The anecdotes mounted: my wife’s childhood friend was cycling with Mom and Dad when a city truck killed her; two of my father’s law partners, maimed. 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.
“We do not know of a single case of a cyclist fatality in which the driver was prosecuted, except for D.U.I. or hit-and-run,” Leah Shahum, the executive director of the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition, told me.
Laws do forbid reckless driving, gross negligence and vehicular manslaughter. The problem, according to Ray Thomas, a Portland, Ore., attorney who specializes in bike law, is that “jurors identify with drivers.” Convictions carry life-destroying penalties, up to six years in prison, Mr. Thomas pointed out, and jurors “just think, well, I could make the same mistake. So they don’t convict.” That’s why police officers and prosecutors don’t bother making arrests. Most cops spend their lives in cars, too, so that’s where their sympathies lie.
Yikes. I gave up biking to work within a week of starting. Cycling is fun and great exercise, but cycling on city streets is far too much like a very high-stakes game of Frogger. I seem to get hit or nearly hit by cars at least once a month while running on sidewalks. I find this completely unacceptable. On a bicycle, I had a hit or near-hit experience every ride, often multiple times per ride. I found cycling on city-streets so frightening and dangerous that I still can’t believe anyone does it. What good is exercise and green living if it kills you?
We need really tough laws to protect cyclists, and sadly, it seems we’re a long way from that.