Dr. Christoper T. Thompson, a.k.a. “The Road Rage Doctor,” is sentenced to five years in prison for seriously injuring two cyclists in Los Angeles.
By Bob Mionske
Too often, cyclists receive no justice for the violence they encounter on the roads. But Friday, a closely-watched chapter in anti-cyclist violence came to a close as Dr. Christopher T. Thompson was sentenced to five years in prison for his crimes. Seventeen months ago, two cyclists out for a Fourth of July ride encountered the more sinister variety in the tony Brentwood neighborhood of Los Angeles. It was the road rage incident heard ‘round the cycling world, and it began as so many anti-cyclist road rage incidents do, with the driver provoking the cyclists into responding to his verbal assault so he could “justify” using his vehicle to “teach them a lesson.” As we would all later learn, this incident was not the first time the driver, Dr. Thompson, had provoked cyclists into “justifying” his anti-cyclist wrath. In fact, Thompson had a history of using his vehicle to teach cyclists a lesson.
With Thompson’s sentencing, cyclists feel that, for once, this virulent variety of violence they are regularly subjected to has been taken seriously. For that, the Los Angeles District Attorney’s office is to be commended. But we should be careful not to read too much into the outcome of this case; I believe this was a stand-alone case, and does not represent some sort of sea change in the way that the Justice system responds to vigilante violence against law-abiding cyclists. We should remember that the same District Attorney’s office showed little interest in prosecuting the first reported assault; Dr. Thompson was only brought to justice after repeated assaults against cyclists, culminating in the assault that hospitalized his last two victims and resulted in his arrest.
In fact, at trial there were five cyclists testifying about three separate assaults. That testimony, along with Thompson’s own words—“I wanted to teach them a lesson”—and his ludicrous defense that he only wanted to take a photograph, combined to lead to his conviction. Although the incident itself wasn’t all that unique, everything that happened afterwards was unique, and may not be repeated. Still, drivers who enforce some imaginary version of the vehicle code by assaulting law-abiding cyclists tend to do so repeatedly. As we have now seen, Thompson attempted to convince us that it was all just “an unfortunate accident.” This was a textbook case of a driver using “plausible deniability” to cover up his violent assaults against cyclists—but because the cyclists Thompson assaulted had reported him to law enforcement, there was a paper trail of prior behavior that undermined his claims of innocence. It is precisely for this reason that I regularly advise cyclists to report these incidents to police. One real sea change will be when law enforcement and prosecutors begin taking each report seriously, rather than waiting until serious injuries, or worse, have been inflicted.
But the most important change must occur within each of us, because when tempers flare on the road, nobody wins. To enable that change to take place, we need introspection and dialogue, and that means a willingness to listen, and to learn. The roads are the commons, and their use is an ancient right for all—except for motorists. They are allowed by the state to use the roads, and far too often, that revocable privilege is misinterpreted by motorists as a grant of some sort of “superior” right to the road. Still, it is only a minority of motorists who violently “enforce” their mistaken beliefs about things like who has a right to use the roads, and what the Vehicle Code does and doesn’t say. More often, cyclists are endangered by motorists who are simply too distracted, or otherwise too careless, to even notice the cyclist whose life they have just endangered.
And just as cyclists notice—and remember—the occasional dangerous motorist, it is the occasional rude cyclist that motorists notice and remember. It is these minority of bad actors on the road that lead to much of the resentment towards each other. However, the real issue here is not “scofflaw cyclists,” or “motorists hell-bent on killing cyclists,” it is competition for the limited resource of space on the road. And for that, motorists owe a debt of gratitude to cyclists. First, every cyclist on the road represents one less car contributing to congestion. Yes, sometimes motorists will be slowed for a few seconds, but in the larger picture, those few seconds will be offset by the time they save for every car that is not on the road ahead of them. Second, every cyclist on the road represents one less car consuming gasoline, and one less car contributing to air pollution and climate change. Finally, every cyclist on the road represents less wear and tear on the roads. These are benefits that accrue directly to all motorists in the form of less demand for limited resources, less demand for regulation of driving, and less demand for our limited tax dollars. Instead of attempting to harass cyclists off the road and back into their cars, motorists should be thanking cyclists for the benefits they provide—and they can do that by simply respecting cyclists’ need for a safe space on the road.
And that is also where our state and city officials can do their part to make the necessary changes. Cyclists need more than lip service to lofty-sounding platitudes—they need real world changes implemented on the ground. The Los Angeles Bicycle Plan is currently being circulated for review, and Los Angeles cyclists have deemed it so inadequate that they have formed their own committee to propose a Bicycle Plan that would meet their actual needs. Instead of shunting them aside and rubber-stamping an inadequate plan, now is the time for elected officials to put in place—and implement—a plan that will actually create a safe space for cyclists on Los Angeles roads. This is the lesson from the great cycling cities of the world—if you make cycling feel safe for women and children, cycling will increase. That fact alone speaks to the great pent up demand for cycling that isn’t being met by the status quo.
At Dr. Thompson’s sentencing, Superior Court Judge Scott T. Millington spoke to this need for local governments to provide for cyclists’ safety. We already know that when our road infrastructure is biased towards the automobile, competition for the limited resource of that road space ensues, and conflict erupts. We already know that when the laws, and their enforcement, are biased towards the automobile, cyclists feel no stake in the system, and some act out accordingly. We already know that when we lack adequate laws to protect all who travel on our public rights of way, and lack adequate enforcement of the laws we do have, drivers correctly perceive that there are no consequences for their negligent behavior—and act accordingly.
Clearly, it’s time for some real leadership on making our commons safer for all who use them. Although Judge Millington was speaking directly to Los Angeles when he called for improved protection for cyclists, this isn’t just a Los Angeles issue—it’s an issue everywhere. Is Los Angeles ready to provide that leadership? Is your community ready?
(Research and drafting provided by Rick Bernardi, J.D.)