WNYC's Alex Goldmark has a fantastic story about bike fatalities in New York City that reveals much about our society's—and our law enforcement system's—attitudes towards cyclists. The story is built around this alarming statistic: "Last year, 21 cyclists died in vehicle crashes. But only two drivers were arrested and local district attorneys are hard pressed to cite convictions for cyclist deaths."
So why the low rate of convictions for cyclist deaths? It's complicated, and you really need to listen to the whole piece to get the full picture:
But there a couple determinants I'd like to highlight: First, the law requires that a driver be guilty of at least two traffic violations (ie, speeding and failing to halt at a stop sign) in addition to causing a fatality for a criminal charge to be brought against him. And you'd likely need witnesses to prove both. That alone lets a bunch of drivers off the hook. Then there's the fact that the Accident Investigation Squad, which handles the city's complicated traffic cases, consists of a meager 19 detectives. For the whole city. With 237 traffic fatalities last year, they are simply overworked.
Most importantly, there's this:
“We as a society have chosen to drive these big cars,” said Joe McCormack, an assistant District Attorney for the Bronx. It’s his job to prosecute traffic crimes. “And we also as a society have chosen not to criminalize every single small mistake that just has a dramatic consequence because your driving a car,” he said.McCormack's words struck me most of all, as they evidence the attitude at the root of society's preference of granting leniency to motorists in traffic fatalities.
And to me, it's crazy. Of course there are always going to be accidents in the truest sense of the words—grave misfortunes produced by wholly serendipitous events in which both parties are equally as responsible (or irresponsible). There are going to be incidents of a pedestrian carelessly jumping out into the street, leaving even a careful driver inadequate time to stop, or a cyclist blowing through a red light into oncoming traffic.
But let's be serious here: the burden of preventing traffic fatalities should fall much heavier upon those operating motor vehicles. Drivers are behind the wheel of an instrument capable of killing; not cyclists or pedestrians. When drivers are careless, they must understand that such behavior has consequences—reckless driving that results in the loss of human life seems pretty criminal to me. In fact, when the D.A. did bother to take up cyclist death cases, the responsible drivers were convicted every time.
And yet, before we hear the evidence, the most prevalent impulse of our car-dominated society is to excuse the motorist. Even in New York, one of the nation's densest, most mass transit-centric metropolitan hubs. It's not just observations culled from daily routine that lead us to believe cars are king; pop culture and a storied consumerist and historical tradition help inculcate each of us into a society where automobiles are deemed the innate rulers of the road.
This attitude has got to change—we've got to stop regarding cars as elemental forces of nature that whip out of the woodwork and claim a life here or there and, well, that's just the way it is. We've got to cease treating drivers as inhabitants of the top of the pecking order, reserving some perverse right to behave recklessly, kill, and get off without even a ticket (as 40% of those who cause traffic fatalities do). We've got to continue the arduous work of recalibrating Americans' moralistic compasses when it comes to traffic deaths.
Now—how, exactly do we do it?