Two things happened last week: 1) I was the victim of an inattentive motorist (while in a car), and 2) the L.A. County D.A. announced that a police officer who killed a bicyclist with his car will not face charges (depending on reports, Deputy Andrew Wood was “distracted by a mobile digital computer” and/or “texting from a personal cell phone” [while driving his patrol car] when he drifted into the bike lane, hitting and killing Milton Everett Olin, Jr.).
If you’re not outraged, you’re not paying attention (and if you’re not paying attention, you shouldn’t be driving). This affects all of us.
Mr. Olin joins thousands of others in the U.S. who are killed or seriously injured by distracted driving and poor drivers’ education and licensing standards every year. Road traffic accidents are the number one cause of death for persons ages 15-24 and the number three cause of death for persons ages 25-34 (~35000 people in 2011 — note, this number includes ALL road users — most of these deaths are people in cars).
Even when charges are filed, penalties amount to little more than a slap on the wrist, compared to the crime. A fellow cyclist commented, “There’s an open secret in America: If you want to kill someone, do it with a car. As long as you’re sober, chances are you’ll never be charged with any crime, much less manslaughter.“*
I thought this was a bit of an exaggeration until I read some of the relevant laws. Take Iowa law, for example:
The safest way for a motorist to pass a bicycle is to pass on the left side of the road or an adjacent travel lane if clear of oncoming traffic. Drivers involved in an a collision as a result of failure to maintain a safe and reasonable distance (321.281) face a $250 fine. Drivers who injure a bicyclist as a result of unsafe passing (321.299) could face a $500 fine and a 90-day license revocation. Drivers involved in a fatal crash with a bicyclist as the result of unsafe passing (321.299) could face a $1000 fine and 180-day license revocation. (source)
Meanwhile, in Ohio, a motorist who killed a young woman on a bicycle faces, “up to 90 days in jail and a $750 fine for the conviction, and her driver’s license could be suspended for up to two years.”
So, to summarize, in the state of Iowa you can KILL A PERSON with your car and the maximum penalty is $1000 and maybe having your drivers’ license revoked for 180 days? But you might want to think twice in Ohio, because they also have jail time, and, oh, you can’t drive for two whole years (what do you want to bet she gets her license reinstated sooner?). Are you kidding me??? Is that how little a person’s life is worth?
Driving is a privilege, not a right, but our system for licensing drivers is far too lax — a friend refers to the U.S. driver licensing system as a “vending machine,” which seems to have turned into, “Step right up and get your license to maim or kill.”
This “license to kill” is both too easy to obtain and too difficult to take away.
On Sunday, I was a passenger in a car that was stopped at a stop sign. As we were about to proceed through the intersection, a same-direction driver slammed into the back of the vehicle I was in. This was in broad daylight, with no adverse weather conditions. The impact was such that I’m not sure the at-fault driver realized there was a stop sign.
We call this an accident, but collision would be a better term. I can only assume that the driver “didn’t mean” to hit us, but did she NOT mean to hit us?
What I mean by that is, was the driver doing everything in her power to be attentive to the MOST IMPORTANT task you have while operating a motor vehicle?
The answer almost certainly has to be “NO.” Otherwise, how could you not notice a vehicle stopped at a stop sign in the lane directly in front of you?
In this case, I can only speculate on the cause of distraction and inattention. Given the driver’s age (and the age of her cell phone), I’m assuming she was not texting, though that certainly does not rule out other cell phone use, including dialing, answering a call, or simply talking on the phone.
Or maybe it is time for this older adult driver to hang up the keys. There’s a loaded topic — but why? If a person gets to a point where, due to impaired cognition and/or diminished reflexes, he/she is no longer able to safely operate a machine that is capable of KILLING people, why is this even a discussion?
To be continued (with action steps and ideas for change) . . .
*In addition to recent events, this post was inspired by a discussion in a Facebook group for female cyclists. Thanks, ladies!
You are preachin’ to the choir here. I just think it’s crazy that in this culture we have such a cavalier attitude toward the dangers posed by automobiles. I can’t believe that deputy wasn’t charged… that’s just outrageous! And a $1000 fine for killing someone?!? It just makes me want to cry.
We had a case here in Colorado where an elderly driver was passing illegally while speeding. He caused a head-on collision with a sheriff’s deputy on a motorcycle, and the deputy was killed. The driver was 81 years old, but they threw the book at him giving him 3 years in jail. It’s controversial because people are saying it’s like a life sentence for a driver of that age. I have mixed feelings about it – mostly because you can be pretty darned sure that if the person killed had been a regular Joe on a bicycle instead of a member of the law enforcement, the driver would have gotten off with a mere slap on the wrist.
I dunno… there seems to be the attitude that just because everybody does it (like driving distracted) it’s somehow an “accident” instead of gross negligence. And if you’re operating outside of the norm of car culture (like riding a bike) you somehow deserve whatever you get. It all makes me so mad, but in a society where 9 year old girls are given machine guns to play with, what can we expect?
I agree that the whole “everybody does it,” and, usually, get’s away with it, is a big part of the problem. Most people can see themselves as the distracted driver who caused an “accident,” so it’s hard to want stiffer enforcement and penalties when you can see yourself as the at-fault motorist. And with a long commute and/or a job that involved lots of time in the car, I can see how using the phone (or other distractions) would be tempting.
I guess I’d just like people to be more aware of the risks and consequences, because they’re pretty huge, and the person you might hurt is someone’s mother/father, son/daughter, partner or friend. Maybe if more people thought in those terms, taking that phone call or sending that text message wouldn’t be worth it.