24 June 2015

Killing A Cyclist Is A Misdemeanor? What's The Alternative?

My dealings with this city's bus drivers have been, for the most part, respectful and courteous. I try not to make their job more difficult and I think most of them actually to do the same for me. Then again, if I can't communicate verbally, I try to signal with nods, winks, thumbs-up, eye contact and the hand signals (for turns and such) they used to teach in school.  I try to avoid using my middle finger, and most of the time I succeed.
They have a tough job. I try to be the cyclist they're thinking of when they complain about us.  There are other cyclists who think and act as I  do--I've seen them--and I hope the drivers remember, if not us, then at least their interactions with us.

In this photo taken on Wednesday, Aug. 5, 2009, a cyclist crosses the intersection of Park Avenue South and East 23rd Street in New York. The number of cyclists has jumped by 80 percent in the past decade, to 185,000 among the more than 8 million city denizens.
Photo by Yanina Manolova

I really don't want anything to make our relationship more hostile.  After all, whether or not it's their intention, they are helping to reduce the number of cars in this city.  And, quite frankly, I am more confident about their commitment to safe driving than that of a lot of other drivers I encounter.

As I've said in other posts on this blog, the best way to create an environment that's safe, let alone friendly, for cyclists is for motorists to understand what it's like to ride.  That is best accomplished when large numbers of motorists are also, or have recently been, cyclists.  Such is the case in many European countries.  Increasing the hostility between cyclists and motorists helps no-one.

That is why I'm really troubled by a bill that's just passed in the New York State Senate. I'm also just as troubled by the situation it's supposed to remedy.

As it's written, the bill would exempt bus drivers--as taxi drivers and others paid to drive--from the same consequences other drivers face when they hit or run down a pedestrian or cyclist.  If the bill is enacted (i.e., if the State Assembly votes for it), the police would not be able to detain any bus, cab or livery driver who strikes a cyclist or pedestrian who has the right of way.  They would also not be held at the scene of an accident for reckless endangerment, assault or other violations that aren't covered in the traffic code.  As long as the driver remains at the scene, has a valid license, is cooperating with police and  isn't suspected of being drunk or high, law enforcement can only issue him or her a desk appearance ticket.

In other words, the bill would make killing a cyclist--as long as the driver responsible is a professional--a misdemeanor.

Of course, as a cyclist, I find that outrageous.  However, at the same time, I don't think that automatically slapping the cuffs on a bus or cab driver if there's a pedestrian or cyclist lying in front of his or her vehicle is the best policy.  While I've seen reckless drivers, I suspect that the majority of cases in which cyclists or pedestrians are struck or run over by bus or taxi drivers are accidents--terrible ones, but accidents nonetheless.  

So, I can understand why the transit workers' union wanted the bill that's just passed at the same time.  On the other hand, I can't help but to think that they want it only because the only alternative they've been presented is one that automatically assumes the guilt of the driver.  I'm no Constitutional scholar,or even a lawyer, but it doesn't sound like either the bill or the automatic assumption of guilt squares very well with the foundational document of this country's jurisprudence.

As we say here in the Big Apple, There's Gotta Be A Better Way.


  1. Sounds more expeditious than the Massachusetts way. Here, trucks run over and kill cyclists, and the prosecutors take the case before a grand jury. The grand jury decides that darn cyclist had it coming, and refuse to indict. Sounds like New York is looking to cut out the wasteful grand jury step.

  2. Sounds too much like a licence to kill! Will they start putting rows of pictures of downed bikes on their vehicles like pilots at war?

  3. Ailish--So MASS has a worse law than NY, and NY is looking to make it even worse? That's saying something!

    Coline--Sometimes drivers talk as if they're at war and cyclists are the enemy!

  4. Yet another example of a special interest pressure group pushing special protection for its members. Not a whole lot different than Monsanto opposing legislation that would require GMO foods be labeled as such.

  5. Good point, Steve. I think a faction of the Transport Workers' Union hijacked an issue of Constitutional rights (the presumption of innocence) into a special protection.

    If GMO labeling doesn't pass, we're all in trouble!

  6. Justine, if you're up for some depressing reading, Bike Boston has a tag for blog postings involving cyclists killed, and mostly it's by trucks, it seems. http://bostonbiker.org/tag/cyclist-killed/