Bikes and Peds Don't Get a Fair Shake

This document is drafty -- in both senses -- it has holes in it, and it's in draft form. It's a long email that I sent to someone who was looking for information about bias against peds and bikes, or in other words excessive lenience towards motorists who strike and injure or kill non-motorists.

This is not (yet) a hot civil rights topic. You won't see peds and bikes marching together through DC chanting "Stop the Killing." But it may be only a matter of time. The quick romp through the WWW that yielded this collection of sad stories and sobering stats shows, I think, that we have a serious social justice issue here that has not been publicly recognized.

What it comes down to is that whenever a sober motorist kills or injures a pedestrian or cyclist, the police in countries like the US, UK, and Australia seem to bend over backwards to convince themselves and the local media that the motorist is not at fault.

Sometimes this is done by defining what happened as "an accident," even if there's evidence that the motorist was breaking the law by speeding or other unsafe driving; even if the motorist showed classic signs of "road rage" and seemed to be driving dangerously to express ill temper or frustration. Bias also shows in the very light sentences that most motorized manslaughterers receive. Light fines, no suspension of license... grieving friends and relatives of the victims often feel that the driver's license really is a "license to kill."

Sometimes law enforcement folks go a step further and try to blame the pedestrian or cyclist. We all know that peds and bikes occasionally do stupid things. There are cyclists who run reds, run stop signs, make illegal turns and so on. But the average person in an urban area for whom walking or cycling is a primary transit mode, will testify that there are a lot more drivers out there than peds or bikes, and that the drivers are driving very badly. The more car-dependent our crowded cities become, the worse the traffic, the worse people drive.

Consider for a moment that the impact of the average car moving at 30 mph is roughly equivalent in destructive power to a shotgun blast. A city full of motorists lane-jumping, racing lights, full of impatience and ego, and often incompetent or impaired, is just like a city full of people running about waving shotguns with the safety catches off. When a "road rage" driver deliberately runs someone off the road, or deliberately runs over a cyclist or ped, it's ADW. It's not an "accident".

And the incompetent, inattentive, careless driver who "accidentally" kills someone should not be in charge of a lethal weapon. If people cannot control themselves and their vehicles, they shouldn't have driver's licenses. A driving license should be a privilege, not a given. We should take it away from people who abuse the privilege. We don't let pilots keep flying if they have a tendency to crash planes. Yet we tolerate the equivalent of a jumbo jet crash every three days, in auto crash deaths.

We let incompetent, careless, and undisciplined persons keep driving because "you have to have a car" in our societies which have been tailored around car-dependence. It's seen as inhumane to deprive someone of their "right" to own and drive a car.

We thereby condemn over 40 thousand people a year to death on the road inside cars, and thousands more to death outside cars. Some accidents are really accidents -- gear failure, a tie-down breaks on a load, a tyre explodes, driver has a heart attack, road collapses, an unexpected windstorm blows a camper over. But most "accidents" are caused by bad driving -- driving too fast, driving when drunk, driving in defiance of the local law. We ought to admit this, and we ought to focus on the primary source of danger: too many cars, and bad driving.

Austin TX:  some organized presentation here... suggest you sit down,
get a cup of tea, and REALLY READ these, because this guy has his
act together.  While you read, remember that Austin bills itself
as a "bike friendly" city.  Just like Santa Cruz does.




        "Despite pleading from Williams and his attorney, the police
        took no interest in or action on that case. (That is, not until a 
	concerned citizen asked a city councilmember for help, and the
        councilmember asked the police chief for an explanation.)"

        We've lost track of how many cyclists have been ARRESTED (not 
        just ticketed, but ARRESTED) for minor infractions such as biking 
        on the sidewalk downtown or biking without a helmet (back when the 
        helmet law was in effect for adults). If you drove your car without 
        wearing your seatbelt, you might expect to get a ticket, but you 
	wouldn't expect to be arrested. 

        It's a sorry state of affairs when you can get arrested for riding 
        on the sidewalk on your bike but not for running a red light in and 
        killing a cyclist with your car.


        Notice the "protect the motorist"-style wording: they say the bicycle 
        "made contact with" the SUV, as though the bike hit the truck, instead of 
        the other way around! As Dan Connelly suggested, you would therefore expect 
        the paper to report that shooting victims "made contact with the bullet"! 

These quotes hit the three main themes.  
1) police indifference to cyclist reports, police failure to take motorist 
        misbehaviour against bikes seriously, ridiculously lenient treatment
        of careless, incompetent, or aggressive drivers
2) heavy-handed regulation/surveillance/harassment of bikes, while cars literally 
        get away with murder.  
3) biased reporting in the local press

Keep these three themes in mind as you read on.


Let's start with small-town America.  Traverse City.  A 36-yr-old
woman is struck and killed in the early hours of the morning by
a motorist.  The police have reason to believe the motorist was
speeding.  But the younger woman driver is let go w/o charges
as police conclude the victim should have been wearing reflective
clothing.  Mailed to me by a local:

        The only newspaper coverage of the incident is at 
        You'll have to look closely; it's the last two grafs 
        of the story, just an afterthought to the more important news 
        involving the star athlete. Ironically, the victim worked for 
        the very newspaper that didn't even care enough to give her her
        own headline.

Note the line of reasoning.  Even though the motorist was probably
speeding, i.e. BREAKING THE LAW, the pedestrian is blamed for not
wearing special reflective clothing.  Does "she was in the wrong
place and wearing the wrong clothing," ring any bells for you?

You will find over the last 40 years a very scary trend in traffic
safety officialdom.  More and more they will be saying that we
can blame a cyclist if they are not wearing a helmet, we can blame
a cyclist or ped for wearing clothing that is not reflective... in
other words, ordinary people have to put on special protective gear
to live and move around in their own communities.  To me this
is equivalent to saying that if you get shot, it's your fault if
you didn't buy and wear a Kevlar vest.  We don't say that a person
operating an extremely dangerous piece of heavy equipment, i.e.
a car, should be operating it more carefully.  In Japan it's
actually been suggested that children should not *walk* to school
without helmets on, because of the risk from automobiles.  The
bad driving is always taken for granted.  The excessively high
speed limits are taken for granted.  Motorist privilege cannot
be challenged... anyway, I assume this is pretty obvious to you
but I want to underline it right at the beginning, because this is
the mindset that eventually leads to cops ignoring what happened
to Shawn.

Now go to the UK:

search for "bias" twice, and you'll find (this is
just an excerpt)

        I have also seen a police motorcyclist jump the lights to tell 
        off a cyclist who had not stopped, whilst ignoring a motor cyclist 
        who had stopped but had gone way past the lights, blocking the 
        pedestrian crossing area!). But making out cyclists as naughty, 
        undeserving people justifies the civil servants and local 
        authorities that continue to deny cyclists' facilities - as well 
        as the behaviour of drivers towards cyclists...

And from an insurance expert


        Do NOT rely on the police report and the investigating police officer's 
        "reconstruction" to properly investigate a bicycle accident. Such personnel 
        typically have little if any training in technical bicycle accident 
        reconstruction. I once handled a death case in which the investigating officer 
        concluded that the cause of the accident was that the cyclist made a sudden
        90 degree left turn in front of a passing automobile causing the car to 
        broadside the bike. The officer took numerous photographs of the bike being 
        held up against the front of the car, matching up the damage to both vehicles. 

       My bike accident reconstruction expert noted immediately that "Bikes don't 
        make right angle turns!" Indeed, bikes turn gradually, by leaning, not by 
        steering, and a bicycle simply can't "turn on a dime" as this report indicated. 
        My expert also examined the rear wheel of the bicycle in question and concluded, 
        based upon research he had conducted in which hundreds of bicycle wheels were 
        struck from behind, that the defendant had, essentially, rear ended the bike. 
        This impact caused the bike to pivot around and smash broadside into the front 
        of the car. These opinions overcame the officer's cursory and unsupported conclusions 
        and provided the impetus for settlement. The family almost failed to seek legal
        assistance based upon the officer's conclusions that the cyclist was at fault! 

please pay attention to the phrase "cursory and unsupported".  you know
very well what "cursory" means and it is how Shawn was treated.

from a discussion on sfbike 1998


             >Rebecca's death will not be forgotten. In my opinion, it will more likely be
             >a major factor behind a long overdue shift in public awareness and transit
             >policy implementation,

             And how, exactly, is this going to happen? The newspapers have already
             decreed the cause of the accident - the cyclist. Case closed. What exactly
             is going to change that? An honest police report? An honest investigation
             by MUNI? Concern from the mayor's office? Have you ever worked to get an
             accurate news account in the paper once the city has given its version of
             events? I believe you underestimate what you are contending with.

From Hawaii, an action item list

from an advisory committee on bike safety

     5.e  Continuing education of police officers to remove anti-bicyclist bias
     in police reporting of  bicycle accidents and in bicycle accident
     reconstruction and analysis.

a touring cyclist writes "don't carry a gun!"


        There is also a difference in attitude between the two possible worse 
        scenarios.  If a motorist kills a cyclist (or pedestrian) with their vehicle, 
        it is usually called an accident.  If a cyclist pulls out a gun and chases 
        down the motorist (remember, the initial incident which pissed the cyclist 
        off has passed and the cyclist is no longer in a threatening situation), 
        shoots and kills the motorist, it is called murder.

amusing, yes but note "if a motorist kills a cyclist or pedestrian with their
vehicle, it is usually called an accident".

SF Bike Group Discussion


        Now, below is a story that was posted today... why is it that when
        a motorist kills a motorist, they get hit with vehicular manslaughter,
        but when a motorist kills a pedestrian, they take a blood sample
        and release them?

the UK again


        Also bitter that the driver involved in the accident which led to the 
        death of Ann Burner was only fined, the family is launching
        a petition for tougher driving laws. 

        Said Mary Burner (46): "We believe that any motorist who injures 
        or kills a pedestrian should automatically be banned from
        driving. Then, if they're allowed back on the road, they should be re-tested."

search for "Babich" and read how tandem riders were harassed by a 
bunch of louts in a car -- police professed inability to do anything
also keep reading, 

        "People who can't control the deadly weapons they own should not be 
        allowed to own them. This is an issue of public safety, not punishment."

dangers of aggressive driving


very lengthy paper on psychology of aggressive driving



        "Not one motorist last year was charged with homicide for killing 
        a pedestrian, as far as we know," Kayhny said. "The term used is 
        accident, which implies that there's no fault involved, or it's 
        an act of God. ... Drivers are seriously getting away with murder. 
        It's extremely rare for any motorist at fault to serve any jail time." 

official gov't doc on road safety for children.  note that the entire
doc focuses on children and how they must be constrained, supervised,
controlled, trained -- nothing about slowing drivers down or re-educating

from the UK again, a cycle group


        Typically a motorist who kills a cyclist after speeding through a 
        residential area is fined 100 pounds. In mainland Europe they could face a 
        prison sentence, while the onus of proof lies with the motorist there, 
        they are assumed guilty until proven innocent. 

news item


                Helen  Golish, a 35-year resident of the town, was apparently shopping
                 on the Boulevard on Sept. 21 at 12:19 p.m. when she was hit by a school
                 bus as she crossed the street at Stanley Avenue.  ...

                Barbee [bus driver] was apparently not speeding or driving recklessly 
                 and was cited only for failing to yield to a pedestrian said Castiglione.

                 According to New Jersey Division of Motor Vehicles officials, Barbee
                 who resides in Garfield has had prior license suspensions and been
                 cited for numerous violations.  

                The Bergen County Prosecutor's Office Fatal Accident Squad responded to
                the scene.   The incident has been classified as an accident...

previous citations and suspensions.  he's still driving
(a school bus!)  this time he kills someone.  and it's
"an accident"?

Sound at all familiar?
Worcester, Mass, 1997


        Last spring, Porter was biking on Route 20 in Northboro when a 
        driver tried to run him off the road, he said.  The Northboro
        police initially brushed off the cyclist's complaint...

        It took Porter 10 months of phone calls, networking by e-mail, 
        meetings and court appearances to get results.  Another person
        might have given up in frustration. ...

some stories about police roughing up Critical Mass Riders


Georgia USA


        Mean Streets, a study by two non-profit groups, ranked the 
        Atlanta region as the nation's third most dangerous place to walk. 
        A pedestrian in Georgia, it found, is 2.5 times more likely to be 
        killed by a stranger with a car than by a stranger with a gun. 

        The word "accident" is used to describe something bad that happens 
        unexpectedly. But is it unexpected when a motorist speeding through a 
        neighborhood kills a child? Or when someone turning right on red
        without looking collides with a pedestrian? "Accident" lets the 
        responsible person off the hook; "crash" or "collision" does not. 

        In late 1996 the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration 
        launched a campaign to ban the word "accident" from all agency 
        communications with the public. PEDS and the Fulton County Pedestrian 
        Safety Project will be encouraging the media to correct its vocabulary. 
        PEDS encourages all of you to do the same.

It's 2001 and the SCPD is still calling what happened to Shawn an "accident".

A cycle tourist's journal (oops, lost URL, you can re-find it using
Google to search on a chunk of the text though):

        Our Japanese friend lasted only 2 nights before we lost him. 
        We think he camps wild to save money. He says that if
        a motorist in Japan kills a cyclist he is banned for life.

A Critical Mass rider reports on the double standard in Portland OR


        Last fall's arrests and overnight incarceration of 18 riders for making one
           illegal left turn had the effect of infusing our rides with much new
           young radical blood....

        1. a motorist who blows a stop-sign and kills a cyclist gets a $300 fine,
           while a cyclist who commits the most minor of infractions is jailed...

        3. motorists routinely turn right at intersections and driveways while
           looking only towards the approaching traffic on their left, then
           routinely leave the scene of the accident that results. 

        4. motorists who routinely exceed the speed limit or make california
           stops then become consumed with rage at cyclists' courteously
           proceeding on red.

Skiers get charged with manslaughter


                Nathan Hall, then 18, is charged with felony manslaughter in the death of a skier
                he hit while bouncing down a bumpy run at Vail Mountain after finishing his
                shift as a lift operator in April 1997. 

But when drivers do it, it's an "accident"

Madison WI


        Local cyclist run off road, beaten, arrested. On June 18, 1997 a local 
        cyclist was run off County N by a sport utility vehicle driver. When the cyclist 
        (no prior record) confronted the driver (with a prior record of battery), 
        the driver commenced beating the cyclist (who was still in cleats locked in 
        the pedals) and smashing his bicycle. 

        The cyclist sustained a concussion, a severely bruised face, a broken tooth 
        and $400 in damage to the bicycle. When the Dane Co. Sheriff's deputy arrived 
        on the scene, only the driver's report was taken. The deputy treated the cyclist 
        with condescension and ignored evidence that cast doubt upon the motorist's 
        story. The cyclist was immediately hauled off to jail and charged with misdemeanor 

        When the cyclist's lawyers informed the Dane Co. District Attorney that the wrong 
        person had been arrested, the DA piled on additional charges against the cyclist...

see also 
several accounts of cyclists reporting serious incidents and being
disregarded by local law enforcement, Dane County, WI

discussion online, news articles from PA, USA


        The driver was fined $25 dollars after running over a bicyclist.        

A very moving epitaph for a dead cyclist from the UK




        In Victoria, 35% of cars are damaged in road accidents, one in 
        267 cars kills a human, one in 50 permanently handicaps and one
        in 7.3 causes personal injury....

Sarcasm and bitter anger from the UK

(was http://www.ccdc.cam.ac.uk/camcycle/ccc_news03.html)

        The traditional Road Safety establishment is incapable of confronting 
        the problem properly because it is itself compromised, directly or 
        ideologically, with the culprit industry. Thus it promotes devices to 
        protect motorists from the consequences of dangerous driving while instructing 
        children to flee the streets and cyclists to adopt pathetic measures to 
        save themselves when being run over. The Highway Code (though necessitated 
        by motoring behaviour) is generally ignored, save for the purpose of castigating 

        'Road Safety' produced the term 'Road Accident' to describe the serious and 
        sometimes fatal result of people using lethal machinery recklessly or irresponsibly, 
        fostering the notion that violence at the hands of criminals is somehow unavoidable 
        or excusable when performed with a car - a view confirmed in the courts 
        with depressing regularity. it proceeds at base from an acceptance that motorists 
        have a right to expropriate public space (the streets) and threaten others
        while in their 'private' vehicles; 'Get out of the way of cars!' is the road 
        safety officer's unswerving theme.

and more soberly notes

        Without independent witnesses, the police will rarely prosecute, even 
        when a cyclist is killed. 

1995, USA


     On July 27, 1995 eleven-year-old Jolene Hunt was riding Eastbound on the
        North side of Alton.  Yes, she was riding counterflow, but it was in a
        two-way bicycle path on one side of the road. The light was green as she
        entered the intersection at Fairview.  Before she made it across the light
        turned to red.  A Northbound motorist, in the right lane on Fairview, waiting
        for the light to change, saw the green and drove across Alton and collided
        with Jolene.  Jolene's right ankle was severly broken, and she suffered some
        cuts and scrapes.
        The Police cited the motorist only for being uninsured.  The Police Report 
        distributed the blame for the collision between the motorist and
        Jolene -- the motorist for a failure to yield and Jolene for riding in a
        crosswalk.  The _extremely_ obnoxious part was that the uninsured motorist
        demanded that Jolene's parents pay to fix the grillwork in her car.

bike list chitchat


        Take a truck driver in Washington State, who kills a bicycle rider with his
        truck.  Then leaves him for dead.  Then lies about the damage to the truck
        by telling his boss that he hit a deer.

        How much time in jail would you expect him to spend for the murder plus the
        hit and run?  If you live in Washington State you know the answer is a big
        fat goose egg (zero!)

        Until about a month ago in Washington State, hit and run murder was
        punishable by only three to nine months in county jail, with no jail time
        for the first offense.  Pretty amazing, huh?

San Francisco again


        I  was the victim of a hit and run accident on April 12, 1996.  It was the
        classic example of a driver cutting it too close to a biker...

        What has followed this has proved both baffling and infuriating to me, and
        I wondered if anyone could give me some insight.  While the police
        interviewed three or four people on the scene, their police report omitted
        all of the interviews and was incredibly sketchy.  I finally requested a
        copy of the report when the DA decided to drop all felony charges against
        the driver. ...

this story goes on... the driver, emboldened by lenient treatment on the
part of the law, gets his insurance company to blame the cyclist for
"running into the car" and wants to get money out of her.

        What I'm finding so hard to deal with is that not only were all the
        criminal charges against the driver dropped, he didn't even get a traffic
        citation for hitting me - and all of this even though a bystander had to
        chase him down.  Not only does this absolutely crush me with its injustice,
        but it terrifies me as a cyclist.

The UK again


        The Review (1988) found that there was a strong feeling in some 
        quarters that the legislation in force then did not attach sufficient 
        weight to to the interests of pedestrians and cyclists. It also found 
        there was a widespread sense of injustice among accident victims and their 
        relatives that the law seemed to take a more tolerant view of those who 
        caused death and injury, particularly as a consequence of consuming alcohol.



        When rain interrupted work he had consumed three pots of
        beer at the Flinders Hotel. He then resumed work in the afternoon 
        and at the end of the day spent the next few hours drinking beer at 
        his employer's home at Bittern. At about 8.45 p.m. he left to drive 
        home along Coolart Road where he drove into the back of a cyclist 
        and killed her.         

        The principal argument on appeal was that the sentence [5 years] was 
        manifestly excessive on the basis that the offence should have been 
        characterized as falling within the lower to middle range of conduct 
        giving rise to the offence. Although not maintaining a proper lookout, 
        the applicant was not driving erratically nor on the wrong side of the road.

what is interesting here is that running over a cyclist is not
"driving erratically", and 5 years is seen as a "stern" or excessive
sentence for killing a person.

Berkeley CA


        It's very important that police treat bicyclists well.  Unfortunately
        there are problems in police departments which can be found all across the
        country.  Berkeley is no exception.  Police often do not know the rights
        of bicyclists and pedestrians and tend to fault us wrongly.  Some police
        are actively biased against us.  When a person is hit by a car, this is
        very serious as a police report that faults the bicyclist can mean not
        only are you injured or killed, but also that you can't get a settlement
        from the driver to help pay for your hospital, suffering, etc.  In
        everyday life, this means that we are getting a lot of tickets that we
        shouldn't be getting, and police are refusing to enforce laws against
        violent, careless and aggressive drivers.  When it comes to demonstrations
        such as Critical Mass, a whole second layer of poor treatment by police
        comes into play.

        In an effort to address these problems a few bike activists began meeting
        with the Police Department and were very frustrated to get nowhere.  The
        police stated that motor vehicles are "not a public safety problem".  
        They refused to take steps to educate their officers, saying that "our
        officers already ride bicycles, there's nothing more they need to know".  
        When we tried to get statistics to show patterns of certain officers
        targeting only bicyclists for violations (e.g., rolling through stop
        signs) selectively -- for example, never even giving motorists a ticket
        for the same thing, which is much more dangerous when done with a car --
        they refused again and again.
        Seems like everyone has their own horror stories or at least knows a
        friend who does.  It's time to make a strategy for how we can get the
        police on our side -- and protect the public from death and injury by
        motorcar -- rather than persecuting us for being more vulnerable and

And Berkeley again


                There is an enormous problem on our streets which is directly related to
                dangerous and aggressive driving.  Berkeley boasts twice the statewide
                average for bicycle and pedestrian injuries.  Reliable data for fatalities
                is not available. This problem is compounded by the fact that some police
                officers are biased against bicyclists.  All around, there is a lack of
                education, sensitivity and understanding.  The impact of this sad reality
                is that many people who would like to walk or bicycle do not because they
                are too scared or too discouraged: a vicious cycle which increases
                automobile dependence with all its harms.

San Francisco:  bike messengers mourn a friend


        In San Francisco, it's nearly impossible to get SFPD officers to 
        fill out accident reports when a cyclist is involved. Those that are 
        filed are nearly uniformly biased against cyclists, who are assumed to 
        be at fault whenever there is a collision. At a recent Police Commission 
        hearing, cyclists complained of cases where reporting officers have gone 
        so far as to disregard accounts of eye witnesses and still place the 
        cyclist at fault.  

From Seattle


        As a downtown pedestrian, I wish something would be done about 
        motorists whose road rage is often taken out on those of us who walk. 
        I can usually count on having at least one "close call" with a car each
        day, between those who run lights, block intersections and crosswalks, 
        and otherwise show a lack of regard for pedestrians. 

        I hear a lot of stories about how Seattle cops are eager to pinch people 
        for jaywalking. I suggest they be fair and take more time and effort to 
        address the other part of the problem, namely drivers who believe their
        rights are absolute over pedestrians. How about ticketing those who are 
        clueless behind the wheel as well as those who are clueless on foot? 

discussion in UK house of commons
"motorists getting away with murder" theme

	UK House of Commons Debate

I hope I'm convincing you that although one or two of the people I quote
might be whiny cranks, they surely cannot *all* be whiny cranks :-)
there is a real problem out there, and it is motorist privilege.

see also the report "Killed by Automobile":


        It is becoming apparent that the way the police conduct crash investigations 
        leaves much to be desired. NYC would be well served by adopting the ?coroner?s 
        inquest? system used by Toronto. There, every cycling and pedestrian fatality is
        investigated by the coroner?s office the same way that murders are. This would 
        inject an objective, public health perspective into a police culture which assumes 
        that cyclists either kill themselves or die by ?accident.? 

        Of course, looming above all is the much bigger cultural and legal problem that 
        motorists who kill and maim almost always go unpunished.

Oz again


        You will read in this issue's Liaison Report of the disturbing 
        outcome of a recent coronial inquest in Canberra where the victim
        was blamed and the motorist not even charged. If Canberra drivers 
        can kill cyclists with impunity then there is certainly room
        for improvement in terms of Objective 4....

GREAT essay about anti-pedestrian bias


SF cyclists are still mourning Chris Robertson


I could go on.  There's more, lots more, out there.  But it's late and I need to stop now.

De Clarke