A Maryland motorist, Kathy May Lee, who killed a bicyclist, has been fined $287.50, plus $25.50 in court fees. This is an amount that the average motorist could probably budget for; you wouldn’t want to kill a bicyclist every day, certainly, but for an annual, or even monthly, cost of operating your vehicle, it’s certainly reasonable. I’m sure it can’t be much more than a Hummer driver spends on fuel in a month.
The motorist had failed to clean her windshield (she “had cleared a portion of the left windshield of morning dew but left the fogged up right side to be cleared by the car’s heater”), and was fumbling for a cigarette lighter, when she struck the bicyclist from behind. In her defense, the prosecutor noted that “there were no indications that Lee was sending a text message or otherwise using a cell phone when the collision occurred”–apparently the fact that she wasn’t engaged in one of the current bugaboos of distracted driving is a mitigating circumstance.
Also “mitigating” the incident was the fact the bicyclist was not riding all the way over on the right side of the road. “[A] bicyclist is required to ride on a roadway’s shoulder if it’s usable or as close to the edge of the roadway as possible,” so apparently all bets are off if you try to use more of the lane than the strip by the curb.
There are many things that are obscene about this:
- The punishment hardly rises to the level of the offense; it’s not much more than a parking ticket. At the very least, this should have resulted in the revocation of the driver’s license; this certainly looks more like “vehicular manslaughter” than “distracted driving” to me.
- There are many good reasons that a cyclist would not be riding in the gutter: road conditions (I don’t know about Maryland, but in Minnesota the gutter is where dangerous debris piles up), lawful maneuvers (such as positioning for a left turn), or avoiding a hazard (parked cars’ doors can be as deadly as moving cars). Being in the middle of the road is a perfectly valid place for a bicycle.
- Once again, the sacred bull has been given a pass. Motorists need to understand that they are operating a potential deadly device every time they get behind the wheel; particularly as our roads become increasingly crowded, motorists must be responsible: attentiveness should not be the sole reserve of cyclists and pedestrians. The onus should fall on the person who could most easily kill someone in a collision.
It’s nice that “distracted driving” has gained some attention lately, with a focus on texting and cell phone usage; but those are such incredibly obvious derelictions that there should be no debate about them. On my bicycle commute through St. Paul, I’ve seen any number of motorists fumbling for things in the cab, shaving or applying makeup, eating and drinking with both hands, even taking advantage of a stop light to do a little knitting. None of these behaviors should be acceptable: when you’re driving, you’re driving, and that’s your primary responsibility. Anything you do (or fail to do: winter in Minnesota brings out a lot of cars with a tiny porthole scraped in their icy windshields) that distracts you from that responsibility should not be tolerated.
This short film is the perfect bucolic antidote to the cold, slush, and wind of the last week here in Minneapolis, December 2009. The weather forecast for next week looks to bring more of the same, at least in the first couple days; I’m hoping to squeeze a bike ride into the narrow window of Monday morning, but fear that the roads won’t be clear again until Thursday. Though these cyclists on their solid old bikes with their stiff upper lips would probably not be dissuaded by a little ice.
“There’s a bit of rough weather about; we can take it if we have to.”
Every morning, I ride past the “ghost bike” at Snelling and Summit, where Virginia Heuer was killed on September 27, 2008. It’s a stark reminder that even a relatively safe route like Summit Avenue can be treacherous, and that bicyclists and pedestrians fare very poorly in tussles with automobiles. I keep my wits about me when I ride, pay attention and obey the rules of the road, but 25 pounds of bicycle are no match for a ton and a half of car.
Most roadside memorials are a mixture of the public and the private, erected out of personal grief but also telegraphing the cost of highway fatalities as tables of statistics cannot. We have become largely numb to highway deaths: the CDC estimates about 3,900 deaths from H1N1 between April and October; 300 U.S. soldiers and Marines have died in Afghanistan this year; 37,261 people died in traffic accidents last year, down a bit from the previous year but still far too high.
New York State Senator Joe Griffo has recently called for a uniform memorial marker to replace the “flowers and other makeshift memorials” left by family and friends at the site of a fatal crash. While Griffo’s campaign has a reasonable origin–the recent death of a Henrico, Virginia woman laying flowers at her granddaughter’s roadside memorial highlights the risks they can pose to mourners–it also has a feeling of normalizing something that should really be abnormal and shocking. Standardizing the horrible, making mundane the tragic, seems like entirely the wrong direction to go.
To the extent that roadside memorials jar us out of complacency, remind us that the people who die on our roads every day have families and friends, that the vehicles around us are in fact occupied by fragile and mortal humans just like us, they might even be considered a safety feature. At the very least, an occasional memento mori does wonders for the soul.
I’m glad that the “ghost bike” movement places these stark reminders at the scenes of tragedy; I only hope they don’t have to place any more.