The St. Petersburg Times: Penalty for killing bicyclist is inadequate
By Dan DeWitt, Times Columnist
In Print: Sunday, February 13, 2011
Everybody seems to agree that Brad Ash was a good guy — a counselor for troubled teenagers, a high school special education teacher and, starting in 2009, a math teacher at Pasco Middle School.
So it’s a shame we can’t just honor him for his admirable life and let him rest.
But Ash, 41, died after being hit on his bicycle. He was hit from behind in October by an SUV on St. Joe Road in eastern Pasco County. That made him the seventh of 10 riders killed in the Tampa Bay area in the last half of 2010, and, even though his family doesn’t want any part of it, put him at the middle of an ongoing controversy in Florida, by far the country’s most dangerous state for bike riders.
It’s carnage out there, riders say, and the law doesn’t seem to care.
Several of the motorists in these fatal wrecks have faced only minor traffic violations. Others, including the one whose car struck and killed retired Adm. LeRoy “Roy” Collins Jr. of Tampa, were not charged at all.
“I’m sorry, I call them ‘murdered cyclists,’ ” said J. Steele Olmstead, a rider and lawyer from Tampa. “It’s just crazy to let cyclists get murdered by drivers who are texting or not paying attention.”
The investigation into Ash’s death didn’t make riders feel any better. Last week, the Dade City woman at the wheel of the GMC Yukon that struck him, Jennifer Tuttle, was issued a ticket for careless driving by the Florida Highway Patrol.
A judge can impose a harsher penalty because the crash resulted in a death — fine her as much as $1,000 and suspend her license for as long as a year. But otherwise, this is probably the same charge you’d face if you busted somebody’s taillight in a fender bender.
“It seems that just because you’re on a bicycle, you’re disposable,” said Glenn Weber, former owner of San Antonio Cyclery and an avid rider. “You’d think a life would be worth more than that.”
Yes, you would, though in Tuttle’s case you can also see what troopers are up against.
Her SUV was in a line of three vehicles heading east on St. Joe in the late afternoon on Oct. 4, said FHP spokesman Sgt. Larry Kraus.
Tuttle, then 30, turned around to talk to her 2-year-old son, who was in the back seat. Meanwhile, the car in front of her veered left to avoid Ash, who was riding, as the law requires, with traffic and on the right side of the lane.
“When she turned back around, there was Brad right in front of her,” said his father, Bud, 67, of Xenia, Ohio.
Witnesses told investigators Tuttle was driving 5 mph under the speed limit, Kraus said. Nobody saw her talking on her cell phone or sending a text, as has been rumored among riders.
After the wreck, she stayed with Ash, trying to comfort him. After he had been taken to the hospital, Bud Ash said, “she called to apologize and to share her sadness about what had happened. She was very, very distraught about the whole thing.”
We’ve all done something similar while behind the wheel, he added. She had the bad luck to hit a cyclist rather than another car, which would have left a dent. The family doesn’t even plan to sue, he said.
“Our position is, we don’t want to make money off Brad and we’re definitely not interested in dragging ourselves or anybody else through unnecessary court proceedings.”
So, what should be done?
Well, there’s a state law requiring drivers to leave at least 3 feet of clearance while passing cyclists. Kraus said it applies to drivers who are aware they are overtaking riders, which Tuttle clearly was not.
Olmstead’s interpretation is that any driver who hits a driver from behind automatically violates this law.
Sounds reasonable to me. Charge drivers like Tuttle, even though it’s just an added traffic violation, not a criminal offense with a penalty that would make drivers think twice. Enforcing the passing law would at least remind drivers of what hardly anyone seems aware of — that this law actually exists.
Weber also suggested that drivers who kill cyclists talk about their experience as a form of community service.
I like that idea. See, riders, even though they are drivers, tend to make villains of other drivers, especially ones behind the wheels of big SUVs like Tuttle’s. To a lot of drivers, cyclists are just road-hogging, spandex-wearing jerks.
Put some riders who frequent the roads of eastern Pasco and Hernando in a room with residents who get stuck behind them. Let Tuttle tell about the suffering caused by her moment of inattention.
Maybe she could play a tape of Ash picking his guitar, and show pictures of him on his bike or the magnolia tree planted by his middle school students. Maybe she could read the notes left by young people at his memorial service at New Walk Church in Zephyrhills, telling how he had helped them shake addictions or otherwise turn around their lives.
The riders would probably realize Tuttle is no criminal, no murderer. The drivers would certainly learn that Ash was no jerk.