Bike lawyers on media and police bias

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Thursday, April 10, 2008
By Yokota Fritz


In the aftermath of the Cupertino bicycle fatalities, in which law abiding cyclists were struck and killed by an apparently dozing driver, the San Francisco Chronicle published this article about law breaking scofflaw cyclists. Besides the whole disconnect from the media (law abiding cyclists die, so lets talk about those law breaking cyclists we always see), I commented briefly on one of the main "facts" of the article, which claimed the cyclists are at fault in most bike-car collisions. Can we trust the facts that are reported.

Cycling lawyer Bob Mionske addressed this article in his latest Legally Speaking column at VeloNews. He writes about the negative media bias and law enforcement bias when it comes to discussing cycling and safety.

Media bias

Erik Ryberg, the Tuscon Bike Lawyer, has also written about "carhead". Initial reporting from the Murky News about the Cupertino crash described Stevens Canyon Road and the practice of cyclist riding two-abreast on narrow, winding roads as "extremely dangerous," which had nothing at all to do with the crash. Erik notes another incident of cyclist Mark Schulz who was put in the hospital by a text messaging driver.
The first paragraph makes it sound perfectly natural to be text-messaging while driving, and, if anything, the cyclist snuck up on the driver. The second paragraph makes her sound like she was heroic in her attempts not to hit him, but had to take her licks anyway from the police officer, who had no choice but to cite her. The third paragraph minimizes her actions considerably, admonishing drivers to "be more alert" and "get better at sharing the road." I just think it's all kind of weird, given the circumstances.
I mentioned recently the death of cyclist Christopher Rock this week in Santa Cruz. The cyclist was passed by a quarry truck on a narrow street and clipped by the truck, causing him to fall and get crushed under the wheels of the trailer holding four tons of sand. So what does the initial news report say about this cyclist? "He was not wearing a helmet." Holy moly.

Police bias

Erik is also fired up about recent incident of assaults against cyclists in Tuscon. He saw some news articles from Pennsylvania, where a hit-and-run driver killed a kid pushing a bike alongside the road. The cops had their man within a day and got a confession out of them. Erik's experience in Tuscon, on the other hand, is a police force that complains that going after criminals is a waste of time.
Sgt. Tim Beam, representing the police department, insisted that if a victim cannot identify his or her assailant, there is nothing the police can do. So, if the victim is killed or if they did not get a positive look at their assailant, the police therefore do nothing.

Sgt. Beam made this statement to explain why his department does not follow up when bicyclists are assaulted, even if there are witnesses and a license plate is obtained. He repeatedly stated that such follow-up is pointless and a waste of time because no conviction could ever be obtained.
Bob Mionske
In his VeloNews column, Bob also brings up police bias against cyclists.
it appears the Chronicle's conclusions are largely drawn from its analysis of police accident reports. The problem with reaching that conclusion, however, is that the underlying data — the police accident reports — are notoriously unreliable, because of the biases inherent in them: Law enforcement failure to interview the cyclist involved, and law enforcement interpretation of safe and legal riding practices as unsafe and/or illegal.
Bob gives some examples of cyclists who are cited for "unsafe speed" in their collisions with cars.
We know that in the case of Lloyd Clarke, “unsafe speed” meant that as Lloyd was proceeding straight through an intersection in Incline Village, a 17 year old driver made a left turn, directly into his path, violating his right of way and killing him instantly. The police didn’t seem at all concerned about that illegal left turn, however. Instead, they reported that Lloyd had been riding “at a high rate of speed.”
Like Bob, I'm certainly aware of cyclists who ride illegally and unsafely, but is it an honest discussion when we're talking about motorists who break the law, and the media portrayal and police reports continue to paint victims as scofflaws in spite of their lawful riding?

With a shout out to Michael Graff, for whom I still need to provide a comments feed.


    IMPORTANT: Please post comments for this article at the new CYCLELICIOUS 2.0 version of this page.
Comments:
Bicyclists: NIGGERS of the roadway.
 
Just as with any incident, each bicycle accident my be judged by the facts. Anecdotal impressions of police and media biasis do no one any good.

In the Cupertino case, the motorist was clearly at fault and should be subject to prosecution.

In the Santa Cruz case, as far as we know, the truck driver did nothing wrong. We don't know why the bicyclist was clipped by the truck, nor why he ended up under the trailer wheels.

We do know that the bicyclist was deaf and suffered from limited abilities due to a previous brain injury. It was probably not a good idea to have been riding a bicycle on Mission Street with limited abilities to cope with the press of traffic.

Does the City government have the obligation to make everything absolutely safe for every citizen? Is this even possible?

Do bicyclists have an obligation to provide for their own safety by making wise and informed decisions about road conditions and their own abilities?

Do motorists have an obligation to be aware of all traffic on the roads and make sure their action do not bring others to harm?

The mix of these rules, rights and obligations is how we are involved in our communities to make mobility as safe as possible for everyone.
 
Hayduke, I have to disagree with your comment that:

"Anecdotal impressions of police and media biases do no one any good."

I always smart at that term "anecdotal." Anecdote is pretty much all most of us have (only God sees everything--the rest of us have anecdote), and just because something is an anecdote doesn't mean it didn't happen or that it is okay that it happened. When articles like the first one on the Cupertino incident come out, they need to be highlighted for their bias -- that's how we will reduce the bias.

Not to put too fine a point on Paul Tay's comment above, but imagine making your comment about lynchings during the Jim Crow era. I am sure you would not countenance calling those horrific incidents mere "anecdotes" and asking the victim's families and the public to dismiss them for that reason.

Luckily we bicyclists are not being lynched, but we are facing a bias that puts our safety at risk, and we owe it to ourselves to combat it.

I agree with your larger points, but it seems like you are almost asking bicyclists to "look the other way" at media bias.
 
Not at all.

Anecdotal information goes both ways, for us and against us. The only adequate response is fact-based information, derived from real data.

When the data clearly show that police and media respond to bicycle accidents in a patterned way, then we have a basis to demand redress.

Otherwise it's all guess and bluster.
 
"The only adequate response is fact-based information, derived from real data."

Right but where would this data come from? What would it even look like? Should we ignore obvious bias because nobody has yet run a peer-reviewed statistical analysis on a given sample of all U.S. newspapers?

That doesn't make sense to me.

EBR
 
The data, of course, come from police reports. There is no other source. If one is to insist at the outset that the data are skewed in some way by police bias, one must then find an independent data source.

Since there is none, we have to deal with the police data.

Notice in the original post that it is not the data that are questioned, but the interpretation of the data by newspaper reporter, bicycle advocates and the police themselves. If one reads the original articles dispassionately, it is clear that the data are not even examined; it is the interpretations of the data that are in question.

In some cases, "fault" is very clear, in other cases it is equivocal. But making conclusive statements, such as those in the bike lawyer article, does nothing to help either side of the issue.

We know that bicyclists engage in illegal and unsafe bicycling practices, just as we know that motorists fail to take bicyclists seriously on the roads.

Our task is not to cast stones at one another and shout that the other is to blame. Our task is ride safely and conscientiously on roads and paths, providing the example of responsible bicycle riding practice, while being an increasing presence on our roads and highways.
 
Hayduke, this whole article that we are commenting on is about media bias. You seem to say that an individual instance of media bias is "anecdotal" and therefore should be passed over. Maybe that isn't what you meant when you said "anecdotal impressions of police and media biases do no one any good," but that's how I took it.

I agree that the accidents themselves need to be investigated critically. But media reporting can often be shown to be biased with little need to refer to a police report.

And as someone who reads a whole lot of police reports, I can tell you that you can pretty quickly find bias in those, too. I'd be happy to show you some obvious examples of it.

EBR
 
Re: "high rate of speed"
It may be unreasonable, but not always wrong to blame the cyclist in some of these cases. Some municipalities have absurd laws on the books regarding bicycle operation. Albany NY has a bicycle speed limit of 8mph and requires cyclists to ring bells when approaching all intersections.
 
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