You know how you scan the news headlines and something catches your eye? Back in June, this caught mine:
Bicyclist dies in Calhoun County crash
It caught my attention because I’m a bicyclist, and because years ago I lived in Calhoun County, Iowa while I was working as a counselor in a prison for women. It’s a fairly small connection, but it was enough to get me to glance at the article.
Shawn Gosch, 47, of Onawa was riding west on Iowa Highway 7 west of Manson when a station wagon struck him from behind shortly after 8:30 a.m. Friday, the Iowa State Patrol said in a news release. Gosch was pronounced dead at Pocahontas Community Hospital.
I’ve ridden that road. Classic Iowa highway — flat, straight, moderately good shoulder, not terribly busy. It’s a pretty good cycling road unless the wind is in your face.
The article said Gosch was riding with a friend, who was also injured; the driver struck Gosch from behind, hurling him and his bike into the other cyclist.
Eric Meyer, 30, of Lake View was the driver of the station wagon. Meyer told authorities he tried to pass the bicyclists, but was unable to get around them…Iowa State Patrol Lt. Kelly Hindman said he did not expect charges to be filed, although the results of the investigation could change that.
Unable to get around them? How difficult could it be to get around a pair of cyclists riding in single file on a straight highway? They were riding west at 8:30 in the morning, so the sun wouldn’t have been in the driver’s eyes. And how could charges NOT be filed? I mean, this guy killed somebody. As a criminal defense investigator I worked cases in which people who’d done a lot less were charged with negligent homicide. I’m thinking hitting a cyclist from behind with a station wagon is pretty damned negligent.
Eventually, the State decided to press three charges against Meyer. Nothing serious, though. Unsafe passing, failure to wear a seat belt, and failure to provide proof of insurance. That’s it. One guy is dead, another guy is injured, and the driver gets charged with unsafe passing. He didn’t pass at all. He failed to pass. He hit the fucking guy. Lawdy.
Equally disturbing is the response to this news report. Many of the comments were hostile. They were dominated by complaints about cyclists slowing down traffic and suggestions that bicycles be banned from the roads. It was as if drivers were blaming the cyclist for being on the road.
That was back in June — but I tend to let a thought bounce around in my brain for a long time. As far as I can tell, there have been four Iowa cyclists killed by motor vehicles so far this year. That’s one every other month. Those are the ones who are killed; who knows how many suffer non-fatal injuries? And this is in Iowa, which is a bicycle-friendly state. If it’s this bad in Iowa, how bad can it be in the rest of the United States?
Pretty damned bad, is how bad. According to the most recent data (2012) there are about 700 bicycle-versus-motor vehicle fatalities a year. Let’s say two a week. More than 50,000 are injured. Most of the fatal accidents (around 40%, according to a recent report by League of American Bicyclists) involve cyclists being struck from behind. Very few of the fatalities result in a criminal charge. When a criminal charge IS brought against the driver, it’s most often for some sort of traffic offense.
According to a news release by the Taylor County attorney, bicyclist Gerald Williams of Lenox was struck by a vehicle driven by Jessica M. Brown and killed. The car was damaged bad enough that it couldn’t be driven. Brown reported that she thought she hit a deer. A day later, the body of Williams was found in the ditch. Brown was convicted of failure to stop at an assured clear distance on Jan. 3. She was ordered to pay a fine of $500, a statutory surcharge of $175 and court costs in the amount of $60.
That’s a total of US$735 for killing a bicyclist. Well, no — for failure to stop at an assured clear distance. Whatever the hell that means. If you ever want to kill somebody and get away with it, your best bet is to hit them from behind with a car. The odds of picking up a felony charge are slight. Of course, you may have to pay a stiff traffic fine.
These deaths aren’t murders, of course. They’re just accidents. Accidents for the most part caused by either negligence or recklessness. But here’s the thing: if you’re driving your car and you crash into another car and kill somebody, you’ll likely be charged with negligent homicide. If you kill a pedestrian, same thing. But for some reason, crashing into a bicyclist on a public road is only a traffic offense. Somebody please explain that to me.
There are lots of cycling organizations out there lobbying for stiffer punishments and more consistent enforcement of existing laws, but they’re not getting much attention or traction. It’s not that I want to see people punished; it’s that I’d like to see some equity of treatment. I’d like to see the deaths of cyclists treated as seriously as the deaths of drivers and pedestrians.
But amid all the bullshit, there’s one group — a small, rather informal group — paying their respects to the dead. Ghost Bikes.
The Ghost Bike project was started in St. Louis, Missouri in 2003, apparently after Patrick Van Der Tuin witnessed a fatal car-bike accident. He took a cheap-ass bike, painted it white, stuck a hand-painted sign on it (Cyclist Struck Here), and placed it at the location of the accident. When he saw the effect it had, he and some friends began to do the same thing at other locations where bike-car accidents had occurred in St. Louis.
Now there are more that 600 ghost bikes all over the world. That’s a lot of ghost bikes. But not nearly enough. Not nearly enough. Most people — even most cyclists — have never heard about ghost bikes. Even if they see them along the road, they don’t know what they are. To my knowledge, there are no ghost bikes in Iowa.
I may have to do something about that.