Friday, October 30, 2009

Country roads, take me home (safely)

--> --> With the occasional exception of an irredeemably stupid undergraduate whose social life is apparently so packed that stop signs and being on a bicycle are poor excuses to ignore a text message, bicycling in Davis is a fairly safe endeavor. However, the current prosecution of a Los Angeles ER doctor for assault with a deadly weapon proves this is not always the case. The trial stems from an incident this 4th of July where the defendant pulled in front of two cyclists, started a verbal altercation with them, and then slammed on his brakes, which caused one of the cyclists to go through the defendant’s windshield at 30 miles an hour. What makes this case rare is that the authorities actually pressed serious charges against the driver, as opposed to minor traffic infractions. In an urban setting, such as LA, cyclists are not that much of an aberration. However, many cyclists seek out rural roads for longer rides, where they may run into people, some behind a wheel and some wearing a badge who don’t think cyclists have a right to the road.

US Olympic cyclist turned lawyer Bob Mionske explains some of this phenomena in his book, Bicycling and the Law: Your Rights as a Cyclist. Mionske has found that statistically a cyclist is more likely to crash because of a driver in an urban area, which makes logical sense because there are more drivers on urban streets. However, he finds that, proportionate to the number of riders on rural versus urban roads, the injuries sustained by riders in rural areas are more likely to be serious and to be caused by the negligence or intent of the driver. Furthermore, in a case where a negligent or intending driver injures a cyclist, charges are less likely to be filed by rural authorities.

Why would this be? In his column for Velonews Magazine, Mionske published a letter he received from an assistant DA explaining why another DA did not file homicide charges against a drunk driver who, in attempting to run through a railroad crossing in time to beat the train, struck and killed a 19-year-old cyclist outside of Lebanon, Pennsylvania (population 24,446). The reader explained that the state legislature, when writing the penal code, essentially treated any object outside of the car as distraction to the driver, and therefore, a DA trying to prove a drunk driver committed vehicular manslaughter has to prove alcohol was the sole cause was the wreck. In the Lebanon case, the very fact the victim was in the road ironically gets her murderer off the hook.

I believe that this goes to a pro-car paradigm in this country which is especially virulent in rural areas. There have been a rash of radio DJs, the most egregious of which were in rural Missouri and Georgia, telling listeners to run cyclists off the road wherever possible. A softer version of this sentiment also appeals to the political leaders and law enforcement officials. For instance, the governor of Texas recently vetoed a provision that would have required drivers to give three feet clearance when passing a cyclist. Governor Perry stated:
While I am in favor of measures that make our roads safer for everyone, this bill contradicts much of the current statute and places the liability and responsibility on the operator of a motor vehicle when encountering one of these vulnerable road users.
A former European pro-racer spoke of his experience riding in rural Colorado on the forums by saying:
When a truck pulls along side of you in the country in America, it’s trouble. Best case scenario, he’s going to yell at you for using the road. Worst case scenario, he’s got a gun. In Europe, if a truck pulls along side of you, he’s going to ask you if you need a tow into town.
Drivers do have valid concerns. When large groups of cyclists take to narrow, country roads and do not ride in single file, they create a safety hazard all of their own making. The Sac Bee reported on a popular local ride near Folsom, where a group of weekend warriors that sometimes number as high as 80 were notorious for running stop signs and riding 3 or 4 abreast on narrow Placer and Sacramento County roads. Drivers quoted were irate that it could take up to 15 minutes to find a safe opportunity to pass, and the sheriff’s department was considering writing tickets to the cyclists.

So, where does this leave us? Of course, there are cyclists as stupid as our Davis undergrad, blowing through stop signs, disregarding anyone else on the road. And, as Mionske says in his book, 99 out of 100 drivers you meet on rural roads are safe, courteous drivers. Unfortunately, one bad driver and you end up in a ditch: literally if you’re lucky; figuratively if you’re not so lucky. I think the solution lies in amending our traffic laws, even in these rural states that have frequently resisted tougher speed limits and seat belt regulations. Put the legal burden on the driver who hits a cyclist to prove he or she was driving safely, not upon the victim to prove that the driver was the one at fault.


Adam W said...

Interesting post.

Rural roads are dangerous when compared to urban roads, period. Traffic fatalities per capita in rural areas are well-known to dwarf those in urban areas--two lanes of blacktop running through a sparsely populated area simply can't provide enough space or easy enough access to emergency services for anything else.

I don't know enough about traffic laws as they relate to presumptions of guilt be able to speak intelligently on that specific subject. I don't intend any disrespect to victims of senseless road rage crimes. I do feel, however, that cyclists should recognize their unique vulnerability when recreating on roads that weren't designed to accommodate them, and make informed, intelligent decisions about their own safety and well-being.

It would seem that where there's a site that has some unique attributes, such as particular scenic qualities, local communities would do well to adapt to their presence by providing dedicated bike lanes, etc.

tcruse said...

Agreed. Cyclists should be aware of not totally blocking and overtaking the road.

However, I don’t understand how a state legislature could put all the burden on the cyclist instead of the driver. It seems contradictory of the Texas governor to say he’s in favor of measures to make the road safer for everyone and yet veto a provision that requires people driving thousand-pound hunks of steel to give a measly 3 ft of clearance to admittedly vulnerable cyclists.