HUNTSVILLE, Ala. _ Look closely at this picture. This is what the motorist failed to see when he hit Ernie Wu at 6:30 a.m. Wednesday, Dec. 29. Wu, CEO and president of ERC Inc., was riding to work in the pre-dawn darkness when the motorist struck him on a stretch of Drake Avenue with a quarter mile of visibility, no rain, no fog, street lights and no other traffic on the road.
The cyclist in the picture is running a $300 lighting system and wearing an IllumiNITE™ jacket, identical to those used by Wu that morning and far exceeding the minimum required illumination required for cyclists by law. That particular light system can be seen up to a mile away. So one wonders, what was this driver doing when he hit Wu? Apparently it does not matter because, according to the account in The Times, “The driver of the car, who has not been charged, told police he did not see Wu before he hit him.”
‘Not Been Charged…’ What is it going to take before motorists face some legal consequences for injuring and killing cyclists? Alabama is among six states where a police officer cannot issue a citation if they do not see what occurred, even if the driver is clearly negligent. This needs to change.
Let’s do the rundown, and I say this without irony:
September 2008 – Sarah Chapman, Huntsville
July 2009 – Carlos Serrano, Scottsboro
May 2010 – Sharon Bayler, Taft, Tenn.
December 2010 – Ernie Wu, Huntsville
Consequences: Chapman, Serrano, Bayler – Deceased. Wu – cracked vertebrae in neck and back. (He got lucky.) Drivers: No charges, citations or license suspension.
In each case, the conditions were the same: Clear, wide roads, low or no traffic, a quarter to half mile line of sight, clear weather and good lighting. At least two riders were running with flashing lights and reflective vests.
Two of the drivers admit to reaching for cell phones. Two drivers said they simply did not see the cyclists. Even at 60 mph (and the limits on these roads were no higher than 45 mph and as low as 25), each driver had a minimum of 20 seconds to notice a cyclist moving at 15 mph. Twenty seconds. Count it out.
Had these drivers been drunk or high, they’d be facing jail time, stiff fines and loss of driving privileges. A breathalyzer test usually settles the issue of filing charges, but there is no test for distraction. It falls to an easier test. Say the magic words, “I just did not see them.” Presto! It is a “tragic accident.”
These tragedies are NOT accidents. A seized axle steering an old Toyota into a school bus, shoving it off a freeway bridge, is an accident. A passenger jet flying through a flock of geese and landing in the Hudson River is an accident. Running into plainly visible cyclists and pedestrians in perfectly clear conditions is gross negligence.
This is not a debate about who does or does not have the right to be on the road. Our streets and roads are a public-use facility and it is a privilege to use them that comes with responsibilities, drivers and cyclists alike. This is about protecting vulnerable users from others who have failed in their responsibility to not hit things or kill people. Your driver’s license charges you with that responsibility. While each of the victims here went beyond the legal minimum to be visible and to ride in low traffic conditions, each driver most obviously failed to operate their vehicle safely and logically and deserves to be separated from their driving privilege. Distraction is the new drunk-driving and it needs to be treated as such.
We’re not talking summary execution, but a temporary license suspension until a reasonable investigation is completed is a good start. And a reasonable investigation must go further than a breathalyzer and the “magic word” test. Take a look at that cell phone. It tells the truth if asked if it was in use. GPS? Screaming kids? Radio adjustment? There is no issue inside a car that cannot wait until a complete stop at the side of the road.
The drivers who struck Sarah, Sharon, Carlos and Ernie are likely not bad people. They probably do not deserve jail time. However, they made grave errors that require reprimand and, at minimum, deserve a period where they lose driving privileges and suffer hefty financial pain so they too can share the consequences of what they have caused. As it is, our public safety and legal systems let drivers off far too easily for negligent behavior, leaving it to the victims or their families to extract justice or restitution. What else has to happen to change this? People I know personally have already died.
Morgan Andriulli is vice president of the Spring City Cycling Club and a founding board member of the Alabama Bicycle Coalition.