San Francisco Examiner * December 11, 2000 * Page C1

When good drivers go bad
For bicyclists and pedestrians, hitting the road can be a deadly experience

By Judy DeMocker
Special to the Examiner

On the night of Nov. 17, Christopher Robertson was riding his bicycle on 4th Street in the South of Market area of San Francisco. He was riding with 15 friends in a funeral procession for bike messenger Joseph Woods, who was shot and killed in his Mission Street apartment earlier in November. According to the traditions of S.F. bicycle messenger community, when a messenger dies, his fellows take the bike on a ceremonial ride to Mission Rock and throw it in San Francisco Bay. That night, however, Chris Robertson never made it to the water's edge.

According to eyewitness Ron Salkin, it all happened very quickly.

A tractor-trailer came up behind the procession. Enraged that the group was occupying the lane, Salkin said, the driver began weaving from one side of the road to the other, blowing his horn repeatedly. Then the driver pulled alongside the group, shouting at them. He threw a wooden block at the cyclists, trying to hit them. He swerved into the group, crushing Chris under the right front wheel of his rig, Salkin said. Robertson died.

"You didn't even have to turn around; you could feel that this guy was going off -- laying on his horn, gunning his engine," said Salkin, who works as a bicycle messenger at the Black Dog Delivery Service. "If he had been trying to get around us, I presume he would have sped up. There was no oncoming traffic. He could easily have passed us."

The truck driver was traveling to Casey's Office Moving and Services Inc., two blocks from the scene of the accident. So far no charges have been filed against the truck driver, who was released on $15,000 bail. The District Attorney's office is investigating the incident and plans to announce the results of its findings in the next week or two, according to Fred Gardner, public information officer for the D.A.'s office. Gardner declined to comment on how the investigation was going, or what charges the DA's office is considering.

The death of Robertson has sparked widespread concern in the city, from bicycle activists, Department of Parking and Traffic officials, and the mayor's office. And it's brought to the fore public safety issues for bicyclists and pedestrians alike: mainly, that they're tired of being on the losing end of the battle for San Francisco's streets. At a rally last week at the Hall of Justice building, bicycle commuters, activists, and
messengers aired their complaints about careless drivers and an unsympathetic police force.

"I'm sick and tired of getting harassed by motorists, and feeling like I'm not allowed to be on the streets. Drivers don't understand that bicyclists have the same rights as cars to use the roads," said Ginger Williamson, a bicycle commuter who was also a friend of Robertson's. "I'm tired of having drivers cut in front of me, shake their fists at me, honk at me, when I'm not doing anything wrong."

Others voiced complaints of being harassed by police and threatened with citations, even when they were following rules of safe riding set out in the California Drivers' Handbook. According to that pamphlet, bicyclists may occupy the lane, they may move into the road to avoid debris or to make a left-hand turn.

"I got pulled over by a police car that told me I was weaving from lane to lane. I wasn't. Then they told me that 70 to 80 percent of the time, injury accidents are the bicyclist's fault." said another speaker at Friday's rally. "So basically they're blaming bicyclists for what is happening to them on the streets."

Playing the who's to blame game

Too often, activist groups claim, the police do not take bicycle injuries and fatalities seriously. There is only one case on the books this year in which a driver was charged with a crime, attempted murder. That case was a Nov. 4 incident in which a motorist forced a cyclist into a parked car on Mission Street, seriously injuring her.
"We're aware of the problem," said Lt. Lawrence Minasian of the S.F. Police Department. "It's especially bad in the South of Market area."

Criminal charges are hard to bring against automobile drivers, however, because proving intent is much more difficult than when a gun or knife is used as a deadly weapon.

"It's very hard to establish intent in these cases. One person's going to say, `he did it on purpose,' and the other's going to say, `no I didn't,"' said Inspector Mike Mahoney of the Hit and Run Division of the San Francisco Police Department. "Unless you can somehow show that some sort of altercation happened beforehand, or that there was a relationship between the people involved, it's very difficult to prove intent.
People don't usually get in their cars and say, `I'm going to go run someone down today."'

But some members of the police force have already made up their minds as to who was at fault on the night of Nov. 17, weeks before the investigation was completed.

"Do you mean the case where the bicyclist swerved in front of the truck and got run over?" said Sgt. Bosch, also of the Hit and Run division. "What about the road rage of bicycle drivers? I can't tell you how many cases I've seen of pedestrians getting knocked down by bicyclists, and the number of broken hips when they hit the ground. The problem is there's no licensing of management of particularly bicycle messengers."

According to the Hit and Run Division database, which tracks pedestrian fatalities and criminal cases involving traffic accidents, there has been only one case reported this year of a cyclist hitting a pedestrian.

This `Blame the Victim' attitude is often heard in the police department. According to one officer at the Hall of Justice rally, it is bicyclists, not drivers, who cause accidents on city streets. Bike messengers in particular don't have much credibility with police, since they are often seen as riding aggressively and flaunting traffic rules. "Bike messengers, with the way they conduct themselves, not obeying traffic lights and pulling out in front of people, are causing a lot of accidents," said Minasian. "There's another side to
this story."

It's true that cyclists, like pedestrians, sometimes cause the accident that injures them. More often, though, it's the driver's mistake that leaves a bicyclist or pedestrian lying on the pavement. According to statistics kept by the California Highway Patrol over the last five years, automobile drivers were at fault an average of 55 percent of the time in injury accidents involving a bicycle.

The police department's blame-the-biker attitude has bicycle activists seeing red. By stigmatizing the community of bicycle messengers, police are overlooking the estimated 25,000 people who ride their bicycles to work each year, and the even greater number of cycling enthusiasts who ride on evenings and weekends for pleasure. The entire spectrum of the city's bicyclists is getting shortchanged, according to one bicycle advocate.

"We have encountered that attitude, and it's more than an attitude. It's prejudice. And it affects the quality of the police work," said Dave Snyder, executive director of the S.F. Bicycle Coalition. "Whenever they get into a situation where they didn't see what happened, police officers assume the bicycle rider was at fault."

Bicycle Coalition frustrated

Snyder said that police are not following their own procedures for dealing with traffic collisions. The Bicycle Coalition has dozens of cases on file in which police refused to file accident reports. Without those reports, injury accidents do not get entered in the police database and cannot be investigated by the District Attorney's office.

"I'm frustrated with it, really frustrated, and I don't have much hope of it getting any better," Snyder said. "How can we work on making bicycling safer, if three out of four times a motorist hits a bicyclist, it doesn't get entered into the public record?"

Bicycling safely

The good news is that bicycling in the city is safer now than ever before, according to Snyder. Bicyclist fatalities are fairly rare: two last year, three the year before, and one this year, according to the Medical Examiner's office. Pedestrian deaths are also fairly stable, hovering around 30 per year. So far this year, 28 people have been struck and killed in San Francisco streets, according to police data. The biggest spike in pedestrian deaths occurred in 1997, when 41 pedestrians were killed in a 12-month period. For bicycles, injuries are on the rise, however. Last year 431 bicyclists were injured in accidents with cars.

"It's safer out there than it had been in previous years, though it's still probably 10 times more dangerous than it ought to be," said S.F. Bicycle Coalition's Snyder. "Bikers are smarter, safer, and car drivers are more used to seeing them on the streets."

Statistics can be misleading, however. No agency has measured the incidents of road rage on San Francisco streets. The Police Department does not compile data on what percentage of traffic collisions are intentional, or how often those cases are prosecuted and drivers convicted. For instance, there was no record in the Hit and Run database of the 1998 beating of attorney Peter Rittling by an irate motorist while participating in Bike-to-Work day. What is easily measured is the degree of hostility that cyclists experience when they take to the roadways.

"I've noticed drivers getting less and less patient, and more and more aggressive," said Eric Murphy, a legal assistant at a downtown law firm who has ridden his bicycle on city streets for nine years.

"I can't ride any distance at all anymore without seeing some kind of driver stupidity: people blowing through stop signs, cutting in front of me in the lane, and being inattentive, talking on cell phones."

The reasons for driver hostility are not hard to find.

Streets are more congested, and travel times are slower, especially in the South of Market area. According to the Congestion Management report filed biannually by the County Transportation Authority, travel speed dropped 40 percent on Mission Street near the Embarcadero between 1997, and 1999, the same location where Rittling first encountered the driver who spat on him, and later beat him in 1998.

Impatience and the holiday season, according to a researcher of the road rage phenomenon, are two factors that can set off drivers.

"Most motorists drive around every day in an emotionally impaired state," said Dr. Leon James, Professor of Psychology at the University of Hawaii and co-author of Road Rage and Aggressive Driving: Steering Clear of Highway Warfare, in an e-mail interview. James also publishes the Web site www.DrDriving.org. According to James, the holiday season increases stress on drivers, much as congestion, construction, and gridlock traffic do. More stress can raise the level of hostility and create additional opportunities for confrontations and violence.

Civility as a civic response

The city has done a good deal to raise awareness of pedestrian safety. It has installed cameras to catch red-light runners. It has implemented traffic-calming measures in Duboce Triangle and other neighborhoods to slow traffic down and make fat turns more difficult. And it's established a Pedestrian Safety Task Force that facilitates communication between government agencies and senior citizen, disabled, and environmental groups. But even with educational advertising campaigns, city officials say that the problem is not going to go away.

"San Francisco is off the charts on pedestrian injury," said Michael Radetsky, health educator at the Public Health Department and member of the Pedestrian Safety Task Force. "What we're trying to do is get people to associate human frailty with what happens when you race through the intersection."

Bicycle activists are hoping for a similar level of commitment from government agencies and City Hall to address issues of bicyclist safety. The mayor's office announced Dec. 1 its "Share the Road" public education campaign to help raise driver awareness of bicyclist rights through signs and advertising. Under the program, the Department of Parking and Traffic will spend $230,000 to raise public awareness of bicycle safety issues. The mayor's office is not known for siding with bicyclists, however. In July 1997, Mayor Brown supported the arrest of more than 250 cyclists during a Critical Mass demonstration, calling for convictions that would lead to jail time for participants.

But for bicycle advocates, something is better than nothing, and they'll take what they can get. "Of course it's not enough," said cyclist Murphy, "but it's a step in the right direction."



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