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Editorial: 30 days in prison is not enough for killing a cyclist by driving recklessly

Is this how legislators view cyclists?

Editor’s Note:  A major goal of WBE  is to report the news in a “positive” manner. This editorial breaks from that tradition, but no one can be positive all the time.

Many car drivers, isolated in their protective steel boxes, fail to realize how dangerous their high-speed heavy vehicles are.  They drive in a way that takes liberties with the lives of those around them in an effort to save time, and prioritize their promptness over the safety of others.  We live in a culture in which driving a car is not considered dangerous – a culture that is reinforced by weak laws and the devaluing of the lives of people who choose not to drive.

Many of us have experienced it:  you are riding your are bike out on a nice country road and suddenly you see two cars heading toward you, side by side.  A driver has decided to pass another car and doesn’t care that you are in the way, or thinks that they can make it without hitting you. The driver has decided that saving a few minutes is more important than the possibility of ending your life.

This is what happened on February 10th when 38-year-old driver Tina Marie Baker tried to pass a car on Highway 99 south of Creswell, sideswiped an oncoming vehicle, and killed cyclist Johnny Cayton in a head-on collision. She was going 15 mph over the speed limit (70mph) and later admitted to being in a hurry and driving recklessly. Her punishment for prioritizing 30 seconds of her life over Cayton’s safety was 30 days in jail, probation, and losing her license for 8 years.  I’ve known people who’ve received 30 days in jail for shoplifting.  Is Baker’s punishment enough?

Apparently the legal system doesn’t really care if you kill the cyclist or not, as long as they don’t have to look for you afterward.  In terms of jail time, the  punishment for hit-and-run was 91 times more severe than the punishment for killing a cyclist.

The perceived devaluation of the lives of cyclists has long been a point of contention for riders, and leaves many of us feeling that lawmakers consider us as little more important than deer.  Consider the Texas case of 40-year-old Gilbert John Sullaway Jr, who hit and killed Gregory and Alexandra Bruehler while they were riding their tandem on a country road last fall.  Sullaway was driving his truck at 70 mph when he veered off the road and killed the Bruehlers, who were riding on the shoulder.  He dragged them 200 feet.  Since he was not intoxicated or impaired, it was determined that he broke no laws and he was not cited or charged with a crime.  The Bruehlers left behind a 7-year-old daughter.

Want an example closer to home? Last fall in Portland, Wayne Conrad Thompson got into an argument with cyclist Mark Luther.  According to witnesses, Thompson backed his SUV 250 ft at up to 29 mph, smashing into Luther and causing him severe brain injury. Luther is still struggling to recover.  Thompson was given probation for the incident and a five year suspension of his license.

I understand that these examples are not all the same.   Thompson was in a rage and may have been attempting to severely injure Luther (although Thompson says he was just trying to change direction).  Sullaway was doing everything legally before he hit the tandem – besides being 5mph over the speed limit – and just appears to suck at driving.  Baker was driving recklessly, severely speeding, and acting with wanton disregard for the safety of those around her.  Despite these differences, all their punishments amount to nothing more than a slap on the wrist.

I’m not advocating that we “throw the book” at every driver involved in a car/bike crash.  Some are just tragic accidents or even the fault of the cyclist.  But I also know that every time I drive my car that I am putting the lives of those around me at risk.  I understand this, and I drive knowing this.  Why don’t others?

If Baker had killed someone driving a car instead of on a bike would the punishment have been greater?  Are people on bikes considered “less human”  than people in cars in the eyes of the law?  Sadly, the answer is “yes.”  In Oregon and most other states, hitting a cyclist is only a civil crime, not a criminal crime.  BicycleTimes Magazine recently published an article titled: “Incivility: How Lawyers and Legislators De-Valued Your Life” which explains: (emphasis mine)

In the ’70s, with cycling’s surge in popularity, America’s criminal courts began to be so overwhelmed with cases that, as part of a state-by-state court reform, car-bike collisions were downgraded as criminal matters and turned over to civil courts for the purpose of meting out compensation to victims. Thus, in most states, anything less than cases of wanton disregard for human life, malicious intent or gross misconduct with a motor vehicle will merit little more than a ticket; and sometimes not even a ticket.

“Until then, motor vehicle offenses were criminal,” explains David Hiller, advocacy director for the Cascade Bicycle Club in Washington State. “Then, in exchange for waiving the right to due process, and to unclog the courts, the trade-off was those cases would be handled in civil court.”

As civil cases, says Portland, Oregon lawyer Ray Thomas, they do little or nothing to advance real justice. “You could have a carrot for a lawyer,” he says, “and you (the injured) will get the limit [of monetary compensation].”

“It’s extra work for the police officer to go to court,” says Thomas, who specializes in pedestrian- and bicycle-related cases. “Everyone just says, `Let the insurance companies work it out.’”

“The lowest of the low” is how bike-vehicle collisions rank in the eyes of police, Thomas says. “They say, `Our job is to get criminals off the streets.’” Period.

Click here read the full article (recommended)

There are times when a driver gets punished severely for hitting a cyclist, but it has nothing to do with the actual crash.  A few days ago there was a hit-and-run in Portland and the police apprehended the driver soon afterward. BikePortland reported on the crash, and some the comments on the story echoed a growing sentiment in the cyclist community.  I’ll quote a comment from “El Biciclero:”

Fortunately, they fled the scene and miraculously were still apprehended, which means they can be prosecuted for hit ‘n’ run. What drivers often don’t seem to understand is that they can almost always get away with running over a cyclist if they follow a few simple rules:

1. Stay on the scene and act distraught.
2. Repeatedly utter one or both of the following key phrases: “I just didn’t see him/her!”, or “He/she came out of nowhere!”
3. Not a rule for drivers, but it helps if the cyclist was not wearing a helmet, because then, “they were asking for it”, e.g., it is their own fault for getting hit.

Fleeing the scene is a big mistake! Not only is an offense (hit and run) in and of itself, it is an implied admission of fault.

All cynicism/sarcasm aside, I hope the victim fully recovers from all injuries without permanent damage.

Is this cynicism or is this true?  This is a Eugene-area blog, so lets look for our answer in Eugene.

Lets consider the case of Joshua Clifton, who was racing his car down 30th Avenue last October and hit and injured cyclist Hart Godbold.  Clifton then left the scene and was apprehended several days later. Let’s compared Clifton to Baker, who killed her victim.  In both cases the drivers were speeding and driving recklessly.  In both cases the driver struck a cyclist.  The only important differences are that Clifton’s victim lived and Baker’s died, and that Clifton fled the scene and Baker stayed.

Joshua Clifton was sentenced to 7.5 years  in prison for felony hit-and-run, filing a false police report (he reported his car stolen after the accident), and driving with a suspended license.  Tina Marie Baker was sentenced to 30 days in jail and lost her license for awhile. The lesson? Apparently the legal system doesn’t really care if you kill the cyclist or not, as long as they don’t have to look for you afterward.  In terms of jail time, the  punishment for hit-and-run was 91 times more severe than the punishment for killing a cyclist.

If the danger of killing another human being isn’t enough to motivate people like Baker to drive safely, then they need to be threatened with something that will motivate them.  Obviously the possibility of killing Johnny Cayton wasn’t enough to make Baker pay attention to safe driving, but maybe the possibility of 5 years in jail away from her kids would have.

Am I saying that Baker, 48-year-old mother of three, should have received a steeper punishment?  Absolutely. 30 days in jail (or less?) would be a fine punishment if it Baker had been driving safely and courteously and her hitting Cayton truly was just a tragic accident, but she was not.  By her own admission, she was driving unsafely.  If the danger of killing another human being isn’t enough to motivate people like Baker to drive safely, then they need to be threatened with something that will motivate them.  Obviously the possibility of killing Johnny Cayton wasn’t enough to make Baker pay attention to safe driving, but maybe the possibility of 5 years in jail away from her kids would have.

As long as the punishment for killing a bicyclist is only a slap on the wrist, some people will continue to drive with wanton disregard for public safety.  Drivers need to realize that sending a 2-ton vehicle careening down a street at high speeds is dangerous to everyone around them, and maybe the fear of jail time if they make a mistake will motivate people to drive more safely.  The culture around driving needs to change, and that cannot happen until drivers are held responsible for the handling of their vehicles.

Oregon has made some progress on this front.  In 2008 the Vulnerable Roadway User law went into effect in Oregon, but so far it seems to have done about jack shit for changing driver behavior.  The  BTA did good work pushing the law through, but it was severely neutered in the process.  Swanson, Thomas, & Coon wrote a good explanation of the law, and I’ll quote excerpts below:  (emphasis mine)

When we first introduced the idea of an enhanced penalty for careless drivers who hurt vulnerable users, key legislators told us that any effort to create new crimes and inmates for our already overburdened state court and corrections system would face widespread resistance. [...]

It was extremely difficult to create an enhanced penalty when further criminal consequences were not an option, but BTA legislative committee member Doug Parrow tweaked our original language to include a non-criminal alternative of a $12,500 fine (up from $750.00) and a one-year license suspension (no license suspension was previously included in a conviction for Careless Driving). Additionally, to create an inducement for careless drivers to improve their driving skill and pay the community back for their actions, a traffic safety course requirement and 100-200 hours of community service were included as an alternative to the fine and suspension – if the program is successfully completed, then the suspension and fine would be suspended. [...]

Police officers and prosecutors told us they were sometimes frustrated in serious accident cases because Oregon did not have a vehicular homicide law and its criminally negligent homicide law requires a gross deviation from the standard of care, which is close to a recklessness requirement. The Vulnerable User law provided a way to create real consequences for careless or negligent drivers without sending them to jail.

That’s right.  If you are driving a car, it is not criminal to kill someone who is not in a car, and the Oregon Legislature prefers it that way.  Changing this would have led to “widespread resistance” because the jails are too full.  Full of shoplifters, minor drug offenders, and the occasional hit-and-run driver who didn’t know that all you have to do to get away with murder is stop and say “I just didn’t see them.”

Please be careful out there, no matter what form of transportation you choose.  We are all humans.

11 comments to Editorial: 30 days in prison is not enough for killing a cyclist by driving recklessly