Rider Down: Why it’s always the cyclist’s fault

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It’s funny how these things happen in bunches. A couple of days ago we suggested, after charges were dropped against an Ottowa official who killed a cyclist, that the prosecutor had decided there was no case because the cyclist at the time had been dying under the influence. That is, his blood alcohol level exceeded the allowable limit — for drivers.

Aftermath of Toronto cycling fatality last September — Toronto Star/Pawel Dwulit
If only the cyclist had refrained from drinking before he was rammed to death hanging onto the hood of the vehicle for dear life — well then, justice might have been served. As it is, the cyclist has been convicted posthumously of all sorts of crimes.

Our point, of course, was to show the subtle and ingrained bias against cyclists in our society. Say that driver had killed a pedestrian in the crosswalk in front of his Saab, and it later turned out the walker had been drinking. Obviously the driver would have to be exonerated, and the pedestrian got what he deserved.

The Montreal case’s tortured reasoning was still resonating when we ran across the following headline: “Man riding mountain bike hits car.” It turns out that a cyclist riding along a sidewalk apparently went to cross the street without realizing that a car was turning into the exact place he was riding. This is what is normally called a collision. If two cars hit each other in an intersection, it’s assumed that till things get sorted out, the fault has yet to be determined. We cannot recall seeing a headline stating, “Man driving car hits van,” because such headline would imply that the car driver was at fault.

But it gets worse. The cyclist “hit the passenger-side front end of the car, breaking the windshield with his arm.” Compounding his assault on the car’s front end, then, the cyclist also had the temerity to karate chop the windshield.

To extend its bias to its logical conclusion, the headline should have read: “Man riding mountain bike hits car, uses arm to break windshield, and has poor taste to bleed all over everything.”

Unfortunately, the cyclist did not die on the spot, causing the driver what will undoubtedly be the huge inconvenience of a lot of paperwork. Meanwhile, drivers everywhere feel less safe around cyclists, cowering in fear that a bike will come out of nowhere to attack their cars.

Before the inbox starts choking, the issue here is not whether the cyclist was at fault in the incidents. We do not condone drinking and riding, and although biking on sidewalks is usually legal, it can be unwise.

The issue here is the characterization of the accidents to lead the reader to believe that the cyclist was automatically at fault. Especially when 38 million American drivers lack the knowledge to pass a written driving test.

In our experience, if there is the slightest suspicion that the cyclist caused the accident, police and media have no qualms about making the call almost immediately. It’s only when the driver is clearly, beyond reasonable doubt, at fault, that “the case remains under investigation.” An investigation that typically lasts months and is all but forgotten by the time it is closed. (There are exceptions — to the “forgotten” part at least.)

If you doubt this principle, consider what happened in Ionia, Michigan, where an 8-year-old girl “died Tuesday after she rode her bicycle into an intersection and was struck by a car, police said.”

To their credit, the police stopped short of saying she “struck the car.” Still, the wording suggests that if only the girl had not chosen to ride into an intersection, all would be well. Her fatal decision was to ride a bicycle where a car also happened to be.

Undoubtedly in the four hours or so between the accident and the news report, the police wrapped up their investigation in record time. Girl on bike. Driver in car. Must’ve been the girl’s fault. Mark it an 8, Dude.

Not all hope is lost, however. In Illinois a judge handed out a 9-year sentence to a driver who killed a 65-year-old cyclist. And a Santa Clara (CA) County district attorney won a vehicular manslaughter case against a driver who had killed a cyclist, then tried to alter the evidence to cover up culpability.

Moreover, from across the pond comes a report, “Aspiring model hurled into barbed wire fence after car runs her bicycle off the road.”

Now there’s a headline for you. And the photos ain’t pretty either.

At least we now know what it takes to get a fair shake in a bike accident: 1. Be an aspiring model (or actress, or newscaster or whatever. Just look good, OK?). 2. Get sliced to ribbons. Makes for wonderful photo ops. 3. Most of all, don’t die.

Because if you do, there will be only one version of what happened. And it won’t be yours.


Giro d’Italia 2010, Stage 17: Quiet before the storm

Walk Bike Ride: The public will have to sell it


2 thoughts on “Rider Down: Why it’s always the cyclist’s fault”

  1. I see your point and as a bicyclist, admit that cars can be insane to be around. In fact, I try to stick to trails. At the same time, I once had a bicyclist crash into me, literally. He was actually okay, but my friend’s truck that I was driving wasn’t. I had entered the intersection at a 4-way stop, when this teenaged boy came barreling down a steep hill, around a blind turn, never slowed down, no helmet, no hands on the handlebars – one hand holding a slurpee, the other a newspaper. I tried to avoid him, but he slammed into the side of the truck, probably going 25 mph, but I was barely moving as I had just started to proceed. I was so freaked out that I killed him or something, but all he had was a scraped knee. He was still holding the stupid slurpee – he didn’t even spill it. The truck had a massive dent in it. We had tons of witnesses tell me they saw it all and he was 100% at fault (I was19 at the time and hysterical that I hit a bicyclist). Well, he gave us bogus contact info, so we had to pay for all of the repairs ourselves.

    I do get your point about headlines BTW, I just wanted to share that sometimes bikes actually do crash into cars, as crazy as it seems.

  2. I crashed into a car once — I was inspecting my toe clip straps (remember those?) or something while slowing to a stop, only to look up too late and rear-end a car. The driver never even noticed, and the bumper wasn’t scratched.

    While Maureen’s story proves her point, putting a dent in a door, unlike a bumper, takes hardly any force at all. It doesn’t take a cyclist at 25MPH — I’ve crashed at that speed, and never managed to keep my slurpee intact — to leave a big dent; a well placed punch to a door panel will do the same. The big difference is that fragile car parts and fragile bodies are worlds apart when it comes to repair.

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