Causal and Contributing Factors In A Death

Background Reading


What Has Been Reported:

Photo by booleansplit on Flickr

Neill Townsend biked to work most days, in all kinds of weather, and almost always had a story to share about a close call on the street.

“He would tell us about them,’’ said Scott Wilson, CEO of Minimal Inc., a product design firm where Townsend worked. “He did have a lot of close calls with cars or even other cyclists. It’s not a bike-friendly city, unfortunately.”

Friday morning, the 32-year-old attorney was riding south on Wells Street in front of Walter Payton High School, just north of Oak Street, when the driver of a Nissan Altima swung open the door, police said.

Townsend swerved and fell underneath the wheels of a passing semi that was hauling a flat-bed trailer, police said.

The man who opened the door was cited for a traffic violation, according to News Affairs Officer Robert Perez.

Neill Townsend was a lawyer. My wife’s firm is full of men and women who defend their clients against liability in situations where someone gets hurt and addresses their financial needs (usually to cover injuries sustained or loss of income) by suing. But suits (as any lawyer can tell you) are seldom as clear-cut as you might imagine. There are always “causal and contributing factors”:

Causal and Contributing Factors

The human elements are critical factors in the evaluation of this investigation. A risky decision or a series of risky decisions appear to have contributed to this dangerous situation from which there was no room for error.

Causal Factors are any behavior, omission, or deficiency that if corrected, eliminated, or avoided probably would have prevented the fatality.

In fact we will probably see the lawyers for the man ticketed for opening his door attempt to defend him in a wrongful death suit by looking for just those “extenuating circumstances” (a term we often use as lay people) which help to explain how a bad thing happened and to what degree one or more parties were at fault.

 A Causal Example

Suppose you are a pedestrian walking across a busy street and you get hit by the proverbial CTA bus. Ouch!

Witnesses at the scene reported that you were crossing at an intersection which had no stop signs or red lights, but that you were crossing between the white lines at the corner. So far so good.

The patrolman on the scene notes that lying near your nearly lifeless body is a cellphone. It is turned on and someone is replying to an SMS message you just sent. Uh oh!

Wikipedia Defines SMS Messaging As Follows:

Short Message Service (SMS) is a text messaging service component of phone, web, or mobile communication systems, using standardized communications protocols that allow the exchange of short text messages between fixed line or mobile phone devices.

SMS text messaging is the most widely used data application in the world, with 3.6 billion active users, or 78% of all mobile phone subscribers.[1] The term SMS is used as a synonym for all types of short text messaging as well as the user activity itself in many parts of the world. SMS is also being used as a form of direct marketing known as SMS marketing.[2]

SMS as used on modern handsets originated from radio telegraphy in radio memo pagers using standardized phone protocols and later defined as part of the Global System for Mobile Communications (GSM) series of standards in 1985[3] as a means of sending messages of up to 160 characters,[4][5] to and from GSM mobile handsets.[6] Since then, support for the service has expanded to include other mobile technologies such as ANSI CDMA networks and Digital AMPS, as well assatellite and Landline networks.[citation needed] Most SMS messages are mobile-to-mobile text messages though the standard supports other types of broadcast messaging as well.

In short what the officer has discovered is that you were texting while walking. You might term this “distracted walking” in much the same way we refer to texting while behind the wheel of a motor vehicle as “distracted driving”. Any good lawyer for the CTA would pounce on this as a “contributing factor” in your injury. To the extent he can convince either a jury or a judge that your behavior was so shaped by this activity that you acted in an unpredictable fashion he or she may be able to relieve the transit authority of most if not all blame.

A Personal Insight

Now I have seen this dynamic in action while driving eastbound on VanBuren towards Clinton street on several occasions. In one situation a driver approaching from my right was attempting to cross VanBuren at a street corner where there were no stop signs or lights. I waited on the opposite side of the intersection while he crossed heading northbound. But about halfway across he paused and just stood there.

It was then I noticed that a young lady who had been walking along the north side of VanBuren had in entered the crosswalk without ever pausing to view the traffic conditions and was actively texting while she walked. She in fact never even noticed the car driver and continued texting when she reached the other side of the street as she walked eastward. Dangerous behavior and so very common for young folks in the twenties who having learned to use their SmartPhone do not very smart things.

 Learning More About The Bike Neill Was Riding

The comments section of the Second City Cop blog entry had some remarks that caught my eye:

Anonymous said…

News stated the bike didn’t have brakes that it was altered? If true brakes might have helped

10/06/2012 03:21:00 AM

I Fart In Your General Direction said…

“The guy is dead for Godsakes. Run over by a semi. Do you really have to make a game at guessing whose at fault?”

Answer: NO GUESSING GAME HERE, LIBERAL CRYBABY. THE CYCLIST WAS AT FAULT. There are risks assumed when you recklessly pilot a brake-less, 25 pound, two-wheeled mode of transportation in Chicago rush hour traffic. He rolled the dice and they came up snake eyes. And just because the motorist was cited doesn’t mean s/he was at fault. Did Mr. Bicyclist have flashing lights or reflectors on his bike? Was he wearing a reflective vest? NO.

“This was a contributor to society not the drug dealer on the corner… ”

Answer: SO A DRUG DEALER DOESN’T HAVE PEOPLE WHO WILL GRIEVE HIS DEATH? I’ll bet a $1000 dollars that your average “drug dealer” is smarter than to ride a bike w/o brakes in traffic.

“Bullshit SEC. A little respect, its not all political, a man died biking to work and found himself in a no win situation when someone put a door in his path and unfortunately there was a truck in the other path and he died. We all know people who have died for being in a no win situation.”

Answer: YES, WE DO KNOW OF A LOT OF PEOPLE WHO HAVE DIED FOR BEING IN A NO-WIN SITUATION. And we’ve poked fun at and had chuckles because of their stupidity for putting themselves in that no-win situation. You know how to win in a no-win situation, don’t you? DON’T PUT YOURSELF IN THAT SITUATION TO BEGIN WITH. The Darwin & Chalkie Tag Team has been responsible for some of the best belly laughs I’ve ever had.

“It’s an incident set off by a dooring. You don’t have to be a reckless cyclist to get doored.”

Answer: NO, BUT IF YOU’RE AN OBSERVANT BIKER THAT USES COMMON SENSE, THINGS LIKE THIS ARE LESS LIKELY TO HAPPEN. And in this case, he WAS a reckless biker, as evidenced by his coworkers relaying the frequency of his stories of “close calls”. Just like that coworker who always seems to get parking tickets…”Gee, I just don’t know what it is. It’s almost as if they follow me around waiting for me to park and then they write me a ticket” says the dummy that continually parks where he shouldn’t, with no city sticker, no front plate and cracked windshield.

Guess what? This guy’s number was up. His card was set to be punched. It was time for him to meet his maker. From what’s been reported, this isn’t a criminal incident, and the guy who opened the car door didn’t do so with any malice or intent. Accident, plain and simple. Preventable?? Absolutely…if Mr. Bicyclist used more caution and common sense. And brakes on his transportation maybe could’ve prevented this…maybe. But that’s where the whole “common sense” thing comes into play. And common sense just ain’t too common.

10/06/2012 09:39:00 AM

Anonymous said…

My condolences to the cyclist and his family. This obviously is a tragic situation. Ic would have to disagree with the po ink the 1: 12 am post. Most drivers are not complete morons. Most drivers have been driving and parking their cars for decades, without incident. Now you have an influx of bicyclist in the city, without neither car driver or bicyclist having the rules of the road updated by both the state of illinois, when you renew ones drivers license and/or state id. Todays cyclist modify their bicycles, for speed, have no traditional brakes, bikes are more lightweight, so much so that they can reach speeds of 30 to 35 mph. Drivers are powerless, speed determination is non existent. Even if you look in the side mirror or see them down the block when making a left or right turn can find you getting struck by this cyclist going full speed in a “zone” all the while listening to their mp3’s. Its just going to get worse. Ive seen cyclist strike the elderly, dogs, children on marked crosswalks, without any regard. Try catching up to them.
Most look alike with their beatnik bike helmets skinny jeans and boots. Hell, they even have their own law firm, the keating law group. If peaceful coexistence is a goal, then education has to be out there. Public service annoucements, like the @$shole mayors commercials after the strike. The cyclist also have to put skin in the game and i dont mean when the hit and skid on the pavement. If your going to be on the roadway and ride like @$$ holes and have drivers premiums increase, then bikes should be made to register, have some type of identification, eg. License plate or placard. Bicyclist shoud also be made to buy insurance. Granted we dont know what the driver did or didnot see. Accidents do happen. He/she will have their day in court. This will be a trend and will be a crisis with more and more cyclist on the roadway. The marked bicyclist lanes will make drivers even more liable regardless of fault. Beware! The keating law firm is just the tip of the iceberg. Chicago will become the next cuba, china because motorist insurance premiums are going to skyrocket, education has to start now

10/06/2012 12:36:00 PM

Anonymous said…

The new fad is to ride a,”fixie bike”,essentially a bike with no brakes. You would think with all the past close calls you would at least want the ability to stop. You will see more dumb bikers run over just because of the simple fact they don’t have the means to stop.

10/06/2012 02:55:00 PM

Anonymous said…

It’s sad that this guy died but I have to believe from what I see every day that this cyclist was most likely at fault. The story said he swerved to avoid a car door that opened. Why didn’t he just stop his bike? Because he probably didn’t have any brakes like a ton of other cyclists and was riding too fast on a congested street. I sit at red lights in a fully marked squad car and cyclists whiz right passed me and right through red lights like I’m not even there. The vast majority of cyclists I’ve seen have absolutely no regard for their own safety let alone anyone else on the road including pedestrians on foot who are legally crossing the street. It’s time the city gave us a bicycle rider specific ANOV book and start holding these dangerous cyclists responsible for their actions. Of all the car vs. bicycle traffic crashes I’ve had to do my estimate is that at least 85% of the time the cyclist is at fault.

10/06/2012 03:29:00 PM

Stop a Fixed Gear Bicycle

Fixies are all the rage. They are the “pants on the ground” bike style of the urban hipster. Along with at least a nose ring, some ear lobe stretching and of course a tattoo and you have the makings of a guy or gal ready for that next level of cycling, the fixed gear bicycle. But there are caveats. These are not like riding your standard 10-speed bike from the 70s. Oh, no. These are a whole new “ball of wax”. The article cited above titled Stop A Fixed Gear Bicycle expresses it this way:

So, you’ve decided to jump on the fixed gear bicycle trend. Good for you.

Now here’s the bad news: unless you learn how to stop one of these brakeless wonders, you’re pretty much dead. Here’s how to slow your roll on a bike with no brakes.

A good lawyer will pounce on that last paragraph. Just so that you know I did not modify the sentence in any way. That is their take on how dangerous riding a fixie can be. The article cited above shows how to do a controlled stop on a fixie:

What is important to see is just how long it takes to stop a bike when you have no brakes. But Neill was in a situation which was more dire than this method of stopping would allow. He was perhaps attempting a “skip stop“:

I saw my first fixie doing a sudden stop a few months ago. We were doing the Jewish-Muslim Ride organized by the ChainLink forum. But on that occasion the approached the crosswalk in front of which the group had been stopped and put on a violent stopping motion that more resembled what you might do on hockey skates. He turned the bike at a 90 degree angle and skidded to a full stop in just a few feet!

The stops being demonstrated on these videos are much tamer. I have no idea whether Neill was using any of these maneuvers or whether he did the full on panic stop that I saw, but not a single one of these is what most folks would recognize as a braking maneuver if they are untrained in riding a fixed gear setup.

Bikers Are Pretty Clueless

We bikers live in our parallel universes linked only by our common mode of transportation the bicycle. But our understandings of one another’s steeds is pretty pathetic. I had a fellow from Active Transportation Alliance approach me at the Open Streets event in Wicker Park and say that he had seen Connie and I at their Four Star Bike Tour a few weeks earlier.

(Note: That was a ride which I probably will never do again because of the behavior of a Ride Marshal who led the group we were with as we rode from the first rest stop (along the 35-mile route) back to Oak Park. He was in essence a “jerk”. I hate to admit that anyone who was trusted enough to be given a t-shirt and a radio by the ATA could have been that negligent but suffice it to say he made a very, very lasting impression on me. I do not ever need to see that kind of behavior again.)

Easy Racers Gold Rush Replica 2013 Model
© Fast Freddy Markham

But getting back to the topic at hand, this staff member of ATA wanted to know whether the front fairings we ride with “slowed us down“. The simple answer is “just the opposite“. They restore the aerodynamic profile of the rider to something akin to what you get when you crouch over the handlebars of a road bike in a “full tuck position“.

But unless you had ever ridden a Gold Rush Replica with a front fairing you would perhaps never have a clue about the reasons we use the fairing. The one pictured to the right is made of carbon fiber. Ours are made of Lexan and are transparent. I would refrain from using a carbon fiber front fairing in situations where the road conditions were either lousy (i.e. pot holes and debris) or when riding in urban conditions where being able to see what is unfolding up ahead is of the essence to my safety.

So were you to have asked me about fixed gear bikes I would have never really stopped to consider how one goes about doing a “panic stop” or an “evasive maneuver” when confronted with a suddenly opened car door. Now that I have watched the videos I am certain that my physical condition would not allow me to safely ride such a bike along roads where cars are parked. And were I a lawyer I would have to wonder just how many people could avoid serious injury if the conditions for a “perfect storm” emerged as it did that fateful morning when Neill was heading into work.

Being Safe Also Means Knowing Your Limitations

Fixies stop by skidding. This is what the rear tire looks like over time!
© Jake Larson (

One of the conundrums that face urban cyclists is the question of whether or not to exacerbate one’s experience of traffic conditions in a city setting by riding something like a fixed gear bike or whether to go Dutch Bike and in essence “slow down and live”. The single biggest deciding factor is the level of testosterone in a bloodstream of the person making the decision.

When I was in my twenties I had not one single concern about surviving just about anything thrown at me. By the time I was thirty I was fearless but a bit slower in the reflex department and needed to always prove to myself that I was not already “over the hill”. It is not just guys that have this sort of dilemma, females do as well.

I wrote about seeing three females challenge autos at a stop sign. When you are young enough (usually in your early child-bearing years) you can do some awfully stupid things. What complicates all of these hormonal activity is the fact that you feel invincible and that leads to risky behavior. You begin to believe that it is your God-given right to disobey traffic laws. You actually get a rush out of doing the “stop sign blow through” and the “ride into traffic while the light is red fandango”.

And of course all the while the “adults” in the cycling movement are trying to convince themselves and the motorists who are outraged by these flagrant acts of disobedience that if we just get to have more bicycle infrastructure (i.e. buffered lanes) that all will be “sweetness and light“. It is of course a “lie” but we are so desperate to get more infrastructure we cross our collective fingers and mouth the words and wish very earnestly that what we are saying turns out to come true.

But no amount of lipstick on a pig can overcome all of the self-imposed obstacles we set in our path. Fixed gear bikes were probably never intended for street use. They have however become the current fad of the cycling cognoscente and that makes choosing them both fashionable and cool and that “makes chicks dig us”. Or at least that is the second lie we tell ourselves.

But the real need of the ChainLink community is the development of some detachment where our collective judgment is concerned. We need to ask the terribly hard questions about the risks we routinely take and how they might contribute to the awful statistical facts that we see when combing through mortality data regarding car versus bike collisions.

How much of a contributing factor are things like:

  • Our riding style – do we favor coolness and speed over sound judgment?
  • Do we get desensitized to danger by riding in a scofflaw manner?
  • Are we choosing the right bikes for the types of conditions we face?
  • Could it be that we encourage aggressive motorist behavior by being aggressive ourselves?

I do not know the answer to these questions. But I do know that in Europe the bikes they ride look more like 1950s Schwinn balloon tire bikes than they do 2010s sleek brakeless fixed gear wonders. I do know that the general idea of a buffered lane while an improvement here is something of an outdated idea over in Europe. Their system is much more like our trails. There is a minimum of interaction between autos and bikes and that makes all the difference. Theirs is a world in which the decision to not wear helmets makes a lot more sense than that idea would on our “mean streets“.

Lecturing Ourselves As Well

We seem to take great pride in “raising the awareness of motorists about dooring” whenever we get a chance to do so. I guess it gives us the impression that we are “in the right” when it comes to motor vehicle versus bicycle altercations. As one ChainLinker wrote he thought that motorists needed to be held to a higher standard because of their greater potential to do harm. That perhaps is the voice of arrogance speaking from the throat of someone who has not yet learning the hard lessons of life. There are always, always contributing factors.

If we fail in our efforts to gain the kind of infrastructure we desire and having the lowered levels of death and injury to cyclists it may well be because we never quite took a look at ourselves. The first thing any athlete who is trying to improve does is watch film of themselves alongside an older person (usually a coach) who knows how to break down their swing or stride or arm motion or whatever.

Then that person has to learn to become aware of the subtleties that their coach delineated and then be able to self-correct. Wisdom comes when you know your failings so thoroughly that you can walk off the field after throwing an interception and yell at yourself before the coach ever thinks to.

When you are a cyclist it works the same way. You simply have to know your limitations.