Road Rights- Getting The Story Straight
By Bob Mionske
Shortly after 8 a.m. on March 29 in San Francisco, Sutchi Hui waited patiently on a Castro District street corner. When the light changed, Hui, 71, stepped into the crosswalk with his wife and began crossing the street. Moments later, he was sent sprawling to the pavement as Chris Bucchere, a cyclist, slammed into him.
Bucchere later explained that the light had changed so fast, the crosswalk filled with people before he had time to stop. “I laid it down and just plowed through the crowded crosswalk in the least-populated place I could find,” he said.
Sutchi Hui was hospitalized in stable condition with head injuries, but four days after the crash, he took a turn for the worse and succumbed to his injuries. The coroner determined his cause of death to be “blunt force head trauma,” and Bucchere was suddenly facing the possibility of vehicular homicide charges. Of course, the case was already loaded with inflammatory potential. It was the second cyclist-on-pedestrian fatality within a year, and reinforced the commonly held view that cyclists are a bunch of dangerous scofflaws.
Bucchere’s behavior, before the crash and online afterwards, won him no sympathizers, drawing criticism from cyclists and non-cyclists alike.
And then the evidence against Bucchere started making its way into the news. Eyewitnesses alleged that Bucchere had been speeding through multiple intersections before the crash, ignoring stop signs and red lights. And Bucchere’s GPS data confirmed that he had been traveling above 35 mph when he entered the fatal intersection, on a street with a 25-mph speed limit. There was also video evidence from the scene, which showed Bucchere racing through the intersection, making no effort to slow or change direction.
The San Francisco district attorney characterized Bucchere’s behavior as evidence of gross negligence, and because gross negligence was being alleged, San Francisco District Attorney George Gascon announced this week that Bucchere will be arraigned on a charge of felony vehicular manslaughter.
It’s easy to be outraged by this story. And if the allegations are true, we should be outraged. But there’s another aspect of this story that’s less apparent, but no less outrageous.
Since the previous August, there have been three pedestrian deaths within the same neighborhood. One was the collision between Bucchere and Hui, another involved a bus driver who didn’t see a pedestrian in a crosswalk, and the third involved a motorist who struck a pedestrian while driving with a cast on his right foot.
And yet, while San Francisco’s bicycle foes pointed to the death of Sutchi Hui as an example of reckless cyclists run amok, there was not a peep of public outrage about reckless drivers when Emily Dunn or William Cox was run down. Why?
First, “cyclist kills pedestrian” is the type of rare incident the news media loves to focus on—it’s a “Man Bites Dog” type of story that adds some spice to the otherwise predictable mix of daily news. Second, this kind of story reinforces pre-existing negative beliefs about cyclists. People love to have their beliefs validated like that, which means that these types of stories are virtually guaranteed to generate intense public interest. Third, a bicycle war is being waged in cities across our nation, as defenders of the status quo push back against the perceived “injustice” of allocating some road space to cyclists. When there’s an incident that paints cyclists in a bad light, the effort to keep cyclists off the road can take on the moral authority of being a battle for the survival of civilization itself. And fourth, we have all become accustomed to the death toll on our nation’s streets. Automobile-caused fatalities are so commonplace that they are barely considered newsworthy, while something out of the ordinary becomes a headline story generating a firestorm of indignant self-righteousness.
While the death of Sutchi Hui is outrageous, let’s not let our outrage blind us to the other story here: When it comes to traffic collisions resulting in death or injury, San Francisco is the most dangerous city in California. In 2009 alone, 3,745 people were injured or killed in traffic collisions in San Francisco, including 736 pedestrians and 522 bicyclists. So far this year, there gave been six pedestrian deaths in San Francisco, only one of which involved a cyclist. And in just one week this past April, nine California cyclists were the victims of hit-and-run drivers.
And where is the public outcry? You could hear a pin drop.
Nationwide, the story is the same. Every year, more than 700 cyclists are killed by drivers, and another 62,000 are injured. The total annual death toll inflicted by drivers in the United States averages in excess of 40,000 people. It’s the equivalent of two jumbo jets crashing every single week, all year long, every single year.
And still, the same people who froth at the mouth when a reckless cyclist runs a pedestrian down say nothing when it comes to the death toll from careless and reckless drivers.
It’s not just the driving public that is silent. Traffic-safety advocates have been waging an uphill battle to get the New York City Police Department to stop coddling careless drivers and simply enforce the law. But as in San Francisco, the New York establishment has other priorities.
When our society doesn’t take these traffic casualties seriously, we send the message to careless drivers that they will not be held accountable for their behavior. Is it any wonder that they continue to drive carelessly, when we tell them that there are no consequences? Is it any wonder that cyclists would notice that there are no consequences for careless driving—and that some cyclists would take that message as a license to ride carelessly?
None of this excuses lawless behavior by cyclists. When a cyclist recklessly takes a life, he or she should be brought to justice. But if we want to actually do something about making the roads safer, instead of pretending to make them safer, we need to stop scapegoating cyclists while looking the other way when it comes to careless driving—and we need to start imposing some real consequences on those who carelessly injure or kill on our public roads.
Research and assistance by Rick Bernardi, J.D.
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This article, Getting The Story Straight, was originally published on Bicycling on June 21, 2012.
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