At Safe Streets Rally, SFPD Blocks Bike Lane to Make Point of Victim-Blaming

by Aaron Bialick
Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Source: StreetsBlog

Update: Shahum reported that SFBC staffer Marc Caswell found a surveillance camera at an auto body shop which has footage of Le Moullac’s crash, even though SFPD has said no such footage could be found. More on that story later as it develops.

San Francisco Police Sergeant Richard Ernst apparently decided that the best way to make Folsom Street safer was to purposefully park his car in the bike lane this morning and force bicycle commuters into motor traffic.

Staff from the SF Bicycle Coalition were out at Folsom and Sixth Streets, handing out flyers calling for safety improvements on SoMa’s freeway-like streets in the wake of the death of Amelie Le Moullac, who was run over at the intersection last week by a truck driver who appeared to have made an illegal right-turn across the bike lane on to Sixth.

When Ernst arrived on the scene, he didn’t express sympathy for Le Moullac and other victims, or show support for safety improvements. Instead, he illegally parked his cruiser in the bike lane next to an empty parking space for up to 10 minutes, stating that he wanted to send a message to people on bicycles that the onus was on them to pass to the left of right-turning cars. He reportedly made no mention of widespread violations by drivers who turn across bike lanes instead of merging fully into them.

He said it was his “right” to be there.

According to SFBC Executive Director Leah Shahum, Ernst blamed all three victims who were killed by truck drivers in SoMa and the Mission this year, and refused to leave until she “understood that it was the bicyclist’s fault.”

“This was shocking to hear, as I was told just a day ago by [SFPD Traffic] Commander [Mikail] Ali that the case was still under investigation and no cause had yet been determined,” Shahum said in a written account of the incident. While Ernst’s car was in the bike lane, “a steady stream of people biking on Folsom St. were blocked and forced to make sudden and sometimes-dangerous veers into the travel lane, which was busy with fast-moving car traffic during the peak of morning rush hour.”

One observer, who declined to be named, called Ernst’s behavior “insane.”

Sgt. Ernst denied Shahum's pleas for him to move his vehicle.  © Photo: SFBC

Sgt. Ernst denied Shahum’s pleas for him to move his vehicle.
© Photo: SFBC

Shahum said she introduced herself to the sergeant and asked him to move his vehicle. “I said we were concerned about the large number of people biking who were being blocked by his car and forced into the auto lane at an already intimidating location,” she said. “I said it looked like a dangerous situation at that moment. I said we’d be happy to talk with him and for him to interact with the event however he wished, but that we’d feel more comfortable about people’s safety if he would move the car out of the bike lane and into a more appropriate spot.”

“There was literally an open, available parking spot next to the bike lane, which he could have pulled into,” added Shahum. “Sgt. Ernst again said he did not need to move his car. He said it was his ‘right’ to be there.”

This is far from the first display of windshield-centric views and poor understanding of bicycle laws entrenched among some officers in the SFPD. Reports of officers unfairly blaming, targeting, and even yelling at people on bikes aren’t uncommon.

As KRON’s Stanley Roberts and Streetsblog explained yesterday, few drivers seem to understand how to properly make a right-turn in a bike lane — they’re required to merge fully into it, like any other traffic lane, while yielding to people on bikes. Instead, many drivers turn across the bike lane, setting up bicycle riders for a “right hook” crash.

Right hooks were the causes of death for Le Moullac and Dylan Mitchell while they were biking this year. The third victim, Diana Sullivan, was reportedly run over while stopped at a red light at Third and King Streets. None of the truck drivers involved have been cited or charged.

Le Moullac's memorial, the day after her crash.  © Photo: Aaron Bialick

Le Moullac’s memorial, the day after her crash.
© Photo: Aaron Bialick

The SFBC sent an open letter yesterday to Mayor Ed Lee, the Board of Supervisors and the SFMTA calling on them to move forward with safety redesigns on SoMa Streets, including the lingering plan for Folsom that would include parking-protected bike lanes and a calmer two-way traffic configuration. Shahum said the organization gathered about 200 signatures on Folsom in support of the letter this morning, and that more than 150 people have sent similar emails to city leaders.

Protected bike lanes like those planned for Second Street often have separate traffic signal phases for bicycles and turning vehicles, which would have likely saved Le Moullac’s life.

At Sixth and Folsom, a memorial for Le Moullac can still be seen, and several people who knew her were present at this morning’s incident. Shahum said Sergeant Ernst’s behavior “was deeply upsetting to see him unnecessarily disrupt and add tension to what was already an emotional and difficult time for many people who lamented this sad loss of life.”

Photo: SFBC

Photo: SFBC

© Photo: SFBC

© Photo: SFBC


As I sat reading through the article i was reminded that while Urban Cyclists hate it when they feel a reporter is ‘editorializing‘ against their cause, they certainly have no compunctions about doing the same themselves. The idea that a police officer with’ new information‘ should be a threat to the rally is difficult to understand. Certainly if one has ever read the ChainLink when the group is crowdsourcing what it thinks are leads to a hit-and-run sometimes the ‘leads‘ sound a bit goofy because frankly they are conjectures. But no one seems to mind.

What is beginning to develop in the Urban Cycling Community is a palpable distrust of anyone from the ‘outside‘. And more to the point anyone whose ideas are likely to bring into question what is collectively held to be true is summarily dismissed. This is a classic case of ‘group think‘. My most recent experience with it comes when you approach a person who is a ‘climate denier‘.

You cannot argue or reason with people who live their lives this way. In fact they are likely to call you either ‘insane‘ or ‘evil‘ for even allowing that their might be an alternative view than theirs. I hope the Urban Cycling Community takes the time to revisit some of its approaches.

For instance I learned something myself when reviewing a sister article to this one. It turns out that despite the ChainLink protestations of one of our most prominent barristers there are indeed times when cars are supposed to use the bike lane. In the article I wrote about this I cited the state statutes regarding the kinds of ‘intrusion‘ in the bike lanes which are lawful.

But a video shown on the television on how automobiles are to execute a right turn was stunningly simple and was something that shed a very different light on some of the bike lane designs I have seen here in Chicago. Frankly my understanding was wrong. When traffic lanes are drawn to converge with the bike lane that is indeed the safest of all the configurations. I have in fact read the article which describes this in detail but frankly it did not ‘leap out at me‘ from the graphic that the area along the right side of the a designated bike lane. Once I was reminded of that fact I had my Damascus Experience.

How Many Others Are Ignorant?

The way of course to find out how prevalent my misconception is in the general cycling public is to offer a short survey (complete with graphics) and ask for comments. I would guess that most cyclists do not know this. Why do I make that call?

We all that you have to do is read through the various threads on the ChainLink where folks are irate over the fact that a car pulled into their lane (right in front of them in fact) and made a right turn! They generally complain when they are forced to slam on the brakes to accommodate the automobile. And that follows a “WTF!” comment. But frankly the motorist is absolutely within their rights as well as being socially responsible by making that maneuver!

What could have saved this woman’s life is something as simple and effective and inexpensive as knowing (both the driver and cyclist) that right turns should be executed in this fashion!