Sometimes “Cycling-Friendly” Reporting Can “Sink” To The Level Of The Absurd

Background Reading


We begin first with the video:

The video itself is factually labelled as “Bike crash at 14th and W” on YouTube. But the Devil is in the details. There is a backstory to this video. It reads as follows:

How many times have you read about someone who was injured while walking or biking, only to be found at fault by law enforcement? And in those cases, how many times did police blame the victim based on nothing more than self-serving testimony from the driver? That’s what happened to Zach T. in Washington, DC, this spring, but thanks to his own persistence and detective work, he was able to prove the driver’s account wrong and obtain some measure of delayed justice.

Zach was biking to work in March when he was struck by a left-turning SUV driver. The collision landed him in the hospital with a separated shoulder. While he was receiving treatment for his injuries, he got a visit from a police officer who handed him a ticket for running a red light. Zach refused to sign the ticket, insisting that he’d had the right of way.

On the police report, the driver and one other witness said that Zack had run a red. So, on his own initiative, he filed a public records request and managed to obtain footage from a nearby CCTV camera before it was erased. It clearly showed that he had proceeded through a green light (see video above, collision happens at 0:32). But, as Zack wrote yesterday on Greater Greater Washington, that still wasn’t enough to sway the supervisor of the local police precinct to do anything:

Now it was time to take action against the claims that I was at fault. I returned to the Third District police station, where a supervisor told me that only the officer who wrote the report and the ticket could change it. He asked me to tell my story again.

“Wait, you mean, you were biking and you want a ticket canceled?” he said, incredulous. “We all know how bikers behave. It must have been your fault. C’mon. You are a biker.”

When I suggested that he review the video, he refused. The supervisor said he’d contact the officer but that I shouldn’t expect anything to come of it, as I was a bicyclist.

Eventually, Zach was able to set the record straight:

So I filed an appeal. I scheduled a hearing and brought my evidence, but the officer didn’t bother to show up. The ticket was canceled. It took an extra several hours of unnecessary hassle, but it felt great.

Thanks to the airtight evidence contained in the footage, Zach was also able to win an insurance claim against the driver for his injuries, which include permanent damage to his shoulder.

Zack’s whole story is worth a read. It makes you wonder how many times biased police have wrongfully blamed victims who didn’t survive a crash or couldn’t obtain camera evidence on their own.

Elsewhere on the Network today: Bike Portland explains a new state law that will give pedestrians right of way over vehicles anywhere on narrow neighborhood streets. Biking Toronto shares stories from Seattle and Toronto about developers catering to people who ride bikes. And Systemic Failure says that the Federal Railroad Administration’s promises of flexibility on one of their onerous safety regulations are a joke.

The Theatre of the Absurd

Where I draw the line with Ms. Schmitt is in the use of the phrase “Zach was biking to work in March when he was struck by a left-turning SUV driver.” The problem with Urban Cycling these days is that it fails to ever take into account the failures of the riders of the bicyclists who are involved in crashes with automobiles. To describe what occurs at 0:32 into the video as the cyclist being struck by a driver is absurd. It would be more factual to say that “he collided with an SUV that cut-him-off” but the current description in the article is designed to convey a very different picture than the one delivered by the video.

If you watch the video the first thing you notice is that at just about the 0:30 mark the silver car crosses the crosswalk and it appears to be as long as the crosswalk is wide. That is usually about 13.5 feet. However to account for the car being a bit on the diagonal let’s round off the crosswalk to 12 feet in width.

What is also very instructive here is the rate of speed of the cyclist. He covers a distance of approximately 8 bicycle lengths (i.e. approximately 42 feet) in a single second. That shows his speed at being close to 28.6 MPH. By any measure of cycling that is fairly fast. But as they say in the Ginzu knife commercials, “…but wait there’s more“. The rider’s reactions are a bit startling. At that speed you would expect him to attempt a panic stop. I see no evidence that he does.

Again he had essentially 3.5 car lengths in which to take an evasive maneuver and/or stop. Did his bike have brakes? Because he did not appear to be doing anything to effect a panic stop, then I must assume he was attempting to apply brake pressure to both front and rear wheels to slow the bike. But frankly rate of speed does not appear to diminish as he is approaching the vehicle, which seems odd to me. So again, did he even have brakes? If not, why not? Was this a brakeless fixed gear bike?

Putting This Into Perspective

Putting this into perspective you can easily see why “Door Zone” collisions are as common as they appear to be. Any car can make a reasonable attempt to stop in roughly a 3.5 car length distance. In fact the rule of thumb for highway travel is to leave a car length behind the vehicle in front of you for every 10 miles per hour of travel speed. So at 60 MPH you should be at least 6 car lengths back. At a speed of 35 MPH you can safely stop in 3.5 car lengths.

Now evidently a bicycle is not capable of that extraordinary ability? Yeah, right. Given the reduced mass of the vehicle and the relatively slower speed at which this rider appears to have been traveling (i.e. 28.6 MPH) he had more than sufficient time to stop. Thus we either have to assume that bikes are vastly inferior in stopping distance ability than automobiles or that the rider in this case had either faulty or no brakes to avail himself of.

Neither of these last two options leaves me feel comfortable about bicycles. Were I a traffic engineer it would be incumbent upon me to report to the insurance company that the bicycle in question should be examined. Something does not seem “right” about what I am seeing.

But there is one thing in which everyone should be accord and that is the fact that the cyclist hit the car not the other way around. Shame on you Ms. Schmitt for twisting the facts. Good cycling advocacy does not require that the reporting of a collision be as wrong in the “opposite direction” as you have made it. One has to wonder why the apparent “twisting of the facts“?

What we should all be interested in is resolving these issues of collisions. They happen far to frequently for my taste and even when you have visual evidence such as is being presented here one does not walk away feeling that anything has been resolved.

What If This Were Two Cars?

Given the speed of the vehicles on the street and the relatively good conditions (i.e no rain or snow or evident reasons for loss of traction) I would expect two automobiles involved in this exact scenario to have weathered the situation without incident. The vehicle in the position of the bicyclist would probably have gotten out and shaken his fist at the turning driver or more likely have simply slowed and gone around the turning vehicle. The situation is one I have encountered a proverbial thousand times or more in my travels and is nothing out of the ordinary.

However if one of the drivers was chemically or physically impaired it would explain why there had been a collision. And has there been a collision and I as a police officer had this video at my disposal I would have ticketed the vehicle in the cyclist’s position with traveling too fast for conditions (although he did not appear to have been exceeding 30 MPH) or for failing to yield to a turning vehicle. At least that is how I see it at this moment.

Last Minute Observation

Wait, I just noticed that the cyclist is standing up a bit as if to apply rearward pressure on his pedals. He is not moving rearward because I am guessing he is riding a bike devoid of conventional brakes. Notice how as he approaches the car he is rising out of the saddle. His legs are straight and he is not moving rearward. This implies to me that he is trying in vain to execute a “skid stop“.

If I am correct in this deduction then that changes everything for me as the officer issuing citations. As a cyclist I have “zero tolerance” for brakeless bicycling. It is simply the wrong thing to be doing on a busy street during Rush Hour. At least one Chicago cyclist lost his life trying to avoid a “Door Collision” by making a sudden evacuation of the “Door Zone” right into the pathway of a truck traveling just to his left. He was crushed under the wheels of the vehicle.

In fact I have not patience with bicycle shops which serve as “enablers” in this practice of riding without brakes. We called the standard upright bicycle design “safety bikes” for a reason. They superseded the high wheelers of several generations ago. The return to brakeless bikes is dangerous and should not be encouraged.

One Last Bit Of Sanity

In a very recent article on the “dangers of texting and walking” (Yep, you got that right) the author writes:

Operation Lifesaver is working with transit agencies around the nation on public education campaigns.

In Atlanta, Jennie Glasgow, Georgia state coordinator for the group, worked with the MARTA transit system to put distracted pedestrian messages in subway stations. “We knew that nationwide, it was becoming a problem,” she says. “More and more now, we’re seeing distracted pedestrians walking down the street.”

In Denver, Operation Lifesaver’s Colorado state coordinator, Tracy Rossbach, delivered the train safety message to a half-dozen schools within two or three blocks of a new light rail line from Union Station to Golden.

“I do know that education is the key to keeping people alive,” Rossbach says. “Education, education, education. We just have to keep after it. It took 20 years of education before we realized we should fasten our seat belts.”

We have somehow as a nation forgotten our recent past. And Urban Cycling as a movement has gone completely bonkers as far as I can tell. We have relegated the notion of training to something from the Dark Ages which has been magically superseded by “pretty green bike lanes“. Wrong! A thousand times wrong!

People need constant and positive reinforcement in order to learn to survive on the streets of the city. In fact they need this in the suburbs as well. Putting down paint on the tarmac does nothing to help riders who insist on traveling too fast for conditions slow down enough to avoid collisions that are occurring right in front of them.

For far too long we have made all sorts of excuses for why cyclists are not responsible for “Door Zone Collisions“. You cannot be in line for a collision with a suddenly open door unless you are riding in that area to the left of driver known as the “Door Zone“. It is a physical impossibility. And what we see on this video is essentially the same kind of situation that develops when a rider is presented with an opening door just ahead. Only in this case it is a rider who has 42 feet of distance in which to either take evasive action or slow down to avoid collision and is unable to do either. What gives here?

I would offer that males have a very difficult if not impossible time telling where their abilities end and their limitations begin. I would submit too that some females are afflicted with the same sort of idiocy.

What can help is understanding that you do not understand the point at which these two situations occur. Cyclists are hellbent-for-leather on their way to or from certain destinations. They often “zone out” either because that is how they cope with their “fear of flying” along urban streets in hectic traffic or they are focused on something other than the conditions at hand (which is what drivers more than likely do when they too lose focus). The big difference is that cyclists have a much smaller margin of error with respect to injury. You fail to stop in 42 feet of space and you hit a car and get sent to the hospital. It is that simple.

Education is the key! Know that you are unavoidably stupid and act accordingly.