cycling utah June 1999


There is no justice for cyclists injured in an accident

By Rob MacLeod

I had this article all worked out weeks ago. There was a clear example of road rage hurting cyclists, a cyclist reacting rashly, an unambiguous take-home message. Dream story. Then a bike-car crash on Utah Highway 89 changed all that. Things have become more complicated and I had to start again. Here is what came out.

There is no real justice for a cyclist injured in a bike crash.

A bike crash is not like other crimes. When someone steals something from you, you may eventually get it back. You may even get it replaced with something better. When someone hits your car, with luck you come away with minor injuries and the car gets repaired or replaced. Sure, you may lose some money on the deal, but a good lawyer can make sure you do alright.

But in a bike crash, the cyclist usually loses a lot, often so much that there simply is no adequate punishment or retribution. Two recent stories illustrate the point.

The first is from Chicago, where a cyclist was cut off by a driver in a big SUV and responded by pounding his fist on the car as it went by. The driver pulled over, let the cyclist pass, and then proceeded to hit him several times from behind with his SUV.

The final impact knocked the cyclist down and under the wheels of the vehicle and to his death. The driver left the scene but was eventually found and charged with first-degree murder. This car-versus-bike murder case is unique in the Chicago area and has yet to go to trial.

The second story is much too close to home. It happened near Fruit Heights on Highway 89, a route many local cyclists know and have enjoyed for years. As I write this, not even two weeks have passed since the crash and I still feel sick as the scene replays through my imagination.

A group of six cyclists were riding northbound along the shoulder of the road. The Sunday ride was almost over; five miles to go before home and a party to watch the Jazz playoff game. A driver police say was drunk tried to pass the cyclists but could not control his vehicle and ran into the paceline, then swerved back out onto the road before losing control completely and rolling into a ditch.

The impact of the truck sent three cyclists flying and they all ended up in the same ditch as the driver. One of the three spent a short time in the hospital for a collapsed lung and plenty of bruises. Another will be in traction for weeks to come for her shattered pelvis, damaged vertebrae, a broken foot and other injuries. The third is still fighting for his life with a severe amputation of his left leg and major reconstruction of his right leg, pelvis, and elbow along with severe internal injuries. He will never sit properly again, let alone ride a bike.

We can find some solace in the first case. If the cyclist had not banged on the side of the vehicle, there would likely have been no incident. One thing is for sure, there would have been no prosecution. The stories of cyclists reporting clear cases of dangerous driving and being ignored by law enforcement are legend. And there is some rationale for this; without evidence of witnesses and positive identification of the driver, how can the justice system convict someone based on just a license plate number?

So should we be glad that at least this time the action was extreme enough and the damage severe enough that charges were laid? Is this one of those great landmark cases that will result in better conditions for cyclists?

I doubt it, and I doubt even more that the friends and family of the victim will be happy with the outcome, with any outcome. For in a case like this, the big loser is the cyclist. No amount of time in jail or financial compensation can make up for the life lost. Or for a disability, had this victim survived with major injury. Martyrdom never pays.

The message from this story is pretty easy. No bad driver behavior is worth dying or even getting injured for. It is not even worth ruining a ride, let alone your life. As another member of our bike club wrote in reply to the Chicago case, "The only reason I'm sending this note is because I once had a .357 magnum pulled on me when I was biking after I shouted at a 13 year old kid for spitting at me. The spit would definitely wash off, a bullet to the head wouldn't be so easy."

Now we come to the second case and the end of simple lessons.

There was no altercation here, no warning, no real decision based on good judgment of any of the riders that could have changed anything. The fiance of one of the victims was a little slow on the hills; she got dropped minutes before the accident and watched it all happen.

Dumb luck.

However, there is one place to look for cause and that is the driver. He was drunk, again, at over twice the legal limit. This was his ninth or tenth conviction, in ten years-hard to keep track when the number is so high. He has not held a driver's license since 1994 and biggest sentence was a $1700 fine after conviction #6, or was it #7? He will get more punishment this time, although it will be trivial compared to what would result from the same damage committed with a gun or a knife. So he may leave the streets for a while.

But how could we have stopped him from ever getting behind the wheel in the first place that Sunday? How can we stop others who are like him, out driving around drunk as you read this article? We cannot lock up all drunks for life.

It would be nice if we could have cars that did not start unless the driver passed a breathalyzer built into the steering wheel. It would be good if there were enough police and they had the freedom to stop vehicles before they ran into something-I would give up some of my personal rights if it meant catching more illegal drivers and unregistered vehicles. It would be great if there were rehabilitation programs in Utah that actually monitored alcoholics closely enough to detect those who needed extra help and extra watching. And it would be good justice if multiple offenses led to more than hand-slaps.

As often in life, this is a problem without a simple answer. There is no magic bullet, and no easy fix. But if there is one simple consequence, it is that we as a cycling community have to advocate for our rights for protection on the roads. We have to demand that the justice system, the enforcement system, and the social system make the necessary changes to avoid a repeat of what happened on Highway 89 on May 16.

For it could have happened to any of us. And no matter how severe the resulting justice, the cyclists are the losers. We can only win if we can avoid danger. Most of the time, avoiding danger is our immediate decision, but in this case, we have to decide for change now in order to reduce danger later.

For details on what you can do, please monitor the web site health.html. For those who are able, please donate blood in Brian Carlson's name at the University of Utah Hospital or financial support to Brian (First Security Bank) or Brook Mickelson (America First C. U.) via trust funds set up in their names at the respective banks in Ogden.

Editor's Note: Rob MacLeod is the chair of the Salt Lake City Mayor's Bicycle Advisory Committee, a trustee of the Bonneville Shoreline Trail Committee, and former president of the Rocky Mountain Cycling Club. His other job is as a professor in both Bioengineering and Cardiology at the University of Utah.

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