Who's At Fault? Drivers Are.

By Erica C. Barnett August 31, 2009

The C is for Crank

Last week, the New York Times' Freakanomics blog reported on a Project FreeRide study showing that drivers cause fully 90 percent of accidents involving cars and cyclists. The five most frequent types of crashes, in order, are: Driver pulls into cyclist's path at a controlled intersection; driver overtakes and hits cyclist; driver opens door into cyclist's path; driver turns left into path of oncoming cyclist; driver turns right into cyclist's path.

The fact that this information is counterintuitive—Freakanomics focuses specifically on conclusions that contradict "common sense"—says  a lot about our assumptions when bikes and cars collide. Consistently, when a driver appears to be at fault, the media, blog commenters, and the police give him or her the benefit of the doubt. (He just didn't see her coming!/She was distracted/He's never had anything like this happen before!) And just as consistently, when a cyclist appears to be at fault, they're judge, jury, and executioner. (She wasn't wearing a helmet/She was riding too fast/She should have watched out for him!) That bias makes a certain kind of sense—most people think of themselves as drivers (and good ones), not cyclists. Cyclists are self-righteous environmental nuts with too much time on their hands. They're not like us. They should get back on the sidewalk/drive to work/find a bike path/watch out for me.

The problem is that the more that pro-car, anti-bike bias gets reinforced, the more prevalent it becomes. And the more cyclists get killed.

And the bias is everywhere:

1. In an August 18 story about Suzanne Scaringi, a cyclist who was hit and killed by a driver who pulled into her path, the Seattle Times focused entirely on the fact that at least the driver wasn't drunk; and besides, he felt really, really bad:
[Killer Clinton] Wilson was "devastated" by the Sept. 27, 2006, accident that claimed the life of Scaringi, a cycling enthusiast who was commuting from her West Seattle home to her job downtown at the time of the crash, said his attorney, Bob Goldsmith.

"It's been very tough on him — he's a nice man in his 50s and he had a perfect driving record" until the accident, Goldsmith said. "He cooperated with the police, his insurance company made a settlement with her family. He did everything a person is supposed to do — and the city jumps on him."

A car has the potential to be a deadly weapon. If I accidentally shot someone, police wouldn't care whether I'm a nice person, or felt really bad, or turned myself in willingly, or had ever done anything like this before. They'd lock me up and throw away the key. That they didn't do so to Wilson is an embarrassing failure of our criminal justice system.

2. The police, too, frame bike-car accidents in terms of what the cyclist was, and what the driver wasn't, doing wrong. For example in an SPD blog post about a cyclist who was hit in Wallingford by a car that turned left into his path, the SPD took pains to note that the driver "was not under the influence" of any drugs or alcohol, and that no citation had been issued, which is "standard procedure" in such cases.

In contrast, in a post about a cyclist who was hit by a car downtown, the SPD took equal pains to note that the cyclist, who had life-threatening head injuries, "may have proceeded through a red light without yielding."

(See also: Numerous stories—like this one—that note whether a cyclist in an accident was wearing a helmet, but fail to mention whether the driver was breaking the law when he or she hit the cyclist.)

3. Editorialists, meanwhile, do their best to stir up car-bike tensions. In an editorial praising a court decision overturning a law that criminalized killing or injuring a pedestrian or cyclist while committing a traffic violation, the Times editorial board wrote that the ruling was not "anti-cyclist," but "a recognition of the tensions created by traffic congestion and competition for road space."

Sitting in traffic causes tension. Getting hit by a car can cause death. A driver's frustration at having to wait two seconds more at an intersection to let a biker through is not morally equivalent to a cyclist's experience of getting mowed down because that driver decided she didn't want to wait.

As long as drivers think they're "competing" with cyclists—who, after all, clear up space on the roads for drivers and rarely get in drivers' way—the accidents will continue to happen, with impunity.
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