25 June 2019

Death For Bike Messenger, Tea And Sympathy For Driver

Warning:  The video near the end of this post may be too much for some of you to take.

A couple of years ago, a woman was attacked and raped not far from where I live.  She'd been walking home at 3:45 on a Sunday morning when she was set upon by a group of young men who dragged her into a darkened parking lot.

Most people were, rightly, outraged.  But a few, even at such a late date and liberal neighborhood, asked, "What was she doing out at that time?"

The explanation, it turned out, almost exactly matched what I'd surmised:  She'd been working a Saturday night shift at a bar.   To the question of why she didn't take a cab or Uber or something, the answer was simple:  She lived only a block and a half away from the bar and had never before encountered any trouble.

It was a chilling reminder of the days, which I remember, when the first questions people--even other women--asked upon hearing of a sexual attack were, "What was she wearing?"  "What was she doing there at that hour?"  The implication was, of course, that she'd "asked for it"--even if the woman had been wearing "scrubs" and was in front of a church in the middle of the afternoon. (Yes, I heard of such a case once!)

I found myself thinking about such victims after a story  that made news in our area:  A 20-year-old female bike messenger was struck and killed yesterday morning, just as the workweek was beginning, in the bustling Flatiron district of Manhattan.

One reason I found myself thinking about the rape victims I mentioned is that news coverage seemed to emphasize two major points, one being that the messenger was a young woman.  Some of the coverage expressed more grief, if in a patronizing way, than she might've received had she checked the "M" box.   But some of those same reports--and, of course, other coverage--seemed to convey a tone of suspicion and scorn reserved for the rape victims I mentioned.  You could almost hear some news editor wondering, "What was she doing, working a job like that?"

The other salient point of the coverage, which also turned into another way to blame the victim, was that she was riding "in the middle of the street" and "not in a bike lane" when she was struck.

Robyn Hightman

I am very familiar with the block--Sixth Avenue between West 23th and 24th Streets--where the Robyn Hightman, recently relocated from Virginia, lost her life.  There is indeed a bike lane, which is frequently congested.  Anyone who makes deliveries, whether on foot, bike or in a motorized vehicle, knows that it's all about speed.  A messenger simply can't move quickly enough in a lane crowded with tourists on Citibikes.  

More to the point, though, is that the way the bike lane, like most others in this city, is designed.  Because it's at the curb's edge, and the "stop" line at each intersection is the same for bikes as it is for motor vehicles, turns--which you make a lot of if you're a messenger--can be dangerous if a motor vehicle is turning in the same direction.  This arrangement also makes crossing major intersection--23rd Street at Sixth Avenue is one--difficult, if not dangerous.

Moreover, when there are flexible or no barriers--as is the case on the Sixth Avenue lane--delivery vehicles and Ubers frequently pull in and out, especially in as busy an area as the one I'm mentioning. 

What makes the shaming of Robyn Hightman all the more galling is that the driver of the vehicle, who claimed he didn't know he hit her, got off with a sympathetic pat on the shoulder from a police officer who arrived at the scene.  The driver claims this incident is his first "accident" (the word he used) in 14 years of driving for his employer.  An investigation, however, revealed that the truck he was driving has been cited with 83 summonses since 2015.  Most were for parking violations, but at least two were for speeding.

In 2018, ten cyclists were killed by motorists on New York City streets.  Robyn Hightman was the 12th in 2019, and the year isn't half-over.  And the driver got tea and sympathy--along with an assurance he wasn't in trouble--from an NYPD officer.

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