The executive director of the San Francisco Bicycling Coalition does not know of “a single case” in which a driver who killed a cyclist has been prosecuted, except for DUIs and hit-and-runs. If you’re not drunk and you stay on the scene, you can pretty much run over every cyclist you see. In 2011, a teenager ran over a 49 year-old cyclist from behind, killing him, and was fined $42. In San Francisco last year, Amelie Le Moullac was in the bike lane when a delivery truck turned right and killed her. Police initially assumed it was Le Moullac’s fault, until surveillance video showed the truck driver turning through the bike lane in front of her at unsafe speed. Although the SFPD has acknowledged that the driver was at fault, no charges have been filed.
All of these examples come from Daniel Duane’s editorial in last Sunday’s Times, which asks a simple question: is it okay to kill bicyclists? The law says bicycles enjoy the same road privileges as cars, but if I rear-end a car and kill its driver, I will almost certainly face charges. When drivers do the same thing to cyclists across the country, police and juries decide that the bicyclist should have been more careful.
Fundamentally, most of us are drivers. Duane cites Portland bicycle attorney Ray Thomas, who believes that juries are reluctant to issue penalties in car/bike accidents because they identify with people who drive cars. Even in densely urban areas like New York or bicycle-friendly towns like Missoula, motorists far outnumber cyclists. The road is theoretically a place for both bikes and cars, but only one of those vehicles weighs thousands of pounds, wrecks the other vehicle on contact and is owned by 90% of American households.
As soon as something bad happens, the bicyclist shouldn’t have been there. Last summer, I was riding in the bicycle lane downtown when a Mercedes turned left into me. A few weeks later there was a sign in the same spot instructing bicyclists to watch for turning cars. One lane over, a driver who turned left through traffic and collided with another car would be in serious trouble. Hit a bike, though, and it’s a faultless accident.
The irony is evident and bitter. When I’m on a bicycle instead of driving a car, I am doing pretty much everyone else on the road a favor. In addition to not emitting carbon monoxide and greenhouse gas, I also pose much less of a danger to other drivers than if I were in my truck. Pretty much the worst bicycle error imaginable is not going to kill someone in a car. I could slam into the back of Honda Fits at speed for weeks at a time and hurt no one but myself. If I do the same thing in my truck, I’m likely to cause serious injury.
So yeah: bicycles are great unless you don’t ride one, and then they’re a hideous traffic nuisance. Law enforcement knows it. There are laws against turning through bike lanes and running down cyclists from behind, but they aren’t enforced. The real law is what most people do, and you violate it at your peril. What most people do is drive cars.