As more Americans take to the streets on bicycles in order to reduce their carbon footprints, unclog the streets, and get some additional exercise, traffic laws often prove insufficient to protect cyclists in the case of traffic accidents. Since the roads were originally made with cars in mind, drivers are typically reluctant to share the road, and existing laws don’t force them to. Currently, only 13 states have criminal penalties for drivers who kill cyclists. Noticeably absent is California, which had 131 bike fatalities in 2008 alone, according to the California Highway Patrol.
The blog alttransit highlights number of recent incidents which prove that even in the case of bike accidents resulting in catastrophic injuries, the application of the law can be dangerous for cyclists.
In North Carolina, firefighter Charles Alexander Diez was recently sentenced 120 days in prison for shooting cyclist Alan Simons in the head. 120 days. The incident began when Simons stopped his bicycle to tell Diez that it was unsafe to restrain his three-year-old daughter in a child seat. As Simons walked away, Diez shot him in the helmet, which stopped the bullet from piercing the cyclist’s skull. The North Carolina Mountain Xpress reported that the court gave Diez the light sentence due to his “military service, along with testimony from former colleagues about his good character.”
Hit & Run
A year ago, San Francisco local blogger JWZ was pursued and hit by by a driver who later fled the scene. A number of witnesses were able to take photographs of the driver’s license plate and a description of the car. Although the blogger was quick to file a complaint, the San Francisco Police Department still has not investigated the accident. In California, a minor hit and run not causing serious injury regularly carries a penalty of up to six months in jail and a fine of up to $1,000. When JWZ inquired about the incident, he received this response: “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.”
Distracted driving causes more than 6,000 deaths and nearly 500,000 injuries each year, so it’s no surprise that some of those involve cyclists. Bicyclist Cindy Whitney was struck and killed in July when driver George Sippy swerved into her with his pickup truck. When Sippy described to the Randall County, Texas grand jury that he had dropped his cell phone and swerved while trying to retrieve it, they called the death a tragic accident and filed no charges.
He Said, She Said
Part of the problem with holding drivers accountable for catastrophic injuries or deaths that result from bike accidents is that it is difficult, if not impossible, to prove either that they meant to hit the cyclist, or that they were negligent. As alttransport notes, cyclists do not have a steel exoskeleton and are more easily killed in accidents. To be negligent, a “reasonable prudent person” must fail to protect another person, which can’t always be determined if the cyclist is killed or undergoes extensive injuries.