Incidental Justice For Two Dead Cyclists

In America, we like to say that justice is blind. This is a nice idea. And, in a utopian society, it might even hold true. But, in our real and imperfect society, blind justice is a mere cliché, for justice is, more often than not, incidental.

What we have in the place of justice is a legal system. Such a system consists of a large body of laws, which are nothing more than rules about how members of a society ought to interact with one another.

In addition to those rules, there are penalties which range from mandatory public service to fines to incarceration to the death penalty. Each penalty is supposed to match the crime, but it rarely does.

Murderers walk away scot free on either a technicality or a poorly presented case by the prosecution. Mentally ill people face incarceration for petty crimes due to lack of access to mental health services. Poor people are convicted of crimes they did not commit as a result of inadequate representation. In other words, good lawyers are reserved for the wealthy who face lesser penalties for greater crimes. This is neither blind justice nor a system of fair and impartial punishment, but it’s what we’ve got — for better or for worse.

That brings us to the story of two cyclists who were killed in New Hampshire a few days ago while participating in a group ride. The Tri-State Seacoast Century is a two-day ride, organized by the Granite State Wheelmen, a recreational riding club.

The club emphasizes safety and requires riders to follow the rules of the road. In fact, they  notify the police departments along the route about the ride and they warn all ride participants that if the police see them violating traffic laws, they will be stopped and ticketed.

Despite these precautions and the ride’s uneventful 40 year history, this year’s ride turned deadly. On Saturday morning, shortly after the ride began, a car traveling south on Route 1A crossed over the line into the northbound lane and struck four cyclists.

Two of the cyclists were killed and the other two were injured, but are expected to survive. The driver, Darriean Hess, a young woman who is either 19 or 20 years old — depending on which news report you believe — was not paying attention when she crossed over the line into oncoming traffic and struck the cyclists. She told the police that she “took her eyes off the road for a few seconds.” Due to this admission, the police are investigating whether the driver was texting when she struck the cyclists.

Since this case matches a common scenario whereby inattentive drivers kill cyclists and then say it was an “accident,” most cyclists would not expect the driver to face charges. If all this driver had done was look away from the road or some other irresponsible action, she would have gotten away with killing two cyclists, as many drivers do. However, in this case, the driver had done other illegal things and, as a result, the police decided to charge her with two counts of negligent homicide and two counts of assault. These charges are felonies which carry a maximum of seven years in prison.

It would be nice to think that this driver was charged because she killed two people with her car. But, in reality, she was charged because she was driving without a license and because she had been stopped by police and ticketed for driving without a license eight hours before she killed the cyclists. Eyewitnesses also reported seeing her driving extremely fast when she hit the cyclists.

Her bail was set at $50,000, which her family could not afford, so she will remain in jail for the time being. Regardless of why this young woman was charged, she belongs in jail because she had already been stopped for driving without a license and she decided to flagrantly disobey the law. In addition, a second woman was arrested in connection with this incident because she had allegedly sold drugs to Hess and then allowed Hess to driver her car, even though she knew that the young woman did not have a driver’s license.

The odds of a conviction in this case are quite high. The driver’s actions prior to the incident were negligent, as was her behavior when operating the borrowed vehicle. Overall, she displayed a pattern of negligent behavior, an egregious disregard for the law and little concern for the welfare of others. This is sometimes how cyclists imagine the drivers who kill cyclists, even though it is not always true.

So, what we have here is a bittersweet victory. Justice will prevail in the sense that the driver will face charges. She will also spend time in jail (even if only while awaiting trial). And, if convicted, she will face all of the ramifications of being a felon. Unlike the two cyclists she killed, she will still have her life, but it will be altered for the worse.

As far as cyclists’ rights go, this case will do little more than draw attention to the innocence of the cyclists and the negligence of the driver. It may change some people’s perceptions about who is to blame for cyclists’ deaths. It will demonstrate that drivers are not innocent victims of reckless cyclists. And, it will clarify the importance of responsibly sharing the road, whether you are operating a motor vehicle or a bicycle.

Perhaps cyclists can look at this case as a stepping stone towards a time when drivers will be charged for causing cyclists’ deaths due to negligent driving, not because of unrelated infractions such as driving without a license or leaving the scene of an accident.

On a final note, all cyclists should make a point of remembering the two victims, Pamela Wells of South Hamilton, MA and Elise Bouchard of Danvers, MA. These women died needlessly doing something they obviously enjoyed, cycling.

No matter how angry and frustrated we may become over the injustice of letting a cyclist’s death go unpunished, we must never forget what’s truly important — the life that was lived, and the human whose life was extinguished.

[Please visit my new blog to see the video that accompanies this post.]

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