway.
Defending the motorist goes hand in hand with blaming the cyclist. In November 1999 when a school bus killed cyclist James Morgan, the Statesman's initial article referred to the collision as "an accident" no less than five times. In a later article, the Statesman reported that witnesses said the bus swerved to the right and hit Morgan, seeming to indicate that the driver intentionally hit the cyclist. Why is the Statesman calling collisions "accidents" before they know whether they're truly accidental? (The NY Times went one step further. In the same breath that they reported about a driver who "intentionally ran over five people", they also referred to it as "an accident".)
Incidentally, when it was later revealed in a subsequent article that Morgan was dragged 100 feet and that the driver may have intentionally hit him, local bicycle pundit Dan Connelly said: " 'Dragged 100 feet....' Gee, he should have been wearing a helmet.... I am surprised they didn't report whether the occupants of the Air Egypt flight had their seat trays in the upright position at the time of the crash."
But one of the biggest problems with the Statesman's reporting is what they don't report. In that same case, after seeming to report that witnesses thought the driver intentionally hit Morgan and that the driver was charged with failure to stop and render aid, the Statesman doesn't answer the obvious question in readers' minds: If the driver hit Morgan intentionally, why was he not charged with murder? You won't find out by reading the Statesman.
Of course, there are whole articles the Statesman could run, but doesn't. When the case against the driver who killed Tom Churchill seemed to be gathering dust at the police department, the Statesman could have compared this to the police bringing charges in less than ten hours against a drunk driver who killed a cop. And the whole subject of motorists rarely facing penalties when cyclists are involved could be an important article in and of itself. But don't hold your breath. (Yes, I have tried to interest the Statesman in this issue, without success.)
There are other ways the Statesman withholds information from its readers. I recently wrote to the Statesman listing some of these cases, and referring readers to BicycleAustin.info/justice for more information. The Statesman ran the letter but censored both the names of the cases and the web address, giving readers absolutely no way to learn more about these cases themselves. (The editing also made it look as though I didn't have any evidence of my wild claims and was either delusional or deceitful -- which is exactly what was reflected in the harassing messages I got on my voicemail and in the postal mail following publication of my letter.) I met with an editor at the Statesman to express my concerns abot this, though he predictably did not agree that the Statesman had done either their readers or myself a disservice, and refused to run a short followup letter which included the web address which backed up my claims.
Why does the Statesman report stories poorly (or fail to report some stories at all)? Is it because Statesman reporters are people, and many people are biased against cyclists? Maybe, but in this case I'm tempted to say that perhaps they're simply incompetent.
Unfortunately, we're failed even by our local alt-weekly, the Austin Chronicle, which cheerleads for drunk driving repeatedly. For example:
Why does the Chronicle defend drunk driving? It's because drunk driving is a part of our culture, and their reporting is simply a reflection of that. A whopping 20% of Americans admit to drunk driving at least monthly.
Cyclists. We cyclists are partly responsible for some of the problems we face. Most notably, it's hard to expect sympathy from the general public when we get hit while riding at night without lights, and rightfully so. We also do things that we don't realize are dangerous, like riding on the sidewalk. (To see why this is unsafe, read about the deaths of Keith Vick and Krishan Walters, and see our article on How to Not Get Hit by Cars.) Then there are those cyclists who go out of their way to antagonize motorists. While many of us have an understandable contempt of the car culture, encouraging hostility cannot help in facilitating peace in the streets. Finally, some cyclists spread misinformation about cycling justice issues, saying, for example, that Michael Memon tried to flee after hitting Churchill and that that's why he flipped his vehicle (he didn't try to flee), that Memon had to be pinned to the ground by workers from nearby restaurants until the police arrived (there aren't even any restaurants near the collision scene), or that no motorist has ever faced penalties in Austin for hitting a cyclist (though this is the exception and not the rule, there are many examples of convicted motorists on my website). There is no honor in spreading rumors or making things up, and besides, it's unnecessary. The truth is damning enough.
Conclusions. The first thing to consider about motorists rarely facing penalties for hitting us is that this wouldn't be an issue if they weren't hitting us in the first place. That may seem obvious, but consider that car-bike collisions would probably be less common if our transportation system were designed with bikes in mind: bike lanes, bike paths, and better mass transit so there would be fewer people driving (thus fewer potential killers). Instead of focusing on what happens after a motorist hits one of us, we should also look at how to keep motorists from hitting us in the first place. Then we won't have to worry about whether the motorist gets prosecuted or not.
The second thing is, in focusing our efforts on the police or the media or the legislators, we often lose sight of the fact that the root of the problem is people's attitudes. Work on any contemporary social issue long enough, and you'll usually come to the same conclusion: that it's caused by society's attitudes about the topic in question. We can press for the police to press charges against at-fault motorists, we can write to the paper when their reporting on cycling issues is sloppy, and we can lobby our legislators to enact laws that more clearly establish our right to the road and to clarify the illegality of aggressive action against us. But even though we can and should do these things, it's addressing the symptom, not the cause. The root of the problem is that many people don't see bicyclists as legitimate road users, even if it's a subconscious feeling. That kind of pervasive attitude is hard to change. There aren't any easy answers.
For more information about some of the cases and ideas mentioned in this article, see BicycleAustin.info/justice.
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