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Friday, November 15, 2013

Does The Law Go Too Easy On Drivers Who Kill Cyclists?

(tom cochrane/Flickr)

(tom cochrane/Flickr)

Daniel Duane, contributing editor for Men’s Journal, recently posed a provocative question in the New York Times: Is it okay to kill cyclists?

His answer: An even more provocative “yes.”

Duane cites statistics to claim that even as cities work to create new bike lanes, laws are stuck in the past. Drivers are rarely punished for hitting cyclists, even when the drivers are at fault.

“If you kill a cyclist, if you’re driving a car and you run over a cyclist, unless you are blatantly drunk enough for somebody to give you a breathalyzer test, or flee the scene, your chances of being prosecuted are virtually none. This is true, believe it or not, even if you’ve clearly run a stop sign, or even a stop light, or clearly been speeding,” Duane tells Here & Now’s Robin Young.




It's HERE AND NOW. Daniel Duane, contributing editor for Men's Journal, recently posed a provocative question on the op-ed pages of the New York Times. The headline read: Is it OK to kill cyclists? And Daniel's answer, an even more provocative yes.

Daniel cites statistics to claim that even as cities work to create new bike lanes, drivers rarely are punished for hitting cyclists, even when the drivers are at fault. Daniel Duane joins us now from the studios of KQED in San Francisco. And Daniel, you've got a cycling city there, but the director of the San Francisco Bicycling Coalition told you something interesting about bike accidents recently. What was that?

DANIEL DUANE: She told me that to her knowledge, the San Francisco Police Department had never charged a driver in the case of a cycling fatality without clear evidence of DUIs, drunk driving, or hit and run. And the San Francisco Police Department I believe has since confirmed that.

YOUNG: Which means what?

DUANE: What that means, and this is not unique to San Francisco, this is fairly consistent across the country, is that if you kill a cyclist, if you're driving your car, and you run over a cyclist, unless you are blatantly drunk enough for somebody to give you a breathalyzer test or flee the scene, your chances of being prosecuted are virtually none.

This is true, believe it or not, even if you've clearly run a stop sign or even a stoplight or clearly been speeding. I've - in the past week, since the publication of that op-ed, I got barraged with emails from - and quite a few of them are awfully poignant from the sort of relatives and loved ones of people who have been killed by cycling, circumstances you just wouldn't believe, you know, a driver with no license, blatantly swerving off the road.

And in all of these cases, even when there is no question that the driver did something like, let's say, ran a stop sign in order to hit the cyclist, it just doesn't matter.

YOUNG: Well, you cite other stories, a 2011 story when a man drove into a 49-year-old cyclist from behind on a road just outside Seattle, ran over him, killed him, and the police issued an unsafe lane change citation. There's another case near Santa Cruz, California, a northbound driver lost control, veered across southbound traffic and killed a 40-year-old librarian cycling in the southbound bike lane. No charges.

States are passing laws that are putting extra responsibility on drivers to avoid harming cyclists. Vulnerable user laws, what are these?

DUANE: This is one of the more interesting parts of the issue and the debate. So the reason that it is functionally legal to get - to kill cyclists, the reason drivers pretty much universally get away with it, even when they are blatantly at fault, is sort of a confluence of the ways in which our laws are written and the tendency of jurors to identify with drivers, not cyclists.

The two obvious laws under which to prosecute a driver would be vehicular manslaughter or reckless driving. Both of these carry potentially life-destroying penalties, so let's say in the case of vehicular manslaughter, I think in some cases it can be as high as six years in prison.

It's very hard for a jury to sit there and look at somebody who just really didn't mean to kill that person and convict them of a crime that is going to destroy the driver's life, as well.

YOUNG: Well, I'll jump in to say to underscore that that one of the letters that came to the New York Times after your article appeared challenges you on this notion that drivers don't pay for killing cyclists. Masdak Bradbury(ph) from Madison, Wisconsin, writes it's never OK to kill cyclists, but no one knows this better than those who live every moment with the overwhelming guilt of having done so.

This seems to be what you're saying is that people sympathize with the drivers who might have ended an innocent life.

DUANE: Sure, that's right. That is a fair point, right. None of us - nobody but a sociopath actually wants to kill a cyclist. You know, a woman in England actually sent an email to my personal email account making the same point, explaining that her father had accidentally killed a cyclist in the '70s, and he had really never gotten over it.

So that is fair. I think it's a meaningful part of the conversation. I just think it's also important to remember that in no other part of our justice system do we - do we accept the idea that lingering feelings of guilt are adequate punishment for negligence that takes another person's life.

YOUNG: Well, but to pick up with what you were saying, you spoke with Ray Thomas(ph). He's an attorney in Portland, Oregon, who specializes in bike law. And he's the one who told you that jurors identify with drivers. And if there are convictions that have penalties of up to six years in prison, jurors think there but for the grace of God go I.

So what would these new laws do to try to get around that attitude?

DUANE: One way of thinking about vulnerable user laws is that they are a way to try to define penalties for killing cyclists that are light enough for juries to convict but severe enough to both satisfy our sense of justice and to make all of us think twice when we get behind the wheel of a car.

You know, a fairly typical penalty scheme would be, say, a one-year loss of your driver's license and either a $10,000 fine or 100 or 200 hours of community service, so not enough to ruin your life but definitely enough to make you think oh boy, I sure wouldn't want that to happen.

YOUNG: Right. Well meanwhile, you're thinking I sure wouldn't want to be the one hit. You begin your piece by describing how you had discovered cycling, and you were going to join those people with the wind in their hair and the smile on their face biking everywhere. And I think it was in the very first moment of having that thought, like minutes after, that you literally saw an SUV hit another cyclist and then got your front wheel stuck and went down.

DUANE: Yeah, this was sort of an anomalously horrible first ride, but I had signed up for a triathlon to try to get in shape, and I had never done anything like that, and I hadn't ridden a bike since I was a kid. In the very first block of that ride I saw an SUV hit another cyclist.

He did get up, and the car stopped, and I concluded that it was reasonable for me to keep on riding. And then I think it was one or two blocks later I got my wheels stuck in the sort of the trough in the pavement in San Francisco next to the light rail tracks that run up the middle of the road, and the next thing I knew I was sort of face-down on the asphalt.

YOUNG: Well, then you started talking to people, and as you say, the anecdotes mounted. And I could give you one, too. I had a dear college friend, the great Mike Serventi(ph), killed by a cyclist. We had a cyclist killed right outside our office; a lot of people saw it. You started hearing a lot of stories about people getting killed on bikes. And you've decided to, what, bike in your basement? Is that just to stay on a stationary?

DUANE: I'll put my bike in my car - this is very Californian I suppose, but I'll put my bike in my car and drive 20 minutes outside of the city to a particularly quiet, country road, and I've recently found some dirt fire roads that seem like an even better choice.

But yeah, for those mid-week training sessions, I do it in the basement.

YOUNG: Daniel Duane, contributing editor for Men's Journal, his piece "Is It OK To Kill Cyclists" ran in the New York Times. We'll link you at By the way, you also got reaction from people who said, well, wait a second, I'm the little old lady who keeps getting hit by cyclists in New York. So there's a pretty robust debate right now as to who's more dangerous.

DUANE: Yeah, there really is. I stepped on a much bigger landmine than I anticipated.

YOUNG: Daniel, thanks so much.

DUANE: Thank you very much for having me. I appreciate it.

YOUNG: Part of that landmine is that Daniel also wrote that cyclists need to ride safer. Your thoughts on all of this, we'd love to hear them at Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Robin Young and Jeremy Hobson host Here & Now, a live two-hour production of NPR and WBUR Boston.

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