What do drivers learn from bicycle accidents?
By Bob Mionske
On March 29 of last year, Sutchi Hui, 71, stepped into a San Francisco crosswalk. Moments later, a cyclist crashed into Hui, slamming him to the pavement. Hui was hospitalized in stable condition with head injuries, but passed away four days later. And the cyclist, Chris Bucchere, was facing a felony vehicular manslaughter charge.
It was a case that garnered international attention. Bucchere was alleged to have hit Hui after running a red light in an attempt to set a PR on Strava. Somebody—allegedly Bucchere himself—posted, then deleted, an online account of the crash in which he seemed to be more interested in his helmet than in the man who had lain sprawled in what the account described as “a river of blood.” If ever a case was custom-made for inflaming the “scofflaw cyclists run amok” meme, this was it—and the media wasted no time fanning the flames of anti-cyclist feeling.
Bucchere maintained his innocence, saying that he had entered the intersection on a yellow light. Although several witnesses were prepared to testify that Bucchere had blown through two red lights and a stop sign prior to running a red light at the fateful intersection, video evidence was inconclusive about whether Bucchere had run a red or entered on a yellow at this particular crossroads. Bucchere could have been convicted on the felony charge—apparently the first ever felony vehicular manslaughter conviction against a cyclist—or convicted, or even acquitted, of a lesser charge.
In July Chris Bucchere accepted a plea deal in which he pled guilty to the felony vehicular manslaughter charge. In exchange, Bucchere will not serve any time behind bars; on August 16, he was sentenced to three years of probation and 1,000 hours of community service. The deal was seen as a win for both sides; Bucchere avoided jail time and the San Francisco district attorney avoided the possibility of a not-guilty verdict at trial. “Our goal is to send a message to cyclists about safety,” San Francisco district attorney George Gascon said. “Just because you are riding a bicycle doesn’t mean all bets are off. All of the rules of the road that apply to everyone else apply to you too.”
Sending a message. That may be the most important development to come out of the case. The message Gascon wanted to send was to cyclists: Riding a bike doesn’t give one the right to engage in reckless behavior that puts other people at risk. But is that all there is to say? Consider: In 2009, 3,745 people were injured or killed in traffic collisions in San Francisco, including 736 pedestrians and 522 bicyclists. Every year, nationwide, more than 700 cyclists are killed by drivers, and another 62,000 are injured. On average, drivers in the United States kill more than 40,000 people every year. It’s the equivalent of two jumbo jets crashing every single week, all year long, every single year.
But cyclists who kill are almost as common as hen’s teeth. And Gascon wants to send a message to cyclists? Fine. But where’s the message to drivers?
When two law-abiding San Francisco cyclists were assaulted by an irate scofflaw driver, the message from police was a biased “investigation” that, despite numerous eyewitnesses, took only the driver’s own self-serving version of events into account, and resulted in an on-the-spot threat to arrest the cyclists.
When a cyclist on a charity ride in Maine was killed by a truck that passed too close and too fast, the message from investigating officers was that the cyclist was to blame: for taking a drink from his water bottle.
When a young woman who was riding home was killed by a drunk driver who blew through railroad warning lights and a crossing arm, then attempted to flee the scene, the local district attorney sent the message that the driver should not be held accountable for vehicular homicide, and the jury sent the message that he should not be held accountable for hit and run.
These are not isolated incidents. They are the norm. Every day, inattentive drivers fail to see cyclists, and use “I didn’t see the cyclist” as their legal defense for the “accident.” And it works.
Prosecutors find themselves hamstrung, unable to file anything more than petty charges when a driver injures or takes a life.
Across the nation, our elected representatives refuse to do anything about drivers who kill. When cycling advocates in Maryland attempted to pass legislation that would create penalties for a traffic death resulting from criminal negligence, the legislature sent the message that it doesn’t want to hold criminally negligent drivers accountable for traffic deaths. And the Maryland legislature isn’t alone in sending this message; it’s a message sent from nearly every legislature in the nation.
The fact is, drivers who kill face few, if any, consequences. Even Chris Bucchere got off easy. He will be placed on probation, perform his community service (it should be noted that Hui’s family did not want to see Bucchere sent to prison, and prosecutors doubted that a judge would have sentenced Bucchere to prison anyway), and may even have his crime reduced to a misdemeanor.
If he’d been driving a car when he plowed into that crosswalk, we’d be calling this one more example of a driver getting a mild slap on the wrist after taking a life. By remaining silent on the much, much greater problem of drivers who kill, what message did D.A. Gascon think he was sending? Cyclists who violate the law and kill pedestrians should be held accountable, but so should drivers.
Research and assistance by Rick Bernardi, J.D.