Saturday, August 18, 2007

Why Compound the Tragedy of Bike Wrecks?

Mike Hendricks and bike activists are pushing to get new laws enacted to increase the punishment of drivers involved in fatal bike wrecks. ". . . To get the motoring public’s attention, we need harsher legal penalties when driver error is involved in taking a life. Something more than the wrist slap and less than vehicular manslaughter, as prosecutors won’t normally bring the felony charge without proof of intent or impairment." I hope our legislators are as wise as our prosecutors, and reject the "do something, do anything" foolishness of the bike activists, for the good of the non-biking majority.

I appreciate bicyclists. Their low-carbon, low-noise form of transportation doesn't increase our country's reliance on foreign oil, and their fitness is admirable. If I had a shower and closet at my office, I'd be tempted to do a two-wheel commute in good weather.

I've heard plenty of stories from bikers about people throwing things at them from cars, and I've read about the sad deaths resulting from collisions. And I support enforcement of current laws, including assault and battery, and vehicular homicide where they are violated. We all want to prevent any bad thing from happening to anybody, but it's a hard world out there, and that's why we have our laws.

Now, the truth is, we're all negligent at times. Nobody drives a bike or a car with the hyper-alertness it deserves. We all fiddle with radio buttons, we all daydream about stuff, and a lot of us make and take phone calls. And none of us expects to hit a car, much less a bike. 99.999% of the time, we don't.

I've been in wrecks caused by my own negligence. So have a lot of people. Now, by the grace of God, my wrecks haven't hurt anyone. I've had a couple rear-enders, and we've exchanged insurance information and moved on with our lives. If Hendricks and the Missouri Bicycling Federation had his way, and if a bike had been involved in one of those accidents, I would have gone to jail.

No. Just because some bicyclist decides to take a more dangerous way to get to work, I don't think the rest of us ought to be exposed to prison time if we change the radio station.

The root of Hendricks' problem, and that of the rest of the Missouri Bicycle Federation, is perfectly illustrated by the context he uses to discuss the issue. A couple of bike riders died on August 5, and, as Hendricks says, "almost two weeks after the loss, we don’t know much more than that." So, we don't know what happened. We don't know if the motorist did anything wrong at all. We don't know if the bikers made a fatal mistake. We just don't know.

We do know that it's sad, though, just like every accidental death.

Hendricks starts his column, "I didn’t know either of them. But I still felt duty-bound to haul my bike to Longview Lake for this week’s memorial ride in honor of Larry and Sierra Gaunt."

I understand that it is cathartic to do something essentially meaningless as a way to respond to the senselessness of death. So, if he wants to go ride a bike in a safe place, I fully support him in his chosen way of acknowledging the death of the Gaunts. That's just fine. If you want to ride your bike in circles for people you didn't know, you go do that. Sometimes, it feels good to do something, do anything, to respond to the randomness of death.

But when you want to use your irrationality to threaten the rest of us with jail time, you're going too far. We have sufficient laws to rule our roads. If the motorist that hit the Gaunts did something wrong, he'll be charged under the laws that apply to all of us. Who knows what grief he may be suffering already - I know it would shake me terribly, even if I were totally innocent.

But for the bike advocates to use this case, about which none of us knows much at all, as a rallying point to threaten us all with jail is just ridiculous. I am truly, deeply, sincerely sorry for the loss that the Gaunt family has suffered. But I'm counting on my legislators to refuse to join in the "do something, do anything" response their sad case provokes in people like Hendricks.

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16 Comments:

Anonymous travelingal said...

I agree with you on this one, Dan. Go to jail for having the sun in your eyes and simply not seeing something in front of you or accidentally veering off a bit to the shoulder? Yah, that may be driver "error", but certainly not punishable by jail time. Things like drunken driving or high speeds are another thing..those deserve punishment and I'm sure they're already punished under current law.

We have enough real crimes to deal with and jails are already overcrowded.

8/18/2007 12:54 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Amen Dan!! This is just one more example of the tail wagging the dog. Smart people lose all perspective in times of emotion. This was a horrible tragedy that saddens all of us, but cannot take us into areas of the absurd.

As for the legislators and their wisdom, that is yet to be seen.

8/18/2007 3:43 PM  
Blogger Xavier Onassis said...

I got nothing against people who want to ride bikes. God bless. Enjoy.

But aggressively asserting your right to the road by driving a flimsy, lightweight vehicle with a top speed of 15-20 mph on the same road where the prevailing trafic is travelling twice or three times that speed in vehicles whose weight is measured in fractions of tons is just a disaster waiting to happen.

I'm travelling AT THE SPEED LIMIT of 65 mph and I top a hill to find a group of cyclists in my lane travelling at 20 mph. What the fuck am I supposed to do? Slam on my brakes and get rear ended? Swerve into the other lane and have a head on collision with opposing traffic?

You want to ride your bike? Fine. Go find a bike path where cars are prohibited. Otherwise, take your chances on the main roads (built from usage fees by car owners and engineered to carry cars and trucks at high rates of speed). But don't get all indignant and self righteous when you find an SUV rammed up your spandex-clad ass. You put yourself in that position.

8/19/2007 1:38 AM  
Anonymous Allie said...

I agree with you, mostly. I don't think someone should do jail time for changing the radio station. But, I do live near Cliff Drive, the scenic drive used frequently by walkers and bicyclists. I sometimes see throughless dumb*sses actually DRAG RACING onto Cliff Drive, tires squealing and all. (I have never been able to get plate numbers - they go by too fast.) I think a bicyclist or walker with the bad luck to be in their paths would likely be killed, and in that case, I do think jail time - a LOT of jail time - would be warranted.

8/19/2007 7:19 AM  
Blogger ::Andrew:: said...

I mostly agree, Dan. I don't think we should get too carried away with our laws over the matter.

But I will say, as a bike commuter in midtown, that many Kansas Citians don't have much interest in sharing the roads with us. It is safer for bikers (and drivers)for us to ride in the road and take up a lane than it is for us to be on the sidewalks, but many times, drivers will not slow down or change lanes in a way that guarantees safety, expecting that the biker ought to move (yes, we tend to slow down traffic a bit, but you will still get to work on time, I promise). I know some people may disagree that bikes should be on the road in the first place, but it is an increasing form of transportation in Kansas City, and something we will have to deal with, regardless of changes in law and enforcement.

I look forward to sharing the road with you all and your cars.

8/20/2007 9:22 AM  
Blogger Xavier Onassis said...

"...yes, we tend to slow down traffic a bit, but you will still get to work on time, I promise..."

This is the sort of "cyclists are more righteous than motorists" crap that really pisses me off.

What? Because YOU choose to go slow everybody else should just crawl along at your pace and be happy about it? Huh uh. Get out of the way and let us motorists use the roads that our vehicles pay for at our own pace.

8/20/2007 11:20 AM  
Blogger Eolaí gan Fhéile said...

A bicycle is my sole method of transportation, and I ride it with the view to staying alive.

In Kansas City that means breaking rules of the road that I would prefer not to break and wouldn't dream of breaking in other countries.

I'm not an advocate for cyclists though, and I believe the laws already sufficiently govern transgressions by road users, whatever vehicle they choose to use.

I'm travelling AT THE SPEED LIMIT of 65 mph and I top a hill to find a group of cyclists in my lane travelling at 20 mph. What the fuck am I supposed to do?

You're supposed to be driving at a speed at which you can control your vehicle, including stopping suddenly if need be.

In over 30 years of cycling tens of thousands of miles I've never been in a group of cyclists, and when I cycle on a road I cycle to share it not to hog it. If cycling on a narrow roadway, as defined by hedges, walls or by parked cars, I will always pull over and stop to let any motorized vehicles behind me (or oncoming, if need be) pass without any delay - even though legally I am entitled to carry on cycling.

If you top a hill at 65 mph to find something obstructing you, you might well deserve to go to jail if you believe you have no obligation to slow down. While a group of cyclists shouldn't be doing that, you should have the skill necessary to stop or slow down that you would employ if there was a large hole in the road, a tree across it, a car broken down, a wreck, a policeman, spilled oil, ice, etc.

In trying to govern so many things, the law is frequently an ass and common sense can keep people alive longer than the slavish observance of laws. If a road is signposted with a speed limit of 65mph for a section including a hill, common sense tells me that you should maybe drive slower than the limit when you top the hill.

For what it's worth I think cyclists riding in groups spread out across a whole lane should be outlawed except for organized events and races which would have the necessary safety measures taken - as in the case of 5K runs and so forth.

Because of the condition of roads in Kansas City and of the car culture, it is often safer for a single cyclist to take the whole lane rather than ride to the side - though I never do this myself due to the self-righteousness of car drivers.

I'm not familiar with tax enough in the US but in other countries it's common for taxes from everybody, not just motor vehicle users, to build the roads and then for motor vehicle users to be taxed for maintenance based on the princciple that the heavier the vehicle using the road the more damage is done necessitating maintenance.

I believe that the driving should dictate whether something is a jailworthy offense, and not the status of the victims i.e. I don't think there should be special laws governing cars hitting bicycles over and above cars hitting cars.

8/20/2007 4:40 PM  
Blogger thepaintman said...

At most everyone who has a cell phone uses it while driving. We'll probably never know how many accidents occur while the driver is on their cell phone. When I drive I see alot of people driving, dailing and talking on the cell phone.

8/21/2007 12:50 AM  
Blogger Heidi said...

"You're supposed to be driving at a speed at which you can control your vehicle, including stopping suddenly if need be."

Amen.

But Dan said:

"No. Just because some bicyclist decides to take a more dangerous way to get to work, I don't think the rest of us ought to be exposed to prison time if we change the radio station."

Let's see...why would that way be more dangerous for a bicyclist? Oh yeah--because of the drivers who aren't paying attention, the drivers who are choosing to do something else other than what they're supposed to be doing.

Glad to hear this has made you a more conscientious driver for the time being, Dan. Oh wait, you didn't say that. God help me if I'm crossing the street while you're changing the radio station.

8/21/2007 11:15 AM  
Blogger Eric said...

When you make the choice to get behind the wheel of an automobile you are implicitly accepting responsibility anything and everything that your automobile does. If the sun is in your eyes, slow down. You could just easily hit a motorcycle, a child crossing the street in a marked crosswalk, or rear-end a car with a baby in the back seat.

The bottom line is that you are responsible for whatever damage your car does. "I didn't see him" is a pathetic excuse.

The speed limit is just that, a limit. It's a maximum, not a minimum. You have zero right to be pissed off if someone is going under the speed limit.

8/22/2007 6:10 PM  
Blogger Xavier Onassis said...

eric - you have clearly never been a passenger in my car.

8/23/2007 9:03 AM  
Blogger Dan said...

So, if I'm driving down the road, and the sun glares into my eyes, I should slam on the brakes and remain parked there until the sun moves?

8/23/2007 9:08 AM  
Blogger Heidi said...

Hey Dan, how 'bout you wear sun glasses? And I believe Eric wrote slow down, not slam on the brakes. And your comment conveniently ignores all the many other situations where an inattentive driver could kill someone unpriviledged (in the eyes of the law) to be without armor (i.e. a car). It's not just bicyclists.

8/26/2007 3:04 PM  
Blogger Dan said...

Heidi -

I'm not fighting with you over this - I think it's sad when bicyclists are killed. But I don't think a moment of negligence necessarily means you should wind up in jail. Hendricks' mindless agitating for harsh penalties just because a bicyclist gets hurt is stupid.

You may be pleased to know that I've never actually hit a bicyclist, and the only one I've come close enough to hitting that he wiped out admitted it was his own fault.

8/26/2007 3:09 PM  
Blogger mamagotcha said...

Kansas City drivers just plain don't know how to drive around bicyclists. It's sad but it's a fact that's been proven over and over while I've lived here... despite the laws, bikes get hit and the general feeling here is "Oh, well, he was riding a bike, what did he expect to happen?" That's why I got rid of our bikes when we moved here, despite having lived in a bike-friendly city before... I knew we would not survive long on these streets. It's some sort of implicit KC drivers code that I don't understand, same as running red lights, ignoring pedestrians in crosswalks, and uniform misunderstanding of the use of turning lanes... area drivers aren't expected to follow those laws, either, and so they don't. It's too bad, because it's not that hard to do any of those things, and they result in quite a few less accidents, and make travel much more pleasant for all involved, but nothing is going to change despite these or any other deaths. It's a widespread, accepted attitude, and a price we willingly, inexplicably pay for living here.

8/26/2007 6:32 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

This is obviously well after the fact but I thought I should toss in my two cents.

I ride a motorcycle regularly. I have been cut off, turned in front of and run off the road by motorists "just not seeing me".

I'm not on a bicycle. I'm riding a 700lb machine covered in chrome, bright red paint and nearly as long as my wifes Honda. Yet in the middle of the day I hear "I didn't see you."

I have seen friends loss limbs and the driver of the car not even get their license suspended. Excuse me, if your such a horrible driver as to cause an accident where the other person is maimed I think making you ride the bus for 6 months wouldn't be too far out of line, but even that is too much I guess.

3/23/2008 5:12 PM  

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