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Can we prevent bike wrecks with no consistent criminal penalty?

An editorial called “Is It O.K. to Kill Cyclists?” by a biking enthusiast and contributing editor for the lifestyle and fitness magazine Men’s Journal was recently published in the New York Times. Considering that the competition between bicyclists and motorists for road space, it’s no surprise the article struck a nerve with people on all sides of the debate.

The author did make an important if controversial point, however. Except in cases involving drunk drivers, he claims, there seems to be no reliable and serious criminal penalty when car and truck drivers cause serious or even fatal bike accidents on our nation’s roadways.

Most of his data is either anecdotal or from his home state, but it’s fair to say the experience carries over to other cities. In New York, for example, every motorist is required to “exercise due care to avoid colliding with any bicyclist.” Yet, failure to exercise due care which causes a serious injury to a bicyclist results in a traffic infraction punishable by only 15 days in jail at most, plus, a fine of up to $350 and mandatory participation in a motor vehicle accident prevention course.

That infraction becomes a misdemeanor if the driver has been convicted of the same offense in the previous five years. More serious penalties could, of course, result in fatal accidents and those caused by reckless or drunk driving.

Would a tougher criminal penalty help? One California bike law attorney isn’t sure. Jurors can often imagine making the same mistake as the accused, so they often don’t convict even in clear cases. If that’s true, tougher laws might simply encourage sympathetic juries to acquit rather than impose what they see as unduly harsh penalties.

Many cities are now working to change the odds for bikers by building bike lanes that are separated from traffic and passing Vulnerable User laws which require more legal responsibility for drivers who hit bikers. That’s good news, but a culture shift may be needed.

We can all do more to cut down on serious and fatal bike accidents. Both motorists and bikers can do better at obeying the existing laws, and at not transferring anger over individual incidents into fury at the other group. We can hold those responsible for traffic accidents strictly accountable through civil lawsuits.

Source: The New York Times, “Is It O.K. to Kill Cyclists?” Daniel Duane, Men’s Journal, Nov. 9, 2013

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