Media Bias

Stories in the media tend to exaggerate the dangerousness of cycling. There is also a general undertone that motorists who hurt/kill cyclists tend to “get away with it”. Both these concepts have a certain element of truth, of course, but ignore the context of traffic generally. Traffic fatalities are the leading cause of accidental death in the United States — regardless of cyclist fatalities. By far the largest number of fatalities are motor-vehicle drivers and occupants. There is far more motor-vehicle traffic so this is to be expected. With regard to “getting away with it”: most negligent motorists (excepting DUI) get away with it, without regard to what it is they killed; be it a another driver, another occupant, motorcyclist, pedestrian or cyclist.

A long article in the Jan/Feb 2008 isssue of Bicycling Magazine: Broken by David Darlington highlights, as I guess would have to be expected, bike-car crashes. He examines perhaps a half-dozen cases of serious injury or fatalities in California. It illustrates quite simply that if a driver is DUI and hurts/kills someone they will certainly face serious consequences. And conversely if a driver is not DUI there will be virtually or actually no consequence. In one of the cases he details, motorist Cathi Hamer seriously injured Ross Dillon. The situation was quite similar to motorist Clinton Cabanillas who killed Don Anselmo, Nov 4, 2004 on Pecos Road in the Ahwatukee area of Phoenix. In both cases the motorist was under-insured (the vehicle Cabanillas was driving was un-insured), and in both cases the motorist was not only not charged but for whatever reason received no citation whatsoever:

‘The road there is straight and the shoulder is wide,’ … for no apparent reason, her car was starting to drift to the right, gradually entering the bike lane behind a cyclist up the road.

…(police concluded) it was just an accident. Hamer was distracted-she wasn’t impaired. Because she hadn’t killed Dillon, she couldn’t be charged with manslaughter, and because she wasn’t weaving or braking erratically, she couldn’t be charged with reckless driving. There was never any argument about who was at fault;

Cathie Hamer’s $25,000 liability insurance had likely been used up by Ross’s emergency care… They later got a note from Hamer, “obviously concocted by her attorney,” to avoid any admission of guilt, says Betsy (Dillon).

Cathie Hamer became a mother earlier this year. She was never charged with any driving infraction, fined, ordered to perform community service, or even required to attend traffic school for running into Dillon.

There is also a claim in one of the many sidebars, Is It Getting Worse?, accompanying the main article that the rate of cycling fatalities has increased over the 10 year period 1995-2005. It is based on marketing survey information from the National Sporting Goods Association (NSGA). I don’t have any idea whether or not they have a valid methodology, or even if it were, I don’t have any idea if the conclusion is correct.

In an article in TucsonWeekly about Jean Gorman, whose son was killed by a motorist: “According to the Institute for Traffic Safety Analysis, less than 5 percent of drivers who kill bicyclists and pedestrians are charged with manslaughter or homicide. That percentage is about the same for Tucson”. This sentiment seems to appears frequently in articles about bicycle safety. The missing link is what is the equivalent percentage of (much larger number) of drivers who kill other motorists? I would be surprised if it were higher, and would guess it is about the same — in other words, prosecutors and police aren’t picking on cyclists. They are doing an equally bad job with everybody. The last sentence is, I admit, unfair — but then this is too important an issue to let everybody just pass the buck.

Here’s a typical story from our local paper: Cyclists want more driver educationKelsey Hazlewood, The Arizona Republic, Sept. 20, 2007. It begins:

“Since an inattentive truck driver killed cyclist Don Anselmo as he rode along Pecos Road in 2004… Many motorists claim that bikes are being ridden too far out in the roadways….George Esahak-Gage and his wife Jane were struck by a vehicle in November 2006 as they passed over Interstate 10 on Chandler Boulevard”

The reasonable reader would conclude that these cyclists were struck because they were riding “too far out in the roadway”. But in fact that was not a factor in either case. Anselmo was riding along Pecos ON THE SHOULDER (and was struck BY AN UNREGISTERED, UNINSURED VEHICLE). The Esahak-Gages were struck AT AN INTERSECTION BY AN UNLICENSED, RED LIGHT RUNNER traveling orthogonally to them.

It is going on three years now since Don Anselmo was killed (he was killed Nov 2004), and besides the Eschak-Gage incident, there have been few if any other serious bicycle collisions in Ahwatukee. (the recent Karen Burns / Viper incident may qualify as serious) I know, serious is a nebulous term.

I have to go way back to find another fatality: in March 2001 a 9-year-old boy, Jase Ambrose, was killed in a ride-out from a stop sign onto Liberty lane (at 17th street). Very tragic; but straightforward in terms of negligence. And obviously not having anything to do overtaking, or lane positioning. As far as I know this and the Anselmo are the only two cyclist fatalities in Ahwatukee EVER. [Ahwautkee is a section of Phoenix, Arizona. It comprises a population of perhaps 75,000. It is relatively new, being built mainly between the 1970’s and was mostly built-out by the mid 1990’s]