Media accounts of the two bike fatalities last month raised a few eyebrows among the commentariat here and at GGW. The news accounts left the reader with the impression that each cyclist inexplicably placed himself in the path of an oncoming dump truck or SUV. The average person reading those accounts would probably take them at face value; but for many of us, that is hard to do because we have seen so many cases where initial reports were wrong.
GGW briefly presented both incidents as cases where a driver killed a cyclist, and the predictable discussion centered on whether that was totally unfair to the drivers, or whether it is reasonable for GGW to provide a counterbalance to the prevailing way these stories are told. Here on the Washcycle, the comments were focused more on trying to read between the lines and explore the various possibilities of what could have actually happened. In the case of the dump truck on a state highway colliding with a cyclist crossing the highway, the account seemed believable.
The 9-year old child killed on a residential road between Bowie and Glenn Dale, however, was more troubling. Several of us have young children, and none of us like to hear that the police and the media accept the premise that a driver has no responsibility to avoid running into an unpredictable child on a residential street. When I got my driver's license, the simulator always had a ball bouncing into the street with a child following it; the lesson was that a driver in a residential street should assume that a child may run into one's path at any moment.
Of course, we don't have the strict liability system wherein drivers always are to blame if they run into a cyclist, but that does not mean that the duty of care does not change when one sees a child on a bike. That's the main reason for the 25 mph speed limit. Obey the speed limit and if you strike a pedestrian, she has a 10% chance of being killed. Drive 35 mph and there is a 2/3 chance she dies. And of course, avoiding the collision is easier if you go slow.
Then twk from Bowie directed us to the link showing the front-end damage to the SUV, which made all of us wonder (in exasperation): how can police say that speed was not a factor? The damage does not seem possible if the driver was only proceeding at 25 mph. But if the driver was proceeding at 35 mph, then the odds are about 6:1 that the death was caused by the speed. That seems to make a prima facie case that speed was definitely a factor. How could the media fail to ask the obvious followup question?
Part of the problem may be that the police and reporters have adopted a short-hand jargon which makes sense for auto-auto crashes. They are trying to say that the speed was not the single most important cause of the collision. But if a child dies, we are also interested in why the collision caused someone's death. In fatal auto-auto crashes, the vehicles are usually going so fast that it goes without saying that speed is sufficient to kill, the only question was whether it was so great that one loses control, or did they crash for another reason? In bike or pedestrian crashes, by contrast, collisions are often at slow enough speeds for people to live; speed may be the single most important factor that determines whether a victim lives or dies.
So how can the story overlook the most obvious question: Was the driver complying with the 25 mph speed limit?
Is the problem with the police or the media? I find myself hoping that it's the police rather than the media, because the police are public officials accountable to the public. There are clear lines of authority whom we can lobby. The media is not really accountable to anyone, and the turnover of local reporters is so great that trying to change how the media covers a type of event is like spitting at the zeitgeist.
After reading the comments on the Washcycle, I sent a terse but rather harshly worded complaint to a few officials. For some reason, I thought that the Maryland State Police (MSP) had changed its approach to the media in the case of bicycle fatalities, after having made disastrously wrong preliminary judgments in the Leymesiter and Pettigrew cases. So I was annoyed that the Prince George's Police had not adopted the more cautious approach of the MSP.
Recall that in the Leymeister case, the State Police stated that the cyclist had failed to ride as far right as practicable on a road where the narrow shoulder was blocked by branches. MBPAC protested because this was a road where the cyclist had the right to take the lane. It later turned out that the problem was that the driver had an entirely frost covered windshield with just a little peep hole to see where she was going.
In the Natasha Pettigrew case, the police initially stated that the cyclist lacked reflective material. Her mother knew otherwise and reporters who went to the scene of the crash found the materials that the police said did not exist. Early statements also said that the driver left the scene because she thought she hit a dog or a deer. Only because of public outrage was that claim more thoroughly investigated, and the driver was convicted of hit-and-run.
After those cases, an MSP official told MBPAC that the state police would be more careful about what they tell the media before the investigation is done. It's a balancing act for police spokesmen, because there is usually great public and media interest after a fatality, especially when the victim is a child or a notable person. But MSP staff felt that they could tell the story by presenting the issues they are investigating, rather than conclusions, and by mentioning (for example) the possibility that the driver was not looking where she was going, as well as the lane position of the cyclist.
Unfortunately, MSP's thinking was never memorialized. I now know that this was just a sense of what they needed to do; but some people have moved on, so the Maryland State Police seem to be back to where they used to be, according to my source there. My source referred me to Lieutenant Alexander who does media relations at the Prince Georges Police Department.
Mr. Alexander did not have the specifics of the 9-year old killed in the Bowie/Glenn Dale area when I called, but he did tell me the general approach of the Prince Georges County Police. He said that they will not make a preliminary statement unless they are 90% sure. There has to be credible or neutral witness, such as the family members with whom the child was riding, he said. The Prince George's police will not make a preliminary statement "if the only witness is a driver who tells us that he killed someone but it was their fault."
I did not follow up about this particular incident, though perhaps I'll call back in a few weeks. My main purpose for calling him was to get a regular police contact for bike-ped issues. Police statements to the media can be a problem, but dangerous driving is a bigger problem. The police have too much work to prevent every type of crime. If they are doing too little to enforce the laws designed to protect us, maybe it's because we haven't been asking them to do so. Now we will.
(Jim Titus is a bicycle advocate from Prince George's County. The opinions expressed here do not necessarily reflect the views of any organization with which he is affiliated, and the pronoun "we" does not mean any organized entity.)