In 2009, Craig Munro was out for revenge after he saw his lover Brendan Gannaway kiss a woman. When Munro saw Gannaway biking to work outside of Brisbane, Queensland Australia, Munro hit the gas and plowed into Gannaway and his bike. Munro was arrested, found guilty and sentenced to four years in prison.
In this Australian example, Munro was arrested, charged and pled guilty to “acts intended to cause grievous bodily harm.”
Munro seems to have regretted his action — he called an ambulance, turned himself in to police and confessed his actions after his rage wore off and he realized that he could have killed somebody through his actions.
In the Bahamas, a 44 year old man used his Pontiac to intentionally run over and murder a cyclist. There, the alleged killer was seen chasing the victim through the streets. Police arrested the assailant for murder after he crashed while fleeing the scene of the crime.
But what happens if the perpetrator is a cold hearted killer with no remorse and no witnesses? Can a car really be used as a murder weapon, and can the murderer get away with it?
A common observation among cyclists is that if you want to get away with murder, use your car as the murder weapon. The crime often receives only cursory investigation as “just an accident.” Unless gross negligence by the driver is involved (driving under chemical influence, for example), the driver often gets away with no more than a traffic citation.
University of Alberta associate professor of Public Health J. Peter Rothe researched just this topic for his book Driven to Kill: Vehicles As Weapons. He writes about intentional violence of all types aided by automobile. A central theme of this book, according to Dr Rothe, is that “police investigations are not engaged on the assumption that a driver deliberately uses his vehicle as a weapon for maiming or killing a pedestrian, cyclist, or other roadway users.”
“Stress! Vengeance! Impatience! Entitlement! Aggression! Mood! are prominent factors,” in traffic crashes, says Rothe, but accident investigations still focus on engineering and mechanical factors rather than the human element.
He has a chapter on violence against cyclists in particular, violence which is motivated by a motorist’s feeling of entitlement to the road and irritation that cyclists don’t pay a mythical “road tax” amongst other imagined sins and shortcomings. “A ‘might is right’ mentality erupts in some drivers,” Rothe writes, “that pushes them to discipline [cyclists], to teach them a lesson, which sometimes means steering their cars into bikes, pulling into the bikers paths, or purposely swerving into marked bike lanes.”
In a chapter on road rage, he uses the example of bike messenger Tom McBride in Chicago. Carnell Fitzpatrick carelessly cut across Tom’s path; Tom swerved to avoid death and slapped Fitzpatrick’s car hood. Since Fitzpatrick failed to kill Tom the first time around, he tried a little harder by ramming Tom and running him over. Fitzpatrick’s front license plate fell off of the Chevy Tahoe, and McBride was able to hide the plate under his body before he perished. In spite of the plate and witness statements, Chicago prosecutors had to be pressured by local cyclists to bring the case to trial. Although the main witness who saw and described Fitzpatrick’s actions was threatened if he testified in court, Fitzpatrick was convicted of murder in a jury trial and sentenced to 45 years in prison.
Rothe covers much more than just car vs bike and road rage incidents in his book. He has a section devoted entirely to what he calls the “Immediate Zone” — the murderer plans and uses his car as the murder weapon. “The car,” he prosaically writes, “makes direct contact with a victim.”
Rothe doesn’t set out to demonize automobiles in his book, but to point out that automotive violence is a reflection of our violent culture. Instead of seeing vehicular violence as a normal, naturally occurring part of our transportation infrastructure, he wants to reframe it as a public health issue.
Book: Driven to Kill: Vehicles As Weapons by J. Peter Rothe. 2008.