Cyclist Death Raises Legal Issues

The horrific death of a cyclist in New York City earlier this month – a moment captured on video – has brought attention to the way police there and in many other parts of the country treat fatalities brought about by reckless driving.

The New York Times reports that an 18-year-old man has been arrested and charged with manslaughter in the death of a 52-year-old cyclist in Brooklyn earlier this month. Barreling through a red light at high speed, the driver slammed into an SUV that was passing legally through the intersection. The force of the impact flung the SUV caddy-corner across the intersection directly into a cyclist who was patiently waiting for the red light to change on the opposite corner. The entire incident was captured on a dashcam video by another car waiting at the corner where the bike rider died. (Note: the first paragraph of The New York Times story below includes a link to the video. Be warned that it is extremely graphic and unsettling)

The newspaper reports that “bicycle advocates want stronger laws, as well as a cultural change similar to the one around drunken driving.” The question, at its root, is when reckless or negligent behavior crosses the line into criminality. The paper notes that “drivers who cause fatalities are almost never criminally charged, unless there are aggravating circumstances… running a red light is almost never considered reckless driving” even in a case like this where doing so leads to someone’s death.

Interestingly, a case that came up here in Oregon a few days later raises similar issues. According to The Oregonian, a 25-year-old man was arrested last week on “accusations of attempted murder after he allegedly rammed his silver sedan into a couple on a motorcycle in Aloha.” Though the man was booked into the Washington County jail, the paper reports that police are still searching for his car. The couple whose motorcycle he allegedly hit were taken to an area hospital with injuries described as “severe”.

Though there are obvious differences between this alleged Oregon hit-and-run and the New York incident, as a Portland attorney whose practice focuses on victims and their rights, I think it is important that we also consider the similarities. Both of these cases force us to consider when reckless conduct crosses the line into criminal activity. That, in turn, raises the question of how the broader consequences should be viewed in civil courts. Criminality implies a greater degree of intent than reckless conduct. That, in turn, should bring with it greater legal consequences.

When we look at incidents like these – where loved ones lose a family member or individuals have their lives changed forever because of actions well beyond their control – it is reasonable to ask what should be done to help make victims whole, if that is even possible. Beyond a certain point reckless driving becomes so dangerous that it – and its consequences – ought to be considered criminal. Ramming another vehicle or plowing through a busy intersection against a red light and at speeds worthy of a Hollywood car chase would both seem to rise to that level.


The New York Times: Cyclist deaths in NYC: Accidents or Crimes?

The Oregonian: Driver suspected of ramming couple on motorcycle in Aloha arrested for attempted murder

ORS 811.140: Reckless Driving

Portland Bureau of Transportation: Bikes and the Law


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