Bernal Writer Wonders, “Is It O.K. to Kill Cyclists?”


Writer Dan Duane is a proud resident of Greater Cortlandia, and in last Sunday’s New York Times, he wrote a provocative essay about imbalances in the US legal system that allow many motorists to face few penalties when collisions with bicyclists occur.

Cycling has become a much more popular way to get around town, yet as Neighbor Dan writes:

The social and legal culture of the American road, not to mention the road itself, hasn’t caught up. Laws in most states do give bicycles full access to the road, but very few roads are designed to accommodate bicycles, and the speed and mass differentials — bikes sometimes slow traffic, only cyclists have much to fear from a crash — make sharing the road difficult to absorb at an emotional level. Nor does it help that many cyclists do ignore traffic laws. Every time I drive my car through San Francisco, I see cyclists running stop signs like immortal, entitled fools. So I understand the impulse to see cyclists as recreational risk takers who deserve their fate.

But studies performed in Arizona, Minnesota and Hawaii suggest that drivers are at fault in more than half of cycling fatalities. And there is something undeniably screwy about a justice system that makes it de facto legal to kill people, even when it is clearly your fault, as long you’re driving a car and the victim is on a bike and you’re not obviously drunk and don’t flee the scene. When two cars crash, everybody agrees that one of the two drivers may well be to blame; cops consider it their job to gather evidence toward that determination. But when a car hits a bike, it’s like there’s a collective cultural impulse to say, “Oh, well, accidents happen.” If your 13-year-old daughter bikes to school tomorrow inside a freshly painted bike lane, and a driver runs a stop sign and kills her and then says to the cop, “Gee, I so totally did not mean to do that,” that will most likely be good enough.

“We do not know of a single case of a cyclist fatality in which the driver was prosecuted, except for D.U.I. or hit-and-run,” Leah Shahum, the executive director of the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition, told me.

IMAGE: Art bike in Bernal Heights, by Telstar Logistics

30 thoughts on “Bernal Writer Wonders, “Is It O.K. to Kill Cyclists?”

    • What’s your point? The Bucchere incident was a tragedy and is inexcusable, but it has nothing to do with the discussion at hand, which is the de facto legality of killing people on bikes if you happen to be driving. Bucchere plead guilty to manslaughter (and was treated leniently by the court). People running over cyclists in their vehicles, such as Amelie Le Moullac’s murderer, DON’T EVEN GET CITED. God forbid their insurance goes up!

      “Le Moullac died at San Francisco General Hospital. The truck driver stayed at the scene and was not cited, said police spokeswoman Officer Tracy Turner.”

      Homicide is homicide, and it’s time to start prosecuting that way.

      • This “all cars are evil” mentality isn’t working for you. You think that driver was happy to kill the bike rider? Have a little empathy. It was a terrible tragedy. But there is a lot more to it. The pedestrian bulb out on the corner where she was killed forces bike riders into a much more narrow lane; and large vehicles can’t start their right turns from all the way to the right because if they did they’d run over the bump out.

        A lot of stuff that has been done for pedestrian safety reasons has made it more dangerous for bikes and cars to be on the same streets together.

        Drivers do not expect to be passed on the right. Perhaps we should change the law so that riders in the bike lanes can’t pass cars in the right-most lanes. That would certainly make a tragedy like what happened to Le Moullac much more unlikely.

  1. I really am for bicycling. It’s healthy and doesn’t pollute. The problem for me as an older person is that I cannot pedal without wrecking my knees so biking is out for me. On the other hand it is difficult (and sometimes terrifying) when a bike is rolling along six inches from my front fender even with a bike lane. I make every effort to steer clear of bicyclists but the possibility of an accident is always very high, and as you say, a few riders seem to operate by their own personal driving code. Some even seem to invite collision. The result of a accident for me would be a fine and jail sentence; the biker would be spread across the pavement. I could only wish for routes which totally separate bikes and motorized vehicles. They do that in Europe.

    • “The result of a accident for me would be a fine and jail sentence”

      I don’t think you read the article. Unless you have a proclivity for driving drunk, you would not even get a ticket.

      But were that true, you would only get a fine or a jail sentence if you were at fault. Are you implying that in a collision you would be at fault? Maybe you need to evaluate your driving the same way you evaluate your knees.

  2. I don’t want to kill a cyclist, but sometimes I see them zooming from out of nowhere and not observing stop signs and I can’t help but have angry thoughts towards them. What really gets me is when you see these guys riding their their bikes at night (w/o a helmet of course) wearing all dark colors at night, so they are completely invisible!!! Cyclists need to be wearing helmets and observing traffic laws. Otherwise they are asking for an accident. So is it just not cool to wear a helmet? Well dead isn’t cool either. 😦

  3. You lost me at “I don’t want to kill a cyclist, but”. I’ve never seen a motorist in SF come to a complete stop at a stop sign unless there was cross traffic present.

    • But they don’t blow through the intersection at full speed either, which many bike riders do. When I walk, I always have one or two cyclists blow right by my in crosswalks. They don’t even slow down. (There are cyclists who do; and I don’t expect them to come to a stop, just slow down and yield to the pedestrian, which is what I do when I ride my bike.)

  4. Hi anon – perhaps I should clarify then: I don’t want to kill a cyclist but I am afraid that the way some cyclists navigate the streets I may hit one by accident. Some cyclists are asking to get hit by their lack of concern for traffic laws. Like they are invincible. And yes, that makes me angry because if I kill a cyclist because of their stupidity that will be on my conscience for the rest of my life! I agree that cars don’t always stop completely at stop signs (that puts everyone in danger), but I see more cyclists blazing through stop signs on a regular basis than cars. Regardless – All entities with wheels (ranging from sedans, to semi trucks, smart cars and bicycles) should be observing traffic laws if they are on paved roads. I don’t see this as controversial.

  5. Natanya, I’m sure you don’t want to kill anybody, and that’s great. But please, enough with the red herrings! Do you think it mattered that Josh Alper was wearing his helmet and peacefully riding along in the bike lane when he was killed on Nov. 2 in Santa Cruz by a driver who fell asleep?

    (related: “On Monday afternoon, CHP Officer Trevor Smith said the driver was not arrested, and it will be up to the Santa Cruz County District Attorney’s Office to determine if any charges will be filed.”)

    Do you think it mattered that Amelie Le Moullac was wearing a helmet when she was killed by a truck on Folsom/6th on Aug. 14th?

    Do you think it mattered that former Amazon CFO Joy Covey was wearing a helmet when she was killed in Woodside by a minivan on Sept. 18th?

    The issue here — and Duane does a good job illustrating this point while ultimately drawing silly conclusions — is that IT’S EFFECTIVELY LEGAL TO MURDER PEOPLE IN THE UNITED STATES IF YOU ARE DRIVING A CAR. Please, take the time to read this Economist article to understand how our justice system is so deeply, deeply flawed compared to, for example, The Netherlands’ with regard to this issue:

    Want to read a proper dressing-down of Duane’s article? Here you go:


  6. I agree with this comment. This is the reason Critical Mass was started. The idea of Critical Mass goes back to China where there aren’t a lot of traffic signals in major intersections. Pedestrians and cyclists would wait until a critical mass of them were able to outnumber the cars and push into the street to cross.

    Truly, the only way to make sure that bicyclists aren’t hurt by errant drivers is to promote and use the critical mass idea. I’m a bicyclist, but I’m terrified to ride on most streets in SF. If I’m going to ride somewhere I’ll pack the bike in my vehicle and drive it somewhere, and ride on a dedicated street or bike path. THAT is how worried I am about getting hit by a car.

    I agree that motorists (I’m also a motorist) aren’t held accountable. It’s easy for motorists to blame the cyclist for the accident because they “didn’t see them”, or the cyclist “came out of nowhere”. But as a driver with many miles of experience, it’s no excuse to say you “didn’t see them”. Drivers must be attentive at ALL times.

    As a pedestrian (I’m also one of those, too), I was nearly hit the other night at 25th and Mission as I was crossing the street. The cab driver (Arrow Checker) was inching into the crosswalk where I was crossing, looking elsewhere. As I saw him inching, I yelled at him about paying attention, and he cursed me out. He said, “I’m watching!” I told him he was looking elsewhere and moving his cab. He cursed at me in Arabic or Farsi (I’m not sure which) and as soon as I was past him, he gunned his engine as if to make up for lost time or to show me what a “man” he was or something.

    My conclusion is that it seems every kind of traveler in SF, whether they be motorist, ped, or cyclist, seems to have a sense of entitlement rather than a desire to look out for the other person and try to live harmoniously.

    This is why I try to diffuse people’s desire to call 911 or otherwise complain because all it does is increase the antagonism and nastiness rather than abate it.

    –david kaye

    • You are confusing manslaughter and murder. Murder is the unlawful premeditated killing of one human being by another.

  7. Driving to work one day last month up and over the hill from Cortland taking Nevada I was scared to death by a biker who failed to stop at the top of the hill before continuing down via Folsom, speeding past me like he’s driving a race car, clearly dying (almost literally) to get to work. When we met up at Ceaser Chavez at the light, I rolled down my window and yelled him to pay attention! He almost ruined both our days had I hit him. I proceeded down Folsom downtown and continued to notice how many bikers don’t even bother to stop at stop signs along the way. It’s totally lame. Bernal bikers! pay attention! don’t ruin both our days!

    • There was actually a proposal to the Board of Supes (by Campos?) to remove the requirement that cyclists stop at stop signs. To me this would set a terrible precedent. Already it’s hard to drive down Harrison in the Mission because of cyclists weaving in and out of traffic and failing to stop or yield at intersections. This is especially brutal at Harrison and 14th, 15th, and 16th.

      I think the police should go back to ticketing them.

      I’m also wondering if bicyclists should be licensed, requiring them to go through training and a licensing procedure just as a driver is required to do. After all, drivers are required to know the rules of the road and are tested on them, but not cyclists.

      This might also cut way back on stolen bikes, and here’s how: Issue a plate for the cyclist that attaches to the bike under the seat so that it’s visible the way a car license plate is. However, this would be a license for the cyclist, not the bike. All bikes ridden on public streets in SF would be required to have license plates attached to them. The police could pull over bikes without plates.

      I think this idea would cut down on stolen bikes because a bike would always have to have a license plate whenever on the public streets, thus removing the owner’s identity from the bike would instantly make the police and the public aware that the bike was stolen, and subject the user to being ticketed.

      –david kaye

      • I applaud you and your ideas. There can only be a safe coexistence if we (auto drivers, taxi drivers, bus drivers, cyclists, motorcyclists, and pedestrians) all follow the SAME rules of the road.

      • What’s interesting is that there are some freeways in California where cyclists are allowed to ride. The one that comes to mind first is 101 north of Arcata. The reason is that there is no other way to go north to Crescent City except via the freeway. In fact, Caltrans ALLOWS bicycles on freeways unless they are prohibited by local jurisdictions. As Caltrans says, there are no signs saying “Bicycles OK”, but when they are prohibited signs must be erected saying “Bicycles Prohibited” or “Bicycles Must Exit”.

      • David – I think your understanding is a little bit off, I think Caltrans has the final say. There is a bridge in Healdsburg on Healdsburg Avenue that is slated to be closed for construction next year. The only other crossing of the Russian River is on US-101. Cyclists have asked about having US-101 access, and the story I have been told is that it is up to Caltrans but that Caltrans will take local input. Sadly the local input has been negative from the Healdsburg City Council, including at least one former cop who told a story of all the awful accidents on US-101 there. One wonders why cars aren’t banned if they keep getting into accidents there. Meanwhile, the stretch of Old Redwood where the bridge is has a 50 MPH speed limit and a bike lane – which is narrower than the shoulder on US-101 in that area.

      • I actually do bike daily in SF and have done so for the past 10 years.

        When a bike approaches a stop sign, they could stop but it’s perfectly safe to slow down and yield as well. People on bikes have a much wider range of visibility than they do when they are driving. If they are going slow enough, they are more than able to give others the right of way when legally required to do so.

        Red lights on the other hand can safely be treated as a stop sign.

        I agree that cyclists need to behave predictably but applying the exact same laws to them as to cars doesn’t make sense. Motorcyclists have different rules applying to them because it makes sense to in order to keep those riders safe.

  8. I suspect many of the cyclists that inspire anger are following a some variant of the Idaho stop ( I’m a cyclist, hold a valid driver’s license, and if it is safe to do so will frequently roll through a stop sign. What I don’t know is if anyone can tell that I slowed down first. Conservation of momentum is so much more important to someone on a bike than in a car (or on a motorcycle) and car-oriented traffic systems don’t account for that.

  9. The requirement for driving is to not drive too fast for conditions. It is never to drive as fast as you want or the posted speed limit and then make excuses for why that is OK. The evidence, repeated hundreds of thousands of time a year and fatally tens of thousands of times a year, is that humans can not operate motor vehicals safely. They can not operate them safely around pedestrians, they can not operate them safely around bicyclists, they can not operate them safetly around other cars, they can not operate them safely when they are the only car on the road. Problem is not going to be solved by pointing blame at a few vulnerable road users or focusing law enforcement on those users.

  10. To fully utilize your logic….
    Motorcycles deaths would get drivers convicted as well as smart cars and small economy cars deaths from a larger vehicle.
    Riding a bicycle is a choice, justice is dealt in the civil courts

  11. When sharing the road with 2 ton vehicles, slowing down and living to see tomorrow will always be a better option than being “right” and dead.

    As a long-time motorcyclist, I always leave the house with a twinge of paranoia that everyone on the road is out to kill me and I’m invisible. Throwing a match on the pyre of fate by not following the rules of the bigger (more powerful) vehicles is a recipe for disaster.

  12. I think the point of the article is that in most collisions that involve two motor vehicles and a death someone is charged whereas this is rarely if ever the case when it is a motor vehicle versus a bicycle. If justice were to be left to the civil courts in all automotive accidents I suspect there’d be outrage. As to choice, you choose to drive a car, others choose to ride a bike or walk. Just because you have the means to choose an automobile doesn’t mean everyone does cars are a luxury and a toy like anything else.

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