Police Excuses For Blaming Cyclists

Police Car

 

A few days ago, I was returning home from a recreational ride when I came upon an accident scene. I was about to turn off onto a side street, thinking it was none of my business, when I noticed a bicycle lying under the left front wheel of a car.

After making the turn onto the side street, I stopped to see what was going on. The first thing I noticed was a man standing near the driver’s side of the car, wildly gesticulating while talking with three police officers. There was no ambulance in sight. And, I couldn’t locate the cyclist.

A woman’s bike was lying on the ground. But all I saw was a man standing away from the car on the corner where the collision had occurred. Another bike was lying next to him, so I decided to ride over to find out whether he knew anything about the accident.

Pulling up next to him, I asked about the cyclist who had been riding the bike under the car. He said that the cyclist was his girlfriend.

She had gotten up after crashing and tried to walk it off. But, she was pretty banged up, so he told her to go to the hospital. The driver’s insurance would pay her medical bills, he had advised her, to get her to agree.

I asked him what had happened. He explained the incident clearly and without hesitation.

He was riding in front and his girlfriend was following right behind him when they entered the intersection. The light was green. As he reached the other side of the intersection, he could see that the light had just turned yellow, which gave his girlfriend enough time to cross the intersection before the light turned red.

Immediately, I asked him whether he had told this to the police. He hadn’t told them anything because as soon as the police arrived at the scene, they began yelling at the man and his girlfriend for having no reflective gear. The couple, I was told, didn’t own reflective gear because they only rode occasionally. They needed to go somewhere that evening and they didn’t have a car – so they decided to ride their bikes.

The police, who were engrossed in conversation with the driver, showed no interest in hearing the cyclists’ side of the story. As far as they were concerned, if the cyclists did not have reflective gear, it didn’t matter whether they had the green light – or more importantly, whether the driver had a red light.

The man had been relegated to the corner – instead of standing with the driver – because he “went off” on the driver for crashing into his girlfriend. And, who could blame him?

As I stood with the man, waiting to see what would happen, I advised him to give a statement to the police. I was familiar with the process of filing a police report and dealing with a driver’s insurance company and he didn’t seem to know much about it. Even though her medical bills would be paid under Massachusetts’ no fault laws, the matter of getting the bill for her bicycle repair paid would depend on both sides of the story appearing on the police report.

Auto insurance companies will do anything to get out of paying a claim; it’s best not to give them any excuses.

One of the officers came over to the man to ask whether he was going to take possession of his girlfriend’s bike. At my urging, he told her that he wanted to make a statement. She reminded him that he had previously told them he hadn’t seen the accident. And he hadn’t. But, he had pertinent information about the traffic light to add to the police report.

The officer wasn’t going to let him say anything. However, I stood right next to the man, dressed in the most blinding hi-vis clothing and reflective gear anyone could possibly imagine, giving her a death stare that could bore a hole through a steel door.

The officer kept glancing over at me out of the corner of her eye, and due to my intensity, finally broke down and let him tell her about the light. The driver, she informed him, said he had a green light. And, of course, she had no way of knowing who was right. Still, the man’s observation about the light belonged in the report alongside the driver’s long-winded explanation of why the cyclist was to blame.

The driver claimed to be watching the man and didn’t notice the other bicycle because he was driving a taxi and the second bicycle was in his blind spot. In the officer’s opinion, hitting a moving target in his blind spot (which he should have seen before it entered his blind spot) was OK because that’s how it is when you drive a taxi. It was an “accident,” she said with a nonchalant shrug.

Now, as luck would have it, the man had once driven a taxi – which he had the courage to tell her – and, to his credit, he didn’t back down on his assertion that it was no excuse for hitting a cyclist.

After jotting down a few notes on one of those flip open police note pads, the officer shook her head and walked back to her patrol car. The nerve of these cyclists, she seemed to say, as she huffed off.

I had something to say, but clearly she was not the one to say it to since she had been pressured into allowing the cyclists’ side of the story into the police report.

Two officers stood a short distance away. I decided not to miss an opportunity to enlighten them.

I walked my bike right up to them. Then, I started my dissertation on driver inattentiveness by saying “excuse me.” This phrase, I’ve learned from experience, always throws police temporarily off their guard.

Once I had their attention I told them that the stretch where this woman had been hit – which I rode along daily – was one of the most dangerous places a cyclist could ride. Despite my screaming hi-vis attire, reflective vest, and front and rear lights, a car had once blown through a stop sign, onto the same stretch of road, and had slammed into my bike.

The presence or absence of reflective gear, I informed them, was not the sole determining factor in all car versus bicycle accidents. I was hit at dusk. It was not even dark, but I had my lights on anyway.

High visibility didn’t matter because every day I saw many cars run the stop sign (where I was hit) and the red light at the intersection where we stood. The taller of the two officers kept harping on the reflective gear. He couldn’t get it out of his mind as the source of the problem and why cyclists were to blame for collisions with cars. His response to my report of a serious traffic law violation problem in his jurisdiction was “we can’t make drivers less stupid.”

What struck me was how closed-minded these officers were. They were not interested in the traffic laws, or how many drivers violated them, only whether a cyclist was adequately visible. The nearly daylight quality brightness at the intersection in question did not deter them from their beliefs about cyclist behavior as the cause of accidents.

While I had their attention, I mentioned the number of drivers who don’t know how to share the road with bikes. I talked about how they drove directly at bicycles when at a stop sign or when making a left-hand turn, instead of coming to a complete stop to let the bicycle pass. A lot of accidents, I pointed out, could be avoided if drivers would stop this dangerous practice.

One of the officers seemed surprised to hear me say this. Although he didn’t say anything, he appeared to be thinking about my words. With that, I politely extracted myself from the situation, leaving them to ponder over whether cyclists are always to blame for accidents.

On the police report, the cyclist will, undoubtedly, be blamed for causing this accident. Police bias against cyclists makes it nearly impossible for cyclists to get a fair hearing when involved in an accident with a car.

Police have already made up their minds about who is at fault before arriving at a car versus bicycle accident scene. And, they will look for any excuse to forgive the driver, who has their sympathy as soon as the accident call comes over the radio.

With so much progress being made, with respect to building cycling infrastructure in cities and towns across America, it’s sad to see how little police opinions about cyclists have changed. At some point, they will have to come to grips with the reality of cars sharing the road with bicycles. And when they do, they will be obligated to include both sides of the story on all police reports, including all pertinent details regarding traffic laws and who had the right of way.

If drivers believed that police wouldn’t always side with them, regardless of how badly they injured a cyclist, then maybe they would start driving as if their own lives depended on it – not just the cyclists’ lives.

 

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15 Responses to Police Excuses For Blaming Cyclists

  1. B says:

    This was a good read (albeit on a no-good subject). Thanks for sharing.

  2. Avery says:

    I commend you for stopping and helping another person – cyclist or no. But please allow me an observance regarding the following passages from your post:

    “The nerve of these cyclists, she seemed to say, as she huffed off.”

    “Police have already made up their minds about who is at fault before arriving at a car versus bicycle accident scene. And, they will look for any excuse to forgive the driver, who has their sympathy as soon as the accident call comes over the radio.”

    These things may be true. And that’s a big “may” because no one knows what another person is thinking. There exists the possibility that these perceptions aren’t true, no matter how the situation presents. But one things I can all but guarantee: perpetuating assumptions like these will only increase hostility from all sides.

    Let us approach every situation with calm reflection, poise, and respect. Let us try to assume that we stand on even footing; this way, one day we may. Any other approach guarantees that we will will no be treated as equals.

    • “These things may be true. And that’s a big “may” because no one knows what another person is thinking. There exists the possibility that these perceptions aren’t true, no matter how the situation presents. But one things I can all but guarantee: perpetuating assumptions like these will only increase hostility from all sides.”

      Actually, the statements you quoted were not assumptions about what other people think. They were based on direct observation about how police act at bicycle accident scenes and what happens afterwards when the police report is generated.

      You may have missed the part where I mentioned my own bike accident. The officers at the scene refused to cite the driver for running the stop sign and entering a main road, from a side street, without yielding. This, in spite of eyewitness accounts stating that she did not stop.

      When I brought this to their attention, they said it was “irrelevant.” Then, they asked me why I didn’t stop and let her pass, even though I had no stop sign (and didn’t have enough time to stop).

      My conclusions might have been more clear if I had mentioned that I have stopped at other bicycle accidents to help cyclists. I have seen the same sort of police behavior at every accident scene.

      In every case the police arrived and began talking to the driver as if the cyclist was invisible. They also agreed with the driver’s version of events, regardless of whether there was evidence to the contrary. And, unless pressed to do so, they didn’t take a statement from the cyclist. So, the accident I wrote about here was not an isolated incident.

      After having seen many cases where cyclists were treated unfairly, including the ones where cyclists were killed by driver negligence and the driver wasn’t charged, I believe that we must draw attention to these inequities to make police aware of their biases. That’s exactly why I went over to the officers to explain the situation from the cyclist’s perspective. I wanted them to look at such accidents differently in the future. In my view, all cyclists should do what I did. After the police have heard from a lot of us, we might truly find ourselves on equal footing with drivers.

  3. Matt says:

    Just last weekend I was riding up the southwest corridor path during rush hour when a cop was driving down the path and completely blocking it with his vehicle. I shrugged as if to say “what’s up with blocking the path” whereupon he quickly lowered his window and started hurling obscenities at me.

    • I’m not surprised to hear your story about a cop hurling obscenities at you. Too many of them harbor feelings of hostility towards cyclists. What I’d like to know is why.

      • cm says:

        Because they’re not too bright, in general, and lack the imagination required to put themselves into others’ shoes. They probably haven’t ridden a bike since they were 12. I think it’d be great if all city cops had to do a month “rotation” every few years on a bike as a bike cop. And cities should do more to incentivize officer to ride a bike to work. Even if they were scant part time bikers, they’d totally get it. Imagination not required. They’d immediately see how not only clueless most motorists are when it comes to sharing the road with bicycles, but instigating and vindictive.

        I sincerely do not think they have any idea the vulnerability bicyclists feel on their bikes in normal conditions, let alone precarious ones. And have no idea what it’s like to hit or be hit by a car or pavement. You’re way more likely get sympathy from a motorcycle cop than a patrol car cop.

        The bottom line of your whole article and rant on police, which I think is fair, is however misdirected in a critical way. Police are automatons for the city in which they work. Those who think independently become detective, inspector, or quit. So if the cops are blaming bikes first, it’s because the police chief, city manager, and city council are clueless. Either there is no city wide bike friendly policy that’s cascading down the system, or it’s a negative one.

        So I’d say the complaint/awareness program is more effectively directed at city counsel, city managers, maybe even directly to the police chief. His patrol cops basically do what they are told. It’s not a good sign if these were traffic control officers.

        It’s great advice, though, to insist the officers include a full statement from cyclist witnesses, no matter how little they saw. That traffic accident report is gospel if and when it comes time for court. I’d even go so far as to say if you disagree with the officer’s opinions to explicitly ask them to include your disagreement with their assessment in their report. Ha – if I were feeling ballsy, my statement would include the opinion that the officers at the scene are biased against cyclists. I’d start trying to discredit them on-scene in their own stinking report.

        • “The bottom line of your whole article and rant on police, which I think is fair, is however misdirected in a critical way. Police are automatons for the city in which they work. Those who think independently become detective, inspector, or quit. So if the cops are blaming bikes first, it’s because the police chief, city manager, and city council are clueless. Either there is no city wide bike friendly policy that’s cascading down the system, or it’s a negative one.”

          Whether the problem is the police or other officials varies from one area to the next. In the town where the accident I wrote about occurred, the police had been trained in bicycle safety and bicycle law. This training was agreed upon and implemented by the Mayor, the town selectmen and the police chief. Despite this attempt to educate the police on cyclist rights, the rank and file cops continued to show bias in favor of drivers. It’s difficult to know why they are so resistant to accepting equality between drivers and cyclists.

          There doesn’t seem to be any uniformity in where the problem lies. That’s what makes it so difficult to combat bias against cyclists on a national level.

  4. Carissa says:

    Wow. I hope I never learn what it is like to have to deal with uncooperative officers after an accident – but I would hope a good samaritan like you would be on my side helping me out.

  5. Rebecca says:

    Women who are thought to be dressed provocatively are told they are asking to be molested. That attitude thankfully is changing. Bicyclists are in that position now. Bicyclists that don’t wear high visibility clothing or are not wearing helmets are also said to be “asking for it”. Never mind if they are obeying the rules of the road and use their lights at night! Basically there is a hatred of cyclists which is perpetuated by our car-centric culture and the moneyed interests of the auto/oil world. In the 1920’s they called themselves “motordom”. No matter that a cyclist obeys “all the rules”, wears the “right “ clothing we will continue to be slandered.
    It would be nice to have a good Samaritan like you at every bicycle accident that involves a car. However in the end the car driver probably won’t even get a “slap on the wrist”. I liked your point about documenting the accident in order to get the insurance company to pay for repairs to her bicycle. Over the 4th of July weekend New York City cyclist and retired Supreme Court Judge Marilyn Dershowitz was killed by a truck. Her brother the famed lawyer Alan Dershowitz and her son, Adam Dershowitz who works as an aeronautics engineer in California and specializes in recreating the moments that lead up to an accident have been stonewalled about seeing a surveillance camera that recorded the accident. It has also been reported that her killer will most likely not be charged. If people such as the Dershowitz”s are having a hard time getting justice there is no hope for the rest of us!

    • “Her brother the famed lawyer Alan Dershowitz and her son, Adam Dershowitz who works as an aeronautics engineer in California and specializes in recreating the moments that lead up to an accident have been stonewalled about seeing a surveillance camera that recorded the accident. It has also been reported that her killer will most likely not be charged. If people such as the Dershowitz”s are having a hard time getting justice there is no hope for the rest of us!”

      If the Dershowitz’s don’t manage to break through the stonewalling, it will be a major defeat for cyclists’ rights. On the other hand, if Alan Dershowitz, who is a very aggressive lawyer, does manage to get justice in this high profile case, it will be a victory for all cyclists. It will set a precedent – not because it is the first time a driver has been charged – but because of Dershowitz’s fame and reputation.

      Cyclists should lend their support to the Dershowitz’s to help pressure the authorities into allowing justice to be served in this case.

  6. Avery says:

    Isolated- I have read your reply. Allow me to clarify that I do not deny the hostility of some officers. But as “Rebecca” said, many people (including police officers, or men) have hostility toward specific types of people (such as cyclists, or women). This reality is no “consolation by aggregation”; it is a fact that cyclists are not the only ones out there who receive others’ misplaced frustrations.

    By the by, you said: “The nerve of these cyclists, she seemed to say, as she huffed off.” The Oxford American Dictionary’s first entry for the word “seem” is “give the impression or sensation of being or having a particular quality.” I have been in one hundred degree weather where it seemed as cold as a wet Boston morning in March. This was because, despite what seemed to be, I had a fever, not because it was actually cold. This is all to say that officers may have been short or inconsiderate on many occasions, but it is not always the case.

    Also, to use any forum as a means to perpetuate falsities is a disservice. To use a public forum for such as is public disservice. I have been in two altercations involving me (a cyclist) and a motor vehicle. Each time the officer was polite and I was heard out. Each time I was allowed to go about my way while the driver was held back to get a more thorough talking to. I think this is so because each time I approach the situation as I would like to see it played out: calm, honest, and where no one walks away with less than they started with. (You get what you put in.)

    • Avery,

      Thanks for you reply. I have a couple of thoughts about your comments.

      You wrote:

      “it is a fact that cyclists are not the only ones out there who receive others’ misplaced frustrations.”

      Are you suggesting that we should do nothing about the hostility police have towards cyclists? I prefer to take a proactive approach to solving problems and rectifying wrongs. I have never seen passivity effect change.

      “But as “Rebecca” said, many people (including police officers, or men) have hostility toward specific types of people (such as cyclists, or women).”

      Rebecca said:

      Women who are thought to be dressed provocatively are told they are asking to be molested. That attitude thankfully is changing. Bicyclists are in that position now. Bicyclists that don’t wear high visibility clothing or are not wearing helmets are also said to be “asking for it”. Never mind if they are obeying the rules of the road and use their lights at night! Basically there is a hatred of cyclists which is perpetuated by our car-centric culture and the moneyed interests of the auto/oil world. In the 1920’s they called themselves “motordom”. No matter that a cyclist obeys “all the rules”, wears the “right “ clothing we will continue to be slandered.

      Her point was that even though cyclists may be obeying the rules of the road, they are thought to be “asking for it,” if they do one thing that that the police perceive as wrong – just as provocatively dressed women are.

      As an aside, I did everything right with respect to my accident. I had on highly visible attire and reflective gear, had on a helmet, had front and rear lights, as well as reflectors on my bike, was polite to the officers – and I was still blamed for the accident at the scene and in the police report. Please keep in mind that the driver had a stop sign and I did not. But, the police expected the cyclist to stop and let the car go ahead. Are you suggesting that I should say nothing about this and take the blame for causing the accident? And if I do, how do you think the same officers will treat cyclists in the future?

      “The nerve of these cyclists, she seemed to say, as she huffed off.”

      I did not misread her intent. I heard the entire conversation, which you were not privy to. She told the man that he had a hell of a nerve wanting to make a statement when he wasn’t wearing reflective gear.

      Your two experiences, the details of which you didn’t tell us (what happened between you and the cars and were you injured?), do not outweigh the countless cases of police unfairly siding with drivers against cyclists – even when the cyclists have been killed.

      Why didn’t you mention Rebecca’s comment about cyclist and retired Supreme Court Judge Marilyn Dershowitz who was killed by a truck on the 4th of July weekend? Did you note how much trouble her son and brother were having gaining access to the surveillance camera recording to find out what had happened to her? The driver is unlikely to be charged in her death. Do you think that Supreme Court Judge Marilyn Dershowitz got out of it what she put in? I do not. She deserves justice. And she will only get justice if cyclists use whatever means they have at their disposal (such as public forums) to speak out about the unfairness of such situations.

      We may have to agree to disagree on this point.

  7. Rebecca says:

    Isolate Cyclist,
    Thank you for your comment.Although I don’t have a problem with a person disagreeing with what I say since each person is entitled to their own opinion, the remark that Avery said seem to twist what I said & put words in my mouth.

  8. Bakemann says:

    I was injured in a “dooring” accident when a taxi driver did not look before opening his door and knocked me off my bike just as I was riding past him (uphill, only 8.5 mph–measured by GPS, but still there was no reaction time). Of course I, the cyclist, got TWO tickets and the driver wasn’t charged: the cop ignored the DC law–the same law most states have–that “No person shall open any door of a vehicle unless it is safe to do so and can be done without interfering with moving traffic.” Instead, he tied himself into a pretzel, using the most assinine, cop-worthy logic–to blame the accident on me and cited me for “hazardous driving” and “failure to give attention to operation” (as if the taxi driver WAS “giving attention to operation” when he opened his door without first looking!). I was perfectly in my rights to pass the cab as I did, under DC law. The cop said in the police report that I could have chosen to ride on the sidewalk instead–the implication being that cyclists who have the chutzpah of exercising their right to use the roads can expect to be found in the wrong, no matter how carefully they obey the law and no matter how flagrantly drivers violate it.

    I am fighting the tickets, for sure. And I will file a complaint against the police officer, for sure. I am working with a lawyer to give myself the best chances of getting the tickets dismissed and trying to recover for damages to my bike and to cover my doctor bills. I only hope my lawyer gives me the green light to ask the judge to imagine how differently this situation would have played out if a cop on a bike had been doored!

    IsolateCyclist: I feel for you, and thank you, Rebecca, for bringing that very sad case about Marilyn Dershowitz to my attention. My lawyer, the director of the Washington Area Bicycle Association, and countless cyclists all over the country who have suffered injury and abuse at the hands of idiotic, biased cops are all sickened by this systematic harassment and abuse of cyclists. I doubt any progress will be made on this issue until a tragedy of horrendous proportions puts this unfairness squarely into the light of public view: even the high-profile case of Marilyn Dershowitz’s death will probably fall short. Meanwhile, I dream of a successful class-action lawsuit against a police department for biased behavior and harassment of cyclists: that might inch us towards breaking this horrendous abuse.

    • What surprises me about about cases like yours is that I’ve seen cops refuse to ticket drivers for moving violations resulting in injuries to a cyclist on the pretext that they didn’t witness the violation. Maybe your lawyer can use the same argument. The cop didn’t see you violate any laws, so he had no right to ticket you on hearsay – the taxi driver’s version of events.

      I’m not certain about the laws in DC, but in Massachusetts cyclists have a right to amend a police report to reflect their side of the story, including refuting what a cop said about why the cyclist was at fault. Your lawyer will be able to advise you about such matters, but, in any event, you should do everything in your power to get those tickets dismissed. This will give you a much better chance of getting your bike repair and medical bills paid. In my experience, insurance companies will pay for those bills even if you are found to be 50% at fault in the accident.

      For what it’s worth, I filed a complaint at the police department about the unfair treatment I received when I was struck by a car. The Chief of Police apologized to me and promised to educate the officers on bicycle laws. It wasn’t as good as a class-action lawsuit, but it was a start.

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