There is a typical outcome when cars and cyclists interact: the driver is usually fine and the cyclist is usually dead or injured. In The New York Times, Daniel Duane has a look at the issue of how drivers are rarely charged with serious offences when they take out a cyclist, particularly if they are sober.
Laws do forbid reckless driving, gross negligence and vehicular manslaughter. The problem, according to Ray Thomas, a Portland, Ore., attorney who specializes in bike law, is that “jurors identify with drivers.” Convictions carry life-destroying penalties, up to six years in prison, Mr. Thomas pointed out, and jurors “just think, well, I could make the same mistake. So they don’t convict.” That’s why police officers and prosecutors don’t bother making arrests. Most cops spend their lives in cars, too, so that’s where their sympathies lie.
This is certainly the case in many of the "right hook" accidents that we have covered on TreeHugger, where the driver of the car or truck gets off lightly because he just didn't see the cyclist. There is probably truth in this; right side mirrors are small and far away and don't capture everything. Duane says we need better infrastructure, more bike lanes, to separate bikes and cars; we would add sideguards on trucks.
Duane concludes with a suggestion to cyclists:
Every time you get on a bike, from this moment forward, obey the letter of the law in every traffic exchange everywhere to help drivers (and police officers) view cyclists as predictable users of the road who deserve respect.
Normally I would rant about how the letter of the law is designed for cars, but I just spent the weekend in New York City and saw some of the most insane bike riding that I could imagine. Riding the wrong way on one way streets was common, but I saw cyclists going through red lights with six lanes of moving traffic, weaving in and out among the cars. This was suicidal. For the first time I could agree that some of these cyclists are nuts and are giving us all a bad name.
We need better laws, better bike lanes, better driver and cyclist education. And more articles like this in the New York Times.
UPDATE: I fell for this and the Bike Snob gets it right. I cannot repeat most of the post because of the language, but here is a bit:
The writer does make some good and sensible observations in this piece, but this little "proposal" obviates every single one of them. It's impossible, and in fact downright stupid, to "obey the letter of the law" on your bicycle when you find yourself in a situation where the streets and the laws are designed specifically for cars, which describes most of the United States. Moreover, it's gone way, way past the point where cyclists should need to prove to the very people who are fucking us (that's drivers and police officers) that we "deserve respect." We deserve respect for being human, and it ends there. Yet we're supposed to be good little boy scouts and girl scouts--even when it's more dangerous for us to do so--to prove we're deserving of not being killed? That's just stupid and insulting.