When good drivers go bad

When good drivers go bad
For bicyclists and pedestrians, hitting the road can be a deadly
	By Judy DeMocker
	Special to the _Examiner_
San Francisco Examiner | 11-Dec-2000 | Page C1

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 commuity,
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

According to eyewitness Ron Salkin, it all happened very

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

``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

``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

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

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 peole
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 deaing 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

``I've noticed drivers getting less and less patient, and more
and more aggressive,'' said Eric Murphy, a legal assistant at a
downtwon 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 throuh 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

``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 educationa 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

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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