By Bob Mionske
Over the years, I’ve written a number of times about incidents in Tennessee. In 2009, there was the crash that killed David Meek, a well-known and popular Chattanooga cyclist. The morning of March 5, 2009, Meek was commuting to work when he was sideswiped by a passing truck, and thrown under the wheels. He was taken by ambulance to a hospital, where he succumbed to his injuries. Although Tennessee has a 3-foot safe passing law on the books, the traffic investigator invented an imaginary standard for safe passing that let the inattentive driver who had sideswiped Meek—“he never saw” Meek, even though Meek had been “lit up like a Christmas tree”—off the hook for Meek’s death.
Three weeks later, Ed Rusk, another Hamilton County cyclist, was deliberately buzzed and hit by a driver towing a trailer. And yet the Hamilton County Sheriff’s Deputy responding to the incident said that he couldn’t ticket the driver because the driver didn’t know about the 3-foot passing law.
And when the Deputy completed the accident report, he wrote that there was no evidence that the trailer had come into contact with Rusk. Even an eyewitness statement corroborating Rusk’s account of the collision was left out of the accident report. Thus, despite having deliberately hit a cyclist, the driver was not charged with any violation.
Nevertheless, several officials, including then-Tennessee Governor Phil Bredesen, then-Chattanooga Mayor Ron Littlefield, and then-Hamilton County Sheriff’s Public Information Officer Dusty Stokes had all announced their support of enforcing the 3 foot passing law.
Then, two years ago, Gary Hooper, another Chattanooga-area cyclist, was buzzed and run off the road by a car that passed within inches of his bike. A Chattanooga Bicycle Club member got the car’s license plate number, but when the incident was reported to the Red Bank Police Department, the cyclists were told that nothing could be done because the car hadn’t actually made contact with Hooper.
And in January of this year, another Chattanooga-area cyclist was assaulted in an incident that garnered the attention of cyclists nation-wide. After first repeatedly buzzing the cyclist, two local teens returned to the scene and assaulted him with pepper spray. But when the cyclist reported the assault, the tables were turned on him, with a Marion County Sheriff’s Sergeant accusing him of committing a felony by violating an imaginary law. The County prosecutor continued with the Kafkaesque turn of events by investigating the cyclist for assaulting the teens who had pepper sprayed him. Eventually, the truth came out, and the two teens were convicted, but that may be more a testament to the power of video evidence and social media than to the willingness of local law enforcement to take crimes against cyclists seriously (note, however, that the Chattanooga Police Department DID take the buzzing and assault very seriously, and would have charged the culprits if the incident had happened within their jurisdiction).
Taken together, all of these incidents suggest a law-enforcement culture that winks at drivers who endanger, assault, and even kill cyclists.
But the story is not that simple.
Chattanooga has made great strides in becoming a bicycle-friendly community, and the Chattanooga Police department has garnered a national reputation as a bicycle-friendly police force. And Memphis is also developing a national reputation on its way to becoming a great bicycle city.
Clearly, the narrative coming from Tennessee is complex, and evolving. Recently, I had the opportunity to chat with Tennessee bicycle accident attorney Amy Benner about the state of cycling in Tennessee.
[ Keep Reading... ]