When Charges Are Filed Against Drivers For Hitting Cyclists, Who Wins?

Accident Involving Rear Windshield

 

Most of the time, when a driver injures or kills a cyclist, no charges are filed. There is always a litany of excuses for why the driver wasn’t at fault. Sometimes, due to public outrage, or the prominence of the cyclist’s family, there is an investigation of the accident.

The accident is reconstructed and the public is promised the results as an answer to how the  casualty occurred. More often than not, after the initial report of the accident, the case is dropped.

Quietly, the story dies, with the driver and the police hoping no one will notice the lack of follow-up. They’re counting on short attention spans and short-lived memories to allow the issue to fade into oblivion.

Ever so often, a story is told of an exception to the rule. A cyclist is injured, and due to circumstances or chance, the driver is charged.

One such case was brought to my attention recently by a reader who e-mailed me with a news story and details about the judge’s ruling. I had not heard about this incident. After reading the account, being privy to information about the particulars of the judge’s opinion proved interesting.

In this case, the driver of a pickup truck hit a cyclist, sending him to the hospital with life-threatening injuries. After striking the cyclist, the driver fled the scene, rather than stopping to provide aid, as is required by law. Thanks to a citizen’s tip, the police located the pickup truck, which led to the driver turning himself in. He was charged with felony hit and run, negligent injuring, careless operation, driving under suspension, and failure to give a 3-foot safety zone to a bicyclist.

According to my reader, who saw this sentence as an example of justice for cyclists:

“Mr. Hahn [the driver] was sentenced to 5 years at hard labor and remanded to the custody of the department of Corrections on the spot. Judge Johnson gave a very thoughtful and considered statement of reasons for the sentence. Most significantly he stated (and I am paraphrasing) any lesser sentence would deprecate the seriousness of the offense and undermine respect for the law. He thought that Mr. Hahn was a good man who had made a very serious mistake and that called for a serious sentence.

Since the offense is not considered a crime of violence that requires 85% of the sentence to be served, Hahn will be eligible for good time and can serve his full sentence in 2 1/2 years.  He is also eligible for parole after serving 1/3 of his sentence or 20 months.”

While it’s some consolation to see a driver held accountable for hitting and injuring a cyclist, the sentence was probably imposed because the driver fled the scene of an accident. Had he stayed to assist the cyclist, he might have gotten away with hitting him, as so many drivers do.

After receiving this e-mail and reflecting upon it, I spent some time reading about other cases where drivers were charged for hitting cyclists. One high profile case caught my attention.

It was the case of an LA doctor, Christopher Thomas Thompson, who deliberately passed two cyclists — while they were descending a hill at close to the speed limit  — and slammed on his brakes, causing them to crash into the rear of his car. He did this because they were riding two abreast and didn’t heed his demand that they ride single file. He called 911, however, he told the operator that the cyclists weren’t badly hurt, even though they would say they were.

When the police arrived, he admitted to braking directly in front of the cyclists to “teach them a lesson.”

Previously, two other cyclists had documented a similar run-in with the doctor. So, clearly, this method of “teaching cyclists a lesson” was an established pattern of behavior.

In court, the doctor claimed that he stopped to take a photo of the cyclists to document what he thought was an infraction of the law. His lawyer’s explanation was that “the cyclists were belligerent and may have fallen because of the inherent instability of bicycles.” He further argued that the incident was accidental, not criminal.

Nonetheless, the jury convicted Thompson of assault with a deadly weapon, reckless driving causing specified bodily injury, battery with serious bodily injury and mayhem. He was found guilty of six felonies and a misdemeanor.

The judge sentenced Thompson to two years on the charge of assaulting the cyclists with a deadly weapon. He added a three-year enhancement because one of the cyclists suffered serious bodily harm. The judge also ordered that Thompson be stripped of his driver’s license for life. In addition to the five-year sentence, Thompson lost his license to practice medicine, and was reportedly on the verge of bankruptcy.

After reading an article about this, and the 141 comments which followed, I stopped to consider the ongoing struggle between motorists and cyclists, and what that battle entails.

On a typical day, drivers harass cyclists, who sometimes fight back with words, or occasionally with aggressive actions. Less frequently, drivers lose control of their emotions and deliberately harm cyclists out of a belief that cyclists don’t have a right to be on the road.

With respect to Dr. Thompson, his anger and hatred of cyclists grew out of proportion to any infraction that could be consistent with the activity of cycling. Like many drivers, he didn’t want cyclists on the road. So, he convinced himself, possibly due to cars being the majority on the road, that he could penalize the cyclists, at will, for what he thought was a violation of the law. It never occurred to him that he was not authorized to enforce the law, or that he was not above the law.

I was glad to see a driver held accountable for deliberately harming cyclists with his car. Dr. Thompson deserved the five-year sentence and the loss of his driver’s license and medical license.

But, my satisfaction with this just punishment was tainted by a sense of sadness for where the war between motorists and cyclists had led. The driver, in this case, was a physician who had spent years training for his profession. As a man in his 60’s, he had undoubtedly healed many people over the course of his career. He had founded a successful medical records company, as well.

This was an accomplished man who could have continued to do real good in the world. Yet, his hatred of a particular group of people  — cyclists  —  caused him to break the oath he had taken to become a doctor: “first do no harm.” Nevertheless, irrational hatred and a sense of entitlement not only caused disfiguring injuries to one of the cyclists, but it ended life as Dr. Thompson knew it.

The cyclists were not the only ones harmed by this incident. In a single instant, Dr. Thompson destroyed everything he had built in the 60 years he had lived on this earth. Aside from spending several years of his life in prison, he would live out his days as a convicted felon. He lost his livelihood, his identity, and he would never drive again.

Dr. Thompson’s disgrace and financial losses changed his family forever. Their lives will never be the same. They are also innocent victims of his hatred of cyclists.

As the number of cyclists on the roads increases, drivers need to step back and consider whether their impatience with and intolerance of cyclists is worth the magnitude of consequences that can ensue from aggression towards or retaliation against cyclists. Driving recklessly is not just a matter of ending a cyclist’s life. It can effectively end the lives of the driver and his or her loved ones. And, ultimately, taking such a risk will lead to interminable regret for those who choose this path.

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