How Cyclists Are Unfairly Viewed in the Eyes of the Law

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As cycling increasing as a mode of transportation and form of recreation across the United States, debates have taken place over a cyclist’s right to the road. Usually these debates are had over internet columns (such as this) with anonymous internet commentators asserting their alleged right to not make room for cyclists, perhaps even hitting them to teach them a lesson.

However, the debates are usually settled in local and state governments. The latter proportions tax dollars for infrastructure projects, such as protected bike lanes, and local governments ultimately decide where bike lanes will go — if at all.

In the United States’ plethora of auto-dominated cities, stingy traffic engineers are usually unlikely to sacrifice a lane of vehicular traffic for alternative transportation out of overblown fears of causing more congestion. Never does it cross their mind that offering bike infrastructure might actually relieve congestion while easing the wear and tear on city streets caused by cars, thus relieving the taxpayer’s pocketbook.

But we already know all of this. We know millennials and even seniors are taking to their two-wheels, recession be damned.

What rarely seems to be discussed is how unprotected cyclists are, both physically and legally, in the United States.

“The Sun Was In My Eyes”

Here in medium-sized Cleveland, eight motorists-cyclist collisions have been reported in the month of June alone to the local bike advocacy organization, Bike Cleveland. The reports state that at least five of the eight were hit-and-runs. Of course, this does not take into account close calls or those who feel too unsafe to ride — both statistics worth researching as well.

Motorists might not like us on the road, but even the most vile human being behind the wheel has to agree that we deserve to live.

“But I always see them run stop signs or red lights!” one motorist might say.

Besides the fact that a motorist probably has not come to the full and complete stop legally required at stop signs since the advent of the law, crashing a stop sign should not be a death sentence. In fact, doing so is called an “Idaho Stop” and has proven to be safer.

Even if you do truly believe that cyclists should have to obey laws created with cars in mind, once again, this is not reason enough to murder a cyclist. Because that’s what hitting and killing a cyclist is. Murder.

Was the sun in your eyes? Then you’re not just a murderer, you’re a homicidal idiot.

Slapped on the Wrist

The problem is that killing a cyclist is often not seen as murder. And when it does happen, motorists are encouraged to flee the scene.

Cincinnati-based bike lawyer and activist, Steven Magas, gives us the harsh reality:

“Hit and run is particularly gruesome for cyclists, because the penalties for hitting and staying are viewed as far worse than the penalties for hitting and running,” he explains. “Even if they find the motorist, it is often difficult to go back and figure exactly what happened once the motorist leaves. This permits the driver to escape the ‘vehicular assault’ or ‘homicide’ provisions.”

Magas is currently pushing for legislation in Ohio’s House of Representatives that would change this significantly.

Perhaps worse, killing a cyclist often results in merely a misdemeanor. VICE recently reported on the 700 annual cyclist deaths in the United States, noting a recent report from the League of American Bicyclists that found, “barely one in five drivers who end bicyclists’ lives are charged with a crime.”

This, understandably, drives Magas crazy. He notes that drivers who kill are often slapped on the wrist with a 90 to 180 day jail sentence and a fine. Magas calls such weak sentencing, “a slap in the face to the family and friends of the person killed, and to the community of cyclists mourning the loss.”

Magas points to Jeff Stevenson, a victim of a hit and run driver, as an example. Stevenson was killed by a bartender who, soon after the accident, fled from the scene of the crime. After the accident, the bartender attempted to have the damage to their vehicle repaired before he was caught. The driver pled guilty to a felony for leaving the scene and got 30 days. That’s just 30 days for ending an innocent life.

Sadly, the injustice is hardly a new story.

These deaths are preventable with protected infrastructure, driver education, and strong laws that protect cyclists. Sounds easy and affordable, right? Yet in a state like Ohio, drivers get to decide how close is a “safe distance” while passing a cyclist.

Obvious

There is reason for hope that the tide might be changing. Bobby Cann’s drunken assailant is being charged for his reckless, and ultimately fatal, speeding in congested city streets with no signs of attempted breaking. Thankfully, it seems even motorist-favored laws cannot save this waste of space. Sadly, this is merely the exception. But it is something.

On the infrastructure side, 371 mayors recently came together, stressing to Congress the importance of local control over the Transportation Alternatives Program in order to create more cycling and pedestrian projects. These projects increase trust in government, proponents argued, not to mention have positive impacts on the environment and personal health.

Still, cyclists who want infrastructure and laws to keep them safe are a lesser priority as states like Ohio and Wisconsin continue outrageous spending on highway projects that have been proven futile in reducing congestion. And as long as auto-oriented projects are favored, it seems laws protecting drivers over infinitely more vulnerable cyclists will continue.

Regardless of all this, however, there is no debate over the fact that we deserve to live. Late for a meeting? Sun in your eyes? Don’t think we belong on the road? None of these are good excuses for ending a life — a life who likely is also be a brother, sister, mother, father or spouse. Because there never is a good reason to end a life.

Sure, it seems like stating the obvious. But with drivers running cyclists off the road, hitting and fleeing the scene, or generally threatening the well-being of an innocent cyclist — it seems the obvious needs to be stated.

Speaking of obvious, drivers are behind 4,000-pounds of metal traveling at high speeds. We cyclists are but flesh and bones. American drivers need to take this responsibility, this luxury more seriously.

Hopefully soon our laws and infrastructure will recognize these basic facts.

About Joe Baur

Joe Baur is a freelance writer, filmmaker and satirist with a diverse array of interests including travel, adventure, craft beer, health, urban issues, culture and politics. He ranks his allegiances in the order of Cleveland, the state of Ohio and the Rust Belt, and enjoys a fried egg on a variety of meats. Joe has a B.A. in Mass Communication with a focus on production from Miami University. Follow him at joebaur.com and on Twitter @BaurJoe
Posted in: Law, Society, Uncategorized