You know how it's pretty much okay in Portland to drive like a jackass, run down a cyclist waiting patiently at a stop sign and try to claim the other person was at fault?
We're not the only ones with that problem, and it's much more-disturbing than a cabbie mangling my bike. The entire country struggles with how to handle even fatal bike-car accidents—and that push-pull invariably errs on the side of lax penalties for negligent drivers.
But what to do?
That's the question asked by a New York Times contributor this weekend, in an op-ed headlined: Is It O.K. to Kill Cyclists? From the piece:
I began noticing “cyclist killed” news articles, like one about Amelie Le Moullac, 24, pedaling inside a bike lane in San Francisco’s SOMA district when a truck turned right and killed her. In these articles, I found a recurring phrase: to quote from The San Francisco Chronicle story about Ms. Le Moullac, “The truck driver stayed at the scene and was not cited.”
In stories where the driver had been cited, the penalty’s meagerness defied belief, like the teenager in 2011 who drove into the 49-year-old cyclist John Przychodzen from behind on a road just outside Seattle, running over and killing him. The police issued only a $42 ticket for an “unsafe lane change” because the kid hadn’t been drunk and, as they saw it, had not been driving recklessly.
You don’t have to be a lefty pinko cycling activist to find something weird about that. But try a Google search for “cyclist + accident” and you will find countless similar stories: on Nov. 2, for example, on the two-lane coastal highway near Santa Cruz, Calif., a northbound driver lost control and veered clear across southbound traffic, killing Joshua Alper, a 40-year-old librarian cycling in the southbound bike lane. As usual: no charges, no citation. Most online comments fall into two camps: cyclists outraged at inattentive drivers and wondering why cops don’t care; drivers furious at cyclists for clogging roads and flouting traffic laws.
It's a troubling issue, and not quite as clear cut as simply throwing the book at careless drivers. Many juries, the piece notes, aren't willing to put a driver away for years for a lapse in attention, so some states have crafted softer laws that offer more than a mere slap on the wrist—but less than mandatory imprisonment— for bad accidents. Oregon's penalty for careless driving that results in the injury or death of a so-called "vulnerable user"? Up to 200 hours of community service, completion of a traffic safety course, up to a $12,500 fine and license suspension for a year. Worse than a ticket, but probably cold comfort to bereaved family members.
The author's idea for helping minimize chaos on the roads is something I'm always advocating: "Every time you get on a bike, from this moment forward, obey the letter of the law in every traffic exchange everywhere to help drivers (and police officers) view cyclists as predictable users of the road who deserve respect."
I cringe when fellow bicycle commuters blow red lights, because it makes sense to me that—especially in a city with as developed a bike network as Portland—we might foster goodwill by playing by the rules (I admit to being all for an "Idaho stop").
But prolific blogger Eben Weiss over at Bike Snob NYC smacks that notion aside. His point is: Since the vast majority of the road network was designed specifically for cars, and since cars can so efficiently maim and kill cyclists, its unfair to expect bikes to always follow the same rules as cars.
"This op-ed reads like a homophobe defending gay marriage, but saying that homosexuals should 'act less faggy' in order to earn the respect of straight people," Weiss writes.
I'm not sure I agree—in fact, where cycling in close-in Portland is concerned, I flatly disagree—but both the NYT piece and the Bike Snob retort are worth a read.