Last night, Ted and I discussed this unlikely report of a cyclist’s accidental death. The cyclist, 20 year old Justin Price, was riding to work in the shoulder when, according to witnesses, he suddenly swerved into the side of a passing tractor trailer. Although the truck driver, Kerry Williams, heroically tried to avoid Price, Price hit the truck. Price bounced off of the side of the truck, but he apparently didn’t have enough — police say Price swerved back to the truck again, after which he, sadly, perished after he ended up under the trailer.
Anybody who reads news accounts of road cycling traffic collisions frequently find mention of these inexplicable “suicide swerves,” in which the hapless driver is just driving along when that maniac on a bike inexplicably swerves right into the car.
Those who share the road with traffic realize what probably happened: the motorist passed with inches to spare, or they move over a little to pass but then merge right into the cyclist’s space on the road before the pass is complete. In either case, the results can be tragic for the cyclist, even if the cyclist did everything right.
Amelie Le Moullac was killed two weeks ago when, according to those with the windshield perpsective, she “swerved” into the side of a truck in San Francisco. The presumption of guilt on the cyclist has prompted local bike advocates heap heavy criticism on the SFPD for their cursory investigation. In Santa Cruz, the police reported a cyclist swerved into a passing gravel truck in 2007, when the accident reconstruction for the subsequent civil suit showed the truck driver likely hit the cyclist in this fatal collision.
Because these reports putting blame on the cyclist are so common, many people — Ted and I included — sardonically refer to these reports as a “suicide swerve.” A subset of these — the infamous “Single Witness Suicide Swerve” or SWSS — comes from the days of Usenet and possibly predates even that. The SWSS refers to a crash with a single surviving witness — the driver of the motor vehicle — who swears to a credulous investigator that the cyclist just swerved right in front of the driver. The presumption of guilt on the cyclist is reflected even in our traffic collision statistics, which show a majority of bike-vs-car collisions are caused by the cyclist.
During this online discussion, we discovered some people take exception to our use of the word “suicide.” Suicide is, after all, a serious and sensitive topic for many people, and some thought the term was used as click bait. We explained the usage, however, and our friends understood. Most cyclists probably don’t have a death wish, but just want to get from point A to B. The idea that cyclists intentionally swerve into the sides of passing trucks is, frankly, offensive, yet many investigators seem to believe that’s how we behave.
Yes, there’s stupid behavior that will kill you, and I’ve seen plenty of it in my part of California. I’ve watched cyclists try to squeeze into a too small space on the road, and I’ve occasionally been the idiot party myself, both on bike and in the car. I’d wager, however, that many “swerves into traffic” are instances where a passing driver doesn’t have room to pass, or passes with only inches to spare while expecting superhuman agility on the part of the cyclist to hold his line.
I applaud the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition demands for better investigations of bicycle fatalities in their city.