An Uncomfortable Truth About Bikes and Cars

Last week the New York Times carried an op-ed piece on the subject of urban cycling, particularly bike commuting, that managed to be thoughtful, funny and harrowing all at the same time. Topped by the provocative headline: “Is it OK to kill cyclists?” the article cites numerous recent instances of fatal bike accidents from around the country in which bike riders were killed by drivers who then were subject to only the lightest of punishments.

A 24-year-old riding inside a bike lane in San Francisco was killed by a truck making a right turn and police issued no citation. A Seattle area teenager who ran over and killed a cyclist in 2011 was “issued only a $42 ticket for an ‘unsafe lane change’ because the kid hadn’t been drunk and, as (the police) saw it, had not been driving recklessly.” As the article rightly points out: “Laws in most states do give bicyclists full access to the road, but very few roads are designed to accommodate bicycles, and the speed and mass differentials – bikes sometimes slow traffic, only cyclists have much to fear from a crash – make sharing the road difficult to absorb at an emotional level.”
The writer cites a friend who advised him that the best survival strategy was to assume “that every driver was ‘a mouth-breathing drug addict with a murderous hatred for cyclists.’” On one level that is not necessarily bad advice, but the tragedy is that in this day and age it is even necessary. With cycling now, as the article notes, $6 billion industry and an outdoor activity whose popularity is surpassed only by running this is a subject that resonates far beyond the our own streets in legendarily bike-friendly Portland – a fact made clear that even here we suffer several fatal Oregon bike and car crashes every year.

If, as the author notes, we all agree that serious car crashes require law enforcement officials to investigate and determine responsibility, why do we not insist on the same standards for bike riders? The article quotes the head of the large, and long-established, San Francisco Bicycle Coalition saying that “We do not know of a single case of a cyclist fatality in which the driver was prosecuted except for D.U.I. or hit-and-run.”
As a Portland bike accident attorney I find this both too common and simply unacceptable. Something seems to be wrong with our very idea of justice if a system like this is allowed to persist anywhere in the country, but the fact is that in many places it represents the norm rather than the exception. Remember, the Times article focuses on San Francisco, a city that, like Portland, has worked hard for decades to make itself more bike-friendly. One of the few bright spots in the article is the praise it has for our state’s laws, in which a driver held to be at fault in a crash with a cyclist may lose his or her license and be subject to a fine of $12,500 or 200 hours of community service. Still, one has to ask whether even these penalties go far enough, especially when what we are discussing is the loss of a human life.

We can all be happy that Oregon is a leader in this regard, and that civil courts like the ones in which I practice play a key role in helping victims and their families obtain justice after Oregon bike accidents, but the fact remains that it is our criminal courts where the government needs to hold drivers accountable.

New York Times: Is it OK to kill cyclists?