Monday, April 27, 2009

Same Roads, Same Rules, Same Justice

ON SUNDAY Daniel W. Hersh, 54, retired Navy SEAL and father of two, was on his usual morning bike ride. He rose before dawn and pedaled east on Shore Drive in Virginia Beach. A few minutes before 6 a.m., and less than four miles from home, Dan’s ride abruptly ended. He likely never knew what hit him.

A Ford Explorer, also headed east on Shore Drive in the morning twilight, struck Dan from behind at about 40 mph. Dan’s helmet was shattered, his skull crushed . Dan was declared dead three hours later. The SUV had some body damage .
The driver who killed Dan said she didn’t see him. The police took the driver at her word. They declared alcohol and speed were not factors, and they have thus far declined to press charges. According to a police spokesman, “an investigation is still ongoing.”

We bicyclists ride the same roads as motorists, follow the same rules and have the same right to expect justice.

In Virginia, bicyclists have “all of the rights and duties applicable to the driver of a vehicle.” Yet in Virginia Beach and neighboring cities, bicyclists have come to expect that they are second-class citizens, at least in the eyes of those sworn to “protect and serve.” A bicyclist may be struck by a car and severely injured, but unless the driver was intoxicated or speeding, the Virginia Beach Police Department doesn’t usually press charges, even when witnesses say the driver was clearly at fault.

Just as there are law-abiding drivers, there are law-abiding bicyclists, who dutifully signal all turns and use headlights after dark. Just as there are drivers who run red lights and pass on the right, so are there cyclists who run red lights and ride against traffic. We do not, however, prejudge all based upon the misdeeds of a few.

With greater power comes greater responsibility: We hold commercial truck drivers to higher standards of qualification and safety than the common driver, mainly because they operate vehicles that are larger, more powerful and capable of inflicting more damage. If a dump truck on Shore Drive overtaking a sports car ran over it from behind, crushing the occupants, we would expect the truck driver to be charged and brought to trial — even if he wasn’t drunk or speeding.

According to the Tidewater Bicycle Association, the Virginia Beach Police Department responds to 130 bicycle-motor vehicle accidents per year, with fault equally split between drivers and bicyclists. Yet the perception of the bicycling community is that equal justice is the exception rather than the rule.
Rick Young, manager of the local BikeBeat, has the rare privilege of knowing that justice was served: In 2006, Rick suffered fractured vertebrae when hit by an intoxicated driver, who was subsequently charged and convicted.

Frank Stapanowich was not so privileged. Four years ago, Frank was riding home with his 14-year -old son, Rick. A Ford F-350 pickup truck turned left into the road, hitting Rick, breaking his leg in several places. The driver told the police that he couldn’t see Rick and Frank because he was blinded by the sun. No charges were filed.

It will take a cultural shift for Virginia Beach and neighboring cities to see bicycling as transportation, and not just recreation; a cultural shift that gives both equal protection under the law and proportional infrastructure funding to bikes and cars.

The geography and climate of Hampton Roads offer the potential for our area to equal or surpass traditional cycling metropolises such as Amsterdam or San Francisco. With just two wheels we can address our national obesity epidemic, global warming and the energy crisis — as long as cyclists are respected on the road.

Wes Cheney, of Norfolk, is a member of the Tidewater Bicycle Association and rides his bicycle daily to and from work in Norfolk.

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