Should Charges Be Filed When a Cyclist Kills a Pedestrian?

Cycling Without Using Hands


Among cyclists, much emphasis is placed on injury and death to cyclists caused by cars. An encounter with a car almost always turns out against the cyclist. And, even when the cyclist’s injuries result in death, drivers are rarely charged. In fact, drivers often don’t get cited when they are in clear violation of the traffic laws.

In the case of drivers who kill cyclists, the press, the authorities, and the public view these incidents as “accidents.” The majority believe that there was nothing the driver could have done to prevent the death. They act as if it was unavoidable, as if the driver had no control over the situation — as if it was just the natural result of permitting bicycles on the road.

New drivers are taught to be aware of everything on the road. They must learn to expect the unexpected because it’s not safe to only look for common things such as surrounding vehicles.

Many events occur on and around the road. These include pedestrians crossing in a crosswalk or in the middle of the road, animals running into the road and bicyclists riding on or across the road. Such activities should be observed carefully. And, the actions of cars, pedestrians, animals and cyclists should be anticipated.

We expect such behavior from drivers. But, what about cyclists? How do we see their role in enhancing safety on the road?

Generally, bicycles are not considered to be lethal weapons. Cars are. It’s very easy to kill someone with a car. Bicycles, on the other hand, usually cause injury when they strike someone. Occasionally, they cause a death.

One such death occurred not long ago. A pedestrian in her late 60s was crossing the Embarcadero at Mission Street, in San Francisco, just before 8:30 a.m., when a young man riding a blue Bianchi road bike northbound on the Embarcadero crashed into her.

The pedestrian was crossing with the green light. She suffered a lethal head injury; the cyclist only sustained minor injuries.

The cyclist stayed at the scene and spoke to police, but was not charged with anything. After the pedestrian died at the hospital, the issue of charging the cyclist was raised.

Not unlike news reports about the death of cyclists, some news outlets — such as NPR — provided few details about the accident. The only place where details could be found was in The Bay Citizen Bike Accident Tracker, which charts all bike crashes reported by police. There, the police disclosed the fact that the cyclist blew the red light.

This type of incident is rare in the Bay Area. According to the Bike Accident Tracker, the woman was the first pedestrian killed by a cyclist in the last five years.

Given the rarity of such events, there is no precedent for how to handle such matters.

Just as with cycling deaths, there should be a full investigation into the accident. It would be unfair to hold drivers accountable for killing cyclists and not do the same for cyclists. Any other approach would yield a double standard. However, the relative number of deaths caused by drivers versus cyclists should be taken into consideration in terms of determining whether the cyclist could have reasonably assumed that his actions would result in someone’s death.

The NPR article cites statistics from the transportation site, SF Streetsblog, where it was reported that 811 people were injured by drivers last year, and 18 people were injured by bicyclists, according to SFPD data. Clearly, there are far fewer injuries caused by bicyclists, but people react more strongly to them because they expect bicyclists to ride under control and obey the traffic laws.

Incidents like the one in San Francisco are a good example of why cyclists should always follow the rules of the road. Too often, cyclists try to dodge pedestrians instead of stopping to let them pass. Most of the time, it’s not difficult to predict what a pedestrian will do.

If they step off of the curb and enter the road, then the cyclist should slow down to let them cross in front. Swerving to go behind or ahead of them can yield unpredictable results. A pedestrian could change his/her mind and retreat to the sidewalk. Or, a pedestrian could drop something and stop to pick it up.

Just as in the case of drivers, cyclists must expect the unexpected. By doing so, they have enough time to slow down and wait until a pedestrian is well out of the way.

The only time a pedestrian would be to blame for an accident is when crossing unexpectedly against the light or stepping off of the sidewalk into a cyclist’s path. This only applies if the cyclist had the right  of way.

Since it’s possible for cyclists to anticipate most pedestrian behavior, they should be held accountable for injuries or deaths they cause, unless there are extenuating circumstances.

Aside from accountability, when cyclists engage in negligent behavior, their actions reinforce the negative stereotypes many drivers hold about cyclists. In that sense, the offending cyclist is not only harming the pedestrian, but also fellow cyclists who will become targets of the outrage drivers and pedestrians feel when hearing a story like this.

The NPR article produced the usual anti-bicycle comments. Some called for cyclist registration or restrictions on cyclist freedoms. The possibility of manslaughter charges was raised. And, one commenter expressed a belief about cars being justified in hitting cyclists due to their recklessness. The general sentiment was that cyclists should be reigned in and held accountable for their actions.

Cyclists may disagree with reigning in all cyclists due to the actions of a few, but they should support the idea of holding negligent cyclists accountable for causing serious injury or death.

If the cyclist did, in fact, blow the red light before hitting the pedestrian, then charges should be brought against him. In addition to providing justice for a wrongful death, it would send a clear message to those cyclists who think that the traffic laws don’t apply to them. Although rare, when cyclists disregard red lights or fail to yield to pedestrians, the result can be the loss of a human life — and, if the cyclist is convicted of criminal conduct, it will result in the loss of his or her freedom, too.

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2 Responses to Should Charges Be Filed When a Cyclist Kills a Pedestrian?

  1. cm says:

    To me, stopping at a red light (flashing or solid) is a clear cut and dried sort of thing. I see fellow cyclists blow them all the time. Friends of mine will regularly bust a red light then pause in the middle of the intersection waiting for the next lane of traffic to clear which really irritates the living crap out of me. And they know it. They laugh and don’t care. So the only thing to do here is to haul out nasty traffic fines because some people just don’t integrate/conform unless a daddy figure comes along and spanks them. Narcissistic behavior.

    Stop signs, on the other hand, I wish it were possible to convey to motorists and pedestrians (the non-cycling public) that a bike coming to a complete stop is the equivalent of a motorist stopping their car, putting it in park, and turning off the ignition. I don’t see an elegant way to allow bikes to merely yield to pedestrians and other cars at a stop sign. But it would be nice.

    More annoying to me is when cars with right of way stop when I’m stopped on my bike at a stop sign. If they could please just KEEP GOING, I wouldn’t have to dismount, I could just creep and then go. But when they stop, there’s no way I’m biking in front of them. I don’t trust them, I don’t trust the cars behind them, I don’t trust the cars coming from the other direction. And these drivers who stop where there IS NO STOP SIGN seem to think they are doing me a favor that I’m being ungrateful for.

  2. Pingback: Another Example of Cyclists Killing Pedestrians In Crosswalks | IsolateCyclist

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