Legally Speaking - Can't we do better?
Two weeks ago, I wrote about the collision that hospitalized Dr. Ed Farrar (see Yet another collision). Since then, I’ve received a letter I’d like to share. First, C.S. wrote in to say:
Following my column on Dr. Farrar, I had hoped to move on to a lighter subject for this column. But no sooner had the last column run, than several more stories hit the news. One of those stories involved a cyclist who was killed in Kansas City in June. As some of you may no doubt recall, Sheriff’s Lt. David Dillon was out on a ride one morning when he was struck from behind by a driver who was distracted by his radio and a cell phone call. The driver admitted that he did not see Dillon until he struck him.
Last week, District Attorney Charles Branson announced that criminal charges will not be filed against the 21 year old driver, Kyle Van Meter. Noting that “it is a difficult time for the family,” Branson suggested that the Kansas Highway patrol issue citations for unsafe overtaking/passing, following too closely, and failure to wear a seat belt.
Failure to wear a seat belt? A driver who was simultaneously talking on the phone and adjusting his radio hit a cyclist he admits he never saw, and the D.A. suggests citing him for failure to wear a seat belt? Is this the best we can do? Branson did see a silver lining in the tragedy-- “If any good can come from the tragedy we can only hope people will slow down and pay attention to their driving.” While that’s good advice, how can he reasonably expect that people will slow down and pay attention when killing a cyclist results in nothing more than a few citations for minor traffic offenses?
In July, I wrote about another miscarriage of justice involving a drunk driver who blew through a flashing train crossing and killed 19 year-old Autumn Grohowski. In that case, the D.A. did file criminal charges, although he declined to charge the driver with homicide by vehicle, explaining that “there’s blame on both sides.” In response to that column, I received a letter from a prosecutor, explaining his perspective on charging decisions. It’s longer than most of the letters I run, but worth sharing:
In Autumn’s case, the D.A. declined to charge the driver with the most serious charge because the facts of the case would have made a conviction difficult to obtain. Still, the D.A. did file lesser criminal charges—he tried to bring the driver who ran her down to justice, even if it wasn’t the justice that Autumn deserved.
But what is the rationale for not filing any criminal charges against a driver who is admittedly distracted to the point of not seeing a cyclist until the moment of impact? It’s not as if Kansas doesn’t have adequate laws on the books, after all. Both vehicular homicide and reckless driving are available charges, and applicable in the David Dillon case. For example, in Kansas,
The facts of David Dillon’s death certainly seem to fit the definition of Vehicular Homicide, and yet the D.A. instead suggests citations for a few minor traffic offenses. Despite D.A. Branson’s optimism, it’s hard to see how a seat belt violation sends the message that people should slow down and pay attention.
Which brings us back to Dr. Farrar. At the beginning of this column, C.S. reported on the Rally for Ed; he finished by asking a question:
This question was reminiscent of a question sent to me by P.K. of the Lebanon Valley Bicycle Club following the miscarriage of justice in the Autumn Grohowski case:
I sent a few of my own suggestions to C.S., but I’d really like to open the question to Legally Speaking’s readers: What do you think can be done about cyclist safety?
(Research and drafting provided by Rick Bernardi, J.D.)
I’d like to thank everybody who has contacted me to request my appearance at their event. I will be speaking as extensively on "Bicycling & the Law" this year as my practice will allow, and will make plans to appear before any club, bike shop, or other engagement that is interested in hosting me. If you would like me to appear to speak at your event or shop, or to your club or group, please drop me a line at firstname.lastname@example.org (and if you would like to contact me with a question or comment not related to my speaking tour, please drop me a line at email@example.com). I’m looking forward to meeting as many of my readers as possible this year.
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