Sunday, April 24, 2011

We don't get to know why

The word finally came on Friday. The motorist who struck and killed William Curry in Midtown three weeks ago will not face charges.

According to news reports, police interviewed the driver and eyewitnesses who said Curry was riding against traffic in the roadway and steered into the car’s path as he crossed against a red light when the driver was turning right on a green. Whether it was a factor in the collision is unknown, but police said he was also wearing “an iPhone headset,” which is against the law.

Some riders were frustrated, and have questioned the use of Curry’s GPS data in the investigation, saying—correctly—that the margin of error is too great for a GPS to determine whether Curry was on the sidewalk or in the street. The story I read gave no indication of whether police used the GPS data to determine anything more than his direction of travel. It could have been witnesses who convinced police that he was in the roadway.

My initial reaction on Friday was disappointment. When a cyclist dies, I want someone to pay. I want to know the police did a fair and thorough investigation. So I re-read the news story a couple of times. Was the investigation solid? I can’t say for sure. But I see nothing to indicate it wasn’t. It looks like Curry made a fatal mistake.

So why do those of us who commute on bikes often think we’d feel better if we knew a bicyclist died because the motorist did something wrong?

How would it be better if the driver had been drunk, malicious, or sending text messages instead of watching the road? Is that supposed to make us feel better?

Maybe it’s because we want to make sense of tragedy. Maybe we look for martyrs. Maybe a little part of each of us hopes that, if it ever happens to us, it won’t be for no reason.

Maybe we don’t want to think we could make the same mistake.

I’ve made that kind of error. The kind that could have killed me. I’ve found myself in the path of fast-moving cars after I misjudged speed or blew a judgment call because I was in a hurry and thinking about my arrival more than my survival. So far, I’ve always been lucky enough to accelerate fast and find an escape route. Some day, I might not.

If a motorist ever takes me out for the wrong reason, I hope the police nail him. But I’ll never take comfort in knowing a bicyclist died because a car driver made stupid mistakes. Because there’s no comfort in knowing careless, drunk or homicidal motorists are on the road.

It's dangerous enough out there already.


Chris said...

I am very guilty over my years of commuting and alleycat racing of riding over aggressively in traffic at times, particularly at night when the feeling that you are the only one out riding and are therefore the owner of the roads. I'll never know what happened exactly in this tragedy, but I do know that I can always make a new effort to ride a little wiser and more defensively.

bikegirl said...

Thanks for this post, Tim. Since the accident, I've spoken w/dozens of people about safety. The most important thing I could point out to them was that the cyclists must be ever vigilant. It's up to us.

I've had close calls, too; usually when I misjudge timing or think someone sees me. All of us need to slow down & be more aware. We are responsible for our own safety.

Ginaswim said...

Well said.

Geargals said...

Hey, like I mentioned on Twitter, muni code exempts "human powered" devices from the definition of "vehicle" (Muni code 9.04.010). Under the definition of "bicycle" it specifies that it's "human powered." So, bicycles are not "vehicles" per the code, so it's not illegal to ride a bike with a headset or earbuds. Why doesn't APD know this?

Notorious T said...

G.G., I'm not aware of any such exemption, and I certainly don't see that in the code you cited. My understanding has always been as this part of the muni code states:

9.38.020 - Applicability of traffic laws to riders.

A. Every person riding a bicycle shall be granted all of the rights and shall be subject to all of the duties applicable to the driver of a vehicle by this title, except as to special regulations in this chapter, and except as to those provisions of this title which by their nature can have no application.

And I can't find any "special regulations" under Chapter 9 of the code.

corinne said...

As a cyclist and a driver I've had close calls. We need to remember that whatever we're 'driving,' if we get careless or in a hurry, someone could get hurt. And sometimes accidents just happen. If the driver really wasn't at fault, I can't imagine that does much for his/her peace of mind at this point. The cyclist died and the driver must feel somewhat to blame, whether or not Curry wasn't being careful enough.

Phil B said...

When I was 16 and a newly licensed driver I hit a child who was riding his bike. The child was fine. He walked away from the accident with no more than a bruise. I had nightmares for quite a while, ended up having a number of psychological issues to resolve, and am to this day reminded of that accident fifteen years ago on a daily basis. It was a simple moment of inattention - playing with the radio or looking over at some of my friends walking by on the side of the road. Next thing I know I am running into a child. These things affect a person.

I cannot even imagine how much more difficult it would be if that child had been seriously injured or killed.

As a cyclist I keep in mind just how easy it is for drivers to become distracted, to need to attend to something other than the road for just a split second. That is all it takes, is one tiny moment.

I feel for the driver in this case just as I feel for Wil's family. She will be haunted by that night for the rest of her life, which might just be the stiffest punishment of all.

Geargals said...

T, I hope this doesn't come across as pedantic. I just don't think APD (or anyone) should keep saying that Wil's headset was a violation of the muni code, because it's not. If any cyclists are cited for this "violation" (which seems likely, given the attention garnered by the accident and the statement from APD that the headset was illegal) they should know the following:

Check out the definitions section of the muni code. It specifically defines a bicycle as a "human powered" device which is not a "vehicle" per the definitions section. The statute in question reads "no person may drive A VEHICLE [while wearing headset]." Per the definitions, a bicycle is not a vehicle. Here are the definitions:

"Bicycle means every device propelled solely by human power upon which any person may ride, having two tandem wheels either of which is more than 14 inches in diameter. (CAC 9.04.070; AO No. 78-72)"

"Vehicle means every device in, upon or by which any person or property is or may be transported or drawn upon a street, except devices moved by human power or used exclusively upon stationary rails or tracks. (CAC 9.04.760; AO No. 78-72)"

Notorious T said...

I don't have enough vodka to survive reading the muni code, so I don't have an answer. My understanding has always been (and this is the common explanation that has always been stated by media, etc., since I moved here 15 years ago) is that Anchorage law sees a bicyclist as a pedestrian on the sidewalk, and a vehicle on the street. I've been told this even my muni officials (not cops).

I'd say you've either found a previously overlooked loophole, or there's another part of the code that offsets the exception for bikes. I just don't know.

What I do know is that A) I'd be surprised if police start writing tickets over iPods and earbuds, and B) I'd love too see someone fight such a ticket so we could get an definitive answer.