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About Bicycle Crashes: Why We Say “Bicycle Accidents” Are Not Accidents

By Rick Bernardi

“How often misused words generate misleading thoughts.”

—Herbert Spencer

New York, New York

Sian Green had been excitedly anticipating her trip to New York City with one of her best friends, Keshia Warren. The two travelers from Leicester, England had arrived the night before, and were out enjoying their first day in the city. It was a beautiful, sunny summer day, and after stopping at a hot dog cart, the pair strolled by a fountain, eating and enjoying the morning sun.

Sian Green

Nearby, bike messenger Kenneth Olivo was stopped in traffic, yielding the right of way to pedestrians crossing the street. To Olivo’s left, an impatient cab driver was trying to force his way through traffic to make a right turn, cutting Olivo off and blaring his horn.

Olivo explained “He was in the bike lane, and he wanted to turn, but he didn’t want to wait. … I told him to calm down.”

“I told him to stop because I’m trying to go forward and people are crossing,” continued Olivo, 40. According to the cab driver, 24-year old Faysal Kabir Mohammad Himon, the bike messenger was banging on the hood of his cab.

Olivo tells what happened next: “He loses his patience. He gets angry. He accelerates. Hits me.” It was like a scene straight out of an action movie, the cyclist said. “I’m on the roof of a car like in a Steven Seagal movie, okay. And I’m on the sidewalk. I’m like this looking up at the sky.”

And at that moment, the lives of the two British travelers, the New York messenger, and the New York cabbie all came together in one horrifying moment—after hitting the bike messenger, the cabbie lost control of his cab, jumped the curb, and struck 23-year old Sian Green, severing her left foot and mangling her right leg.

A witness to the crash said “We were crossing right in the middle of the crosswalk — we had the crossing signal — and as we were crossing with other pedestrians, the cab started to pull into the crosswalk,” said Jeffrey Hayes, of Massachusetts, to Fox News. “[There] was a man riding along this way on his bicycle with a backpack and he got picked up by the cabbie and was thrown up on the hood and up on his windshield. The cab really accelerated at a great speed. We couldn’t believe it. It smashed into the barrier here. There was a woman — maybe a few women — that were standing there. It just nailed her.”

Although Himon was unsure about how his cab had ended up on the sidewalk, and crashed into the fountain where the two young British travelers had been enjoying their first day in the city, he was sure about one thing: it was “a horrible accident,” and he blamed it on the “angry bicyclist” who was banging on the hood of his cab before he lost control.

Lebanon, Pennsylvania

When Gregory Moyer saw railroad crossing lights flashing up ahead, and the safety arms coming down, he gunned it, blowing through the railroad crossing. Although Moyer saw the flashing lights of the railroad crossing, he didn’t see what else was up ahead.

Autumn Grohowski

Autumn Grohowski, 19, was riding her bike home from work. A driver had been trying to get her phone number, and so she crossed into the oncoming traffic lane to get away from him. Up ahead, the railroad crossing lights were flashing, and the crossing arms were coming down, so she knew there would be no oncoming traffic, and the bike path that took her home was just head, to her left. She was on her phone with her dad, telling him she would be home soon, and she kept the call short: “I don’t want to be killed by a car, so I don’t want to talk on the phone on the way home.”

Those were her last words.

Moments later, Moyer, blowing through the railroad crossing with a blood alcohol content of .14—nearly twice the legal limit—drove head-on into Grohowski, fatally injuring her.

In the aftermath of the fatal collision, many in the community began to rally around Moyer; one supporter, commenting on a news story about the case, expressed the sentiment: “It was just a terrible, horrible accident that he has to live with – but is not his fault.” It was, Moyer’s sympathizer observed, “purely an accident.”

North Bellmore, L.I., New York

On May 18, 2006, the New York Times reported thatA man intentionally ran over five people in North Bellmore, with an S.U.V. after a fight last night, the Nassau County police said. The driver fled the scene of the accident, at 2800 Pacific Ave. But the police later located the vehicle they believed was involved in the accident in Garden City and took the driver in for questioning. The victims were taken to Nassau University Medical Center, the police said. One was in critical condition, a hospital spokeswoman said.”

Or You Might Call it Attempted Homicide, Streetsblog NYC suggested.

Why we say bicycle “accidents” are not accidents

Each of these crashes, and tens of thousands other crashes like them, was described as “an accident.”

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.

We wouldn’t call even one jumbo jet crash “an accident,” let alone two every week, all year long. And yet that is exactly how we think of the annual death toll from careless drivers.

We call them “accidents.”

It wasn’t always like this. In the early years of the 20th century, the public, outraged by careless drivers, demanded action to bring a halt to the carnage drivers inflicted on American roads. Drivers—labelled “remorseless murderers” by the newspapers—were charged with murder and manslaughter when pedestrians were killed. For other violations of the law—typically speeding, which was viewed as the primary factor in the mounting casualties on our roads—they were punished with stiff fines and jail time.

In response to the public outrage, the National Automobile Chamber of Commerce “established a free wire service for newspapers: Reporters could send in the basic details of a traffic collision, and would get in return a complete article to print the next day. These articles, printed widely, shifted the blame for crashes to pedestrians — and almost always used the word ‘accident.’”

We still use the word “accident” to describe crashes today.

Even when the crash is anything but “an accident.”

Because somebody is virtually always at fault in a collision, many cyclists strongly prefer to avoid using the word “accident” to describe these incidents. The word “accident” suggests that nobody is to blame—an unavoidable tragedy, if you will—when in fact somebody did cause the collision. While the vast majority of collisions are unintentional, it is still almost always that case that somebody is at fault in the collision. And if somebody was at fault, the collision was preventable. It could have been avoided, except for the carelessness of the person who is at fault. Even if the collision itself was unintentional, it wasn’t an “accident.” For these reasons, cyclists prefer to use neutral words like “crashes” or “collisions,” instead of “accidents,” because these neutral words are less likely to suggest that nobody is to blame.

When a New York cabbie became embroiled in a heated argument with a bike messenger, he suddenly accelerated into the messenger, lost control of his cab, jumped the curb and severed a pedestrian’s foot. It’s obvious that the cabbie never intended to severely injure a pedestrian. And yet his actions were just as obviously careless—and possibly even reckless, because it’s far less obvious that he never intended to crash into the bike messenger.

And yet he said it was “an accident”—and blamed the bike messenger he had accelerated into.

When a drunk driver blew through a railroad crossing guard and hit a cyclist head-on, it was obviously an unintentional act. And yet he intentionally drove while nearly two times over the legal limit, and intentionally gunned it through a railroad crossing guard.

His actions were not just careless, they were reckless. And yet sympathizers in the community rallied to his defense. “It was just a terrible, horrible accident that he has to live with – but is not his fault,” one sympathizer observed. “It was purely an accident.”

When a motorist intentionally hit five people he had been fighting with, it wasn’t a careless act. It wasn’t a reckless act. It was an intentional, criminal act.

And yet the New York Times reported it as “an accident.”

These and countless other incidents are not “accidents.”

They are the foreseeable results of carelessness. They are the foreseeable results of recklessness. They are the foreseeable results of lawbreaking. Sometimes they are the foreseeable results of criminal behavior.

They are not accidents.

They are crashes.

And that is why we say “bicycle accidents” are not accidents.