FEBRUARY 24, 2013
DOES INTRINSIC bias against cyclists explain why a grand jury recently failed to hand up an indictment against a driver suspected of vehicular homicide in last summer’s death of 41-year-old rider Alexander Motsenigos? Bicycle advocates believe so — fervently. And Wellesley Police Chief Terrence Cunningham and Norfolk District Attorney Michael Morrissey aren’t far behind.
Many accidents involving bicycles and motor vehicles can be traced to road design, inclement weather, or attention lapse. But law enforcement traced Motsenigos’s death to truck driver Dana McCoomb, a man with an extensive history of driving infractions who fled the scene after striking the Wellesley cyclist from the side. Witness statements, video footage, and subsequent police analysis of the scene suggested that the deadly collision was more than an unavoidable accident.
Sharing the road with increasing numbers of cyclists can be frustrating for drivers. But disregard for the safety of cyclists has reached pathological levels among some drivers. And this contempt, whether conscious or subconscious, may well have played a role in the minds of grand jurors. There are widespread misconceptions that cyclists should ride on sidewalks — which is dangerous for pedestrians — or that it’s up to cyclists to stay out of motor vehicles’ way.
No matter one’s opinion of cyclists or their riding habits, they are practically defenseless against the smallest sedan, never mind an SUV or a truck. Drivers simply have to take the high road — not only around cyclists who abide by the rules of the road, but even around selfish cyclists who don’t. Shaving a few minutes along the way can’t possibly outweigh the risk of maiming or killing a fellow human being.
Police and prosecutors shouldn’t be dissuaded from pursuing similar cases. And cyclists shouldn’t lose heart. As disappointing as this case may be, it is an opportunity for public officials to review road engineering, enforcement policies, and public education campaigns that all play important safety roles. Planners may find that physical barriers between roadways and bike lanes are the best approach wherever feasible. But softer approaches, such as publicizing “best routes’’ for cyclists, also help drivers to stay alert or avoid such routes altogether.
Judges and attorneys who are exquisitely sensitive to the prejudices of prospective jurors should come to terms with a new problem — deep-seated bias based on mode of transport. Cycling, meanwhile, will continue to expand. The key question is whether public education and awareness can keep up.