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Posts about Crash Charges

Bicycling


"It must have been your fault. C'mon. You are a biker."

Getting in a crash is one of the scariest things that can happen to a cyclist. Even worse is when police assume that bicyclists are always at fault, even if they've got evidence to the contrary.


The crash about to happen. Photo captured from MPD surveillance video.

On a pleasant March morning in 2011, I was on my way to work, biking south on 14th St NW in the center of the right lane. As I approached W Street, I looked to make sure I had ample time to cross. The light was green. As I left the intersection, an SUV driver made a left turn across traffic, directly into my path. All I could do was hit the brakes hard.

The next thing I knew, I was on my back in the middle of the street. I tried to sit up, but failed pathetically and landed back on the road. My glasses were in a mangled heap nearby. Seconds later, some cyclists stopped by. None had seen the collision, but they locked my bike at the scene and helped me to a safe place. Someone called an ambulance, which showed up a few minutes later.

In the ambulance, Carlos Carter, a DC police officer, asked me what happened, and I told him. Once the EMTs realized I had hit my head, it was straight onto a backboard and off to the emergency room.

At George Washington University Hospital, an X-ray found that my shoulder was separated and several ligaments were torn. Doctors took me to a CAT scanner to check for broken bones.

During the test, Officer Carter entered the room. He asked me to sign a ticket for running a red light. I asked him to take a look at footage since I was certain I hadn't. He wasn't interested and asked me to sign the ticket and admit fault. I didn't. He left.

Video proves that I was right

Often that would have been the end of the story, but, thankfully, not this one. I was confident that I was right, but after spending a day at the hospital, I began to doubt myself. When the police report was ready, I picked up a copy. Both the driver and another witness said I had run a red light.

Once I was mobile again, I returned to the scene of the collision. I tried to reconcile their version with mine. Was it possible that the light showed red in their direction but green in mine? I watched a few light cycles: the lights turned red at the same time. As I watched the cars roll through, I took a careful look around and noticed a camera with a Metropolitan Police Department label.

The camera was part of MPD's CCTV Neighborhood-Based Cameras program. After calling the department, I learned that I had to file a DC Freedom of Information Act request to obtain the footage, which is erased every 7 to 10 days. Thanks to the careful work of Commander James Crane, Kaylin Junge Castelli, and Ofc. E.A. Hoffstetter, I was able to obtain the footage before it was deleted.

Here is the relevant segment. I appear 32 seconds into the video.

The video was extremely clear: I did everything right, while the driver did something dangerous and in violation of traffic laws. At 9:13:09 am (7 seconds into the video clip above), the light turned green. At 9:13:42 (32 seconds in), I appear on screen, and less than 2 seconds later, I cross the intersection. At 9:13:44.524, the driver made a left turn. 8 more cars pass through the intersection. At 9:14:08, the light turns red.

I was left with the same question I had before: why did the driver turn? She claimed that I ran a red light, which meant she saw me but decided to turn anyway. Or maybe she didn't see me? I was wearing a bright orange jacket, and it wasn't very sunny or dark out. Maybe she had really bad vision, she didn't look, or wanted to hit me on purpose?

I will never really know for sure, but I do know that my shoulder ligaments will never regrow. I really wish she had bothered to look.

MPD refuses to admit its error in crash reporting

Now it was time to take action against the claims that I was at fault. I returned to the Third District police station, where a supervisor told me that only the officer who wrote the report and the ticket could change it. He asked me to tell my story again.

"Wait, you mean, you were biking and you want a ticket canceled?" he said, incredulous. "We all know how bikers behave. It must have been your fault. C'mon. You are a biker."

When I suggested that he review the video, he refused. The supervisor said he'd contact the officer but that I shouldn't expect anything to come of it, as I was a bicyclist.

So I filed an appeal. I scheduled a hearing and brought my evidence, but the officer didn't bother to show up. The ticket was canceled. It took an extra several hours of unnecessary hassle, but it felt great.

However, to get compensation for my permanent injury, my medical bills, lost work, pain and suffering, I had to sue the driver and her insurance company. It's hard to do in DC, which along with Maryland, Virginia and 2 other states, uses the "contributory negligence" standard for liability after crashes. Under that standard, if the victim was doing anything at all wrong, no matter how small, he or she can't collect any damages.

Without the video, it would've been nearly impossible to prove that I did everything right. But thanks to the footage and the work of Patrick Regan and Paul Cornoni of Regan, Zambri, Long, and Betram, I subsequently sued and then settled with the driver and her insurance company, receiving compensation for my permanent partial disability.

I would rather the whole thing never happened, but it's refreshing to know that the legal system can sometimes help hold negligent parties accountable and compensate those that they harm.

What I learned

From this experience, I learned two things. One is that police officers need substantially more training in different types of bicycle-automobile crashes. A driver turning left into oncoming bike traffic is a common form of collision, and that driver is usually at fault. Officer Carter botched the incident report by not asking the right questions.

Once the driver claimed I ran a red light, meaning she admitted to seeing me, the officer should have asked her why she decided to cause a collision, rather than assuming I was at fault. This would have helped him write the correct tickets and prepare an accurate report. And when someone shows up with clear evidence in their favor, he should've admitted his error, apologized, and fixed it.

Second, I learned that if you get hit by someone while bicycling, check for cameras. Without them, you'll have to fight against the assumption that you were operating in an unsafe way, no matter what the driver did.

Roads


I was in a hit-and-run by a distracted driver

My normal commute between work near Union Station and home in Dupont Circle is 35 minutes, doorknob to doorknob. Tuesday night, that commute came to a grinding halt just 2 blocks from my office.


2nd & F NE. Photo by reallyboring on Flickr.

As I crossed the street at 2nd and F Streets NE, an SUV pulled up to the 4-way stop. The SUV stopped at the stop sign, and I began to cross the street in the crosswalk. As I was just in front of the SUV, the driver, who'd looked down to his phone while stopped (it looked like he was texting), pulled forward full speed into a left turn, hitting me.

In the split second I had as the vehicle began to move before it hit me, I screamed and tried to jump back, but I was directly in front of the SUV, and it hit me squarely in the right leg, rolling over my right foot.

As I screamed, the driver finally looked up, saw me, and yelled "sorry!" out of his open window before continuing on his way. I was stunned.

It had all taken less than 15 seconds.

Waiting for the police

Once I got safely onto the sidewalk, I stopped, and the security guard at the nearby SEC parking garage stopped to ask me if I was okay and comment on the craziness of what had just happened. While I was in one piece, I was pretty banged up and definitely very shaken, and reached into my pocket for my cell phone to call 911.

It felt odd to me to call 911 when nothing was on fire and nobody was bleeding or in imminent danger, but as the security guard pointed out, I'd just been involved in a hit-and-run traffic collision.

Nonetheless, I gave the 911 operator my first name (they did not ask for my last name) and location, explained what happened, declined an ambulance, and was told that the next available unit would be on their way to me shortly. I hung up as a good samaritan came up to ask me if I was okay, and another security guard ushered me into the Securities and Exchange Commission building lobby to wait.


Collision diagram by the author.

Once I was settled inside on a bench, I called my significant other, Kian, to let him know that I'd be late getting home, and he insisted on coming from Dupont to meet me and help me get home once I was done with the police.

Once I hung up with Kian, building security suggested I call 911 againthey were very concerned no officer had responded yet. Kian arrived (via Metro) 25 minutes after I called him, but still no MPD officer had arrived.

The security guards in the building took down my information to let their supervisor know what was going on, and told me that there was a security camera on the corner of the building that might have had an angle to catch the whole thing on tape. They'd be happy to work with MPD to provide the tape.

10 minutes or so after Kian arrived (thanks to Twitter and call logs on our cell phones, I have the timing recorded), we called 911 for a third time. It had been an hour since my first call. They seemed to have no record of our earlier calls, but assured us that this was a priority and that a unit would arrive soon.

80 minutes after the collision, Capitol Police arrived on the scene. The responding officer explained that they'd heard it come in over the radio, and decided to respond. The Capitol Police officer took my full report, spoke to the security guard who'd been an eyewitness, and explained to me that Capitol Police would now have officers canvassing the area on the lookout for the vehicle, but since it had been over an hour, that it probably wasn't in the area any longer.

20 minutes after Capitol Police arrived, and as they're nearly finished writing the report, an MPD unit arrived, explaining that they'd been dispatched from the other side of the city, because of something going on downtown occupying all of the units in the area. The officer asked me to explain what had happened yet again, even though they ended up letting Capitol Police file the report.

Bad intersection?

About 30 minutes after the accident, waiting for MPD, I logged into Twitter on my phone. Many, many people on Twitter expressed their sympathy and kind thoughts (thank you!). As the discussion progressed, several people expressed frustration with that very intersection:

I've definitely noticed on my daily commute lots of drivers blowing through the intersection with a rolling stop, or occasionally no stop at all.

A serious reminder

I'm sore and bruised from the collision, but otherwise I am okay. I'm incredibly grateful for that, and for all of the kind people around me who helped me after the accident, like the good Samaritan and the building security at the SEC.

But as a smart growth and complete streets advocate by day, this experience was a serious reminder that our work for more walkable, bikeable, livable streets for everyone in our communities is far from complete. Even in a place like DC that does so many things right when it comes to transportation and planning, there's more work to do, even at the most basic level.

It's easy to get wound up in rhetoric about "us vs. them", the "war on cars", and so many other issues that we write and read about every day here. We've all been guilty of this from time to time. But when we step back, can't we all agree that cars, bicycles, and most especially, pedestrians, should all have a safe place on our streets? Washington is a great place to live, but we still have a long way to go to make it greater.

Let's do it for the kids in the daycare down the street from this intersection. For our elderly neighbors who can't get around as well anymore. For our children biking to school. From driver to cyclist to pedestrian, everyone benefits from a street that's safe and welcoming for all users.

Pedestrians


Montgomery police blame victims for pedestrian deaths

After three pedestrians died in three weeks in Montgomery Countyone walking on the sidewalk, and the other two in crosswalks where they had the legal right of waycounty police could only blame the victims.


Truck ignores pedestrian in a Montgomery County crosswalk. Photo by the author.

"The only thing that I see that could be newsworthy is advice to pedestrians to make sure that they have or wear reflective clothing or items when they walk at night to increase their visibility," Captain Thomas Didone told the Patch. Didone is director of the county police department's traffic division.

As far as can be determined, all three victims were obeying the rules of the road when they died. Georgina Afful-Assare was hit while walking on the sidewalk near Briggs Chaney Road. The other two were killed while crossing major highways at intersections where unmarked (but legal) crosswalks connect bus stops to apartment complexes. Neither had any other reasonable way to get across the road.

Frank Sedwick was crossing Georgia Avenue at Heathfield Drive in Aspen Hill. The nearest traffic signal is 1,500 feet away at Connecticut Avenue, and there is no marked crosswalk or signal on the high-speed turn ramp that pedestrians must cross to reach it. According to a blog commenter, Mr. Sedwick had a prosthetic leg.

Charles Aboagye was crossing US 29 at Oak Leaf Drive. He was standing in the median and tripped. Here, the marked crosswalk is 785 feet away. To reach that crosswalk, one must walk within inches of cars and trucks speeding along what drivers perceive as a limited-access highway. The risk of tripping and falling during a long trudge down the sidewalk is far greater than in the median, where the law (universally ignored) indeed requires drivers to stop and let you pass.

Engineering fixes are needed for safer crossings at Heathfield and Oak Leaf Drives. Road design policies must change, and even then rebuilding will take time. In the meantime, the roads we have now must be made safer to walk on. That will only happen when the police stop blaming the victims and insist that drivers stop at all crosswalks, both marked and unmarked.

Other cities are teaching this. Minneapolis suburbs have launched campaigns to ticket drivers who fail to yield.

In California's Ventura County, an area more suburban than Montgomery, police gave drivers this reminder after a car that stopped for a pedestrian was rear-ended: "Pay attention while driving near crosswalks and actively look for pedestrians crossing the street. Additionally, pay attention for other cars on the roadway that might be slowing or stopping for pedestrians."

Telling those on foot to dress like hunters in the woods will not make streets more walkable. Nor will it prevent the deaths of people who are walking on the sidewalk or standing in a median strip. Lives will be saved when drivers obey the law by stopping for pedestrians in crosswalks. Montgomery County police must change their attitudes and issue tickets to those who fail to yield.

Pedestrians


Loudoun principal meets deadly crash and double standard

Last Wednesday afternoon, Loudoun County school principal Kathleen Hwang was killed while walking near her Sterling home. Media and police reporting on this tragic death exemplifies the double standard used to assess blame when automobiles and pedestrians collide.


View from the crash site in the direction of the approaching car. Photos by the author.

Ms. Hwang was hit by a westbound Dodge Durango, which an 18-year-old male was driving. She was crossing White Water Drive between Longsford Way and Levee Way.

As in many such tragic crashes, local police were quick to point out that Ms. Hwang was not in a crosswalk, implying that she was at least partially at fault. Press reports, such as in the Washington Post, and Fox 5 repeated these statements.

Despite the way police and press reports make it sound, it doesn't appear Ms. Hwang was acting carelessly when she crossed where she did. If anything, the place where she crossed looks to be safer than the crosswalk.

Virginia law (§ 46.2-923) instructs pedestrians to cross "when possible" at marked crosswalks and intersections, just as it instructs drivers never to go even 1 mph faster than the speed limit. But it also says that pedestrians are not necessarily negligent when they cross mid-block.

Pedestrians are not allowed to cross mid-block if drivers will not be able to see them §46.2-926). However, that is not true here. Quite the contrary, drivers are better able to see pedestrians here than at the unsignalized intersection to the east, which has a marked crosswalk.


Approximate site of fatal collision. Image from Google Earth.

None of the news media bothered to ask why Ms. Hwang might have chosen not to use the nearby crosswalk. The reason is apparent when one visits the site. Beyond the crosswalk, White Water Drive curves to the left and dips behind a small hill. The midblock crossing would actually be safer, because drivers have a better view.


Driver's view 330 ft away from a pedestrian at the curb. Left: Pedestrian at crash site. Right: Pedestrian at crosswalk. Click on a photo to enlarge.

If, as the police suggest, Ms. Hwang was not able to see the approaching vehicle, what significance does the crosswalk have? The car would have been even harder to see from the crosswalk. There, she would be in greater danger of inadvertently stepping in front of an approaching vehicle.

Police and media disparage victim, ignore possible driver factors

The police say that the driver was not speeding. The stopping distance for a Dodge Durango moving at the 35-mph speed limit, allowing 2 seconds reaction time, is 142 feet. Visibility at the crash site is more than 330 feet, so an attentive driver moving at the speed limit had room to stop. Why did the police not address stopping distance, something far more relevant than the crosswalk location, in their public statement?

The police and the Post article also took the trouble to report that Ms. Hwang was wearing earphones. They did not describe her other attire. This detail has no relevance except as a hintquickly seized on in comment threadsthat she was at fault for not paying attention to the road.

There is no mention of whether the driver had a car radio on, and I don't recall the Post ever mentioning car radios in reporting on a crash. Music, in general, is equally distracting whether one is walking or driving, but a pedestrian, whose carelessness will not harm others, does not have the same obligations as someone in control of a ton of fast-moving steel. And in this case, it's much easier to imagine that an 18-year-old new driver might have been oblivious to his surroundings than a 60-year-old school principal.

Many small changes in the circumstances could have avoided this tragedy. Clearly, had Ms. Hwang not crossed at this time, it wouldn't have happened, and pedestrians always need to recognize that they are vulnerable crossing the street. It is safer not to have music interfering with one's ability to hear. But had the driver been traveling slower or noticed Ms. Hwang earlier, he might also have been able to avoid the crash.

What police and the media should never do is automatically assume that anyone crossing outside a crosswalk or wearing earphones is to blame. Pedestrians deserve the same opportunities as drivers to use the streets without being killed, and even to listen to music while they are doing it.

Bicycling


MPD gets law correct in minor SUV-bike collision

DC's police have gotten some deserved criticism for misunderstanding bike laws and misapplying them in a few recent crashes, but that's not always the case. Some officers get it just right. Reader Corey wrote in:


Photo by thisisbossi on Flickr.
My friend Abe and I went for a ride yesterday. We were in the bike lane on 4th St SW between M and I, Abe in front and me trailing, when a guy in a crossover SUV tries to make a right turn into the Safeway parking garage straight into the two of us.

Both bikes were a little bent, but we were willing to let bygones be bygones if the guy had been cool about it. Then the guy sees where my shoulder left a dent in his car and our handlebars left marks, gets righteously indignant about the fact that he had his turn signal on (claiming repeatedly that this means it was OK for him to turn into us), so he calls the cops.

When the officer gets there and hears both side of the story, she immediately cites the guy for illegally changing lanes into traffic. I have no idea what made the driver think that calling the cops after hitting two cyclists in a bike lane was a good idea.

In any case, it was really encouraging to have an encounter with MPD in which the officer very clearly understood that the rules of the road still apply when bikes are involved. Urban, multi-modal transportation can only take root in the community when the law is applied fairly and folks know they'll be protected no matter how they choose to get to and fro.

Thanks, officer! Nice work.


Image from the Oregonian.
Added: For those unfamiliar with the law, when there is a bike lane, the rule is that drivers should look to be sure nobody is in the lane, then merge into the lane before turning.

Essentially, drivers should treat the bike lane just like another standard travel lane; if you're turning right and there's another lane to the right, you change lanes into that lane before turning right. A bike lane works the same way, just narrower, when turns are involved.

Pedestrians


The streets and the courts failed Raquel Nelson

Last week, many reported the horrific story of Raquel Nelson, whose four-year-old son was killed as she attempted to cross the street with him to reach their home. Nelson was convicted of reckless conduct, improperly crossing a roadway and second-degree homicide by vehicle, all for the crime of being a pedestrian in the car-centric Atlanta suburbs.

The conviction carried a sentence of up to 36 months, while the driver who killed Nelson's sonwho'd been drinking and using painkillers before getting behind the wheelgot off with six months on a hit-and-run charge.


The bus stop on Austell Road and the path taken by Raquel Nelson to get to her apartment complex across the street. No marked crossings are visible in the photo. Image from T4America.

The more information that came out, the more outrageous the charges against Nelson became. From an Atlanta Journal-Constitution story that came out the month after the incident:

On April 10, she and her three childrenTyler, 9, A.J., 4, and Lauryn, 3went shopping because the next day was Nelson's birthday. They had pizza, went to Wal-Mart and missed a bus, putting them an hour late getting home. Nelson, a student at Kennesaw State University, said she never expected to be out after dark, especially with the children.

When the Cobb County Transit bus finally stopped directly across from Somerpoint Apartments, night had fallen. She and the children crossed two lanes and waited with other passengers on the raised median for a break in traffic. The nearest crosswalks were three-tenths of a mile in either direction, and Nelson wanted to get her children inside as soon as possible. A.J. carried a plastic bag holding a goldfish they'd purchased.

"One girl ran across the street," Nelson said. "For some odd reason, I guess he saw the girl and decided to run out behind her. I said, 'Stop, A.J.,' and he was in the middle of the street so I said keep going. That's when we all got hit."

Look at all the ways the design of the city's transportation system failed Nelson and her family. Bus service runs once an hour. There is no crosswalk to connect a bus stop with an apartment building it servesnor any crosswalk for three blocks. A convicted hit-and-run driver who is half-blind and has alcohol and pain-killers in his system is considered less of a threat to the public than a woman who rides the bus and walks with her kids.

And as Radley Balko wrote in the Huffington Post, the odds were stacked against Nelson from the start.

"During jury questioning, none of the jurors who would eventually convict Nelson raised their hands when asked if they relied on public transportation," Balko wrote. "Just one juror admitted to ever having ridden a public bus, though in response to a subsequent question, a few said they'd taken a bus to Braves games."

Indeed, as David Goldberg wrote on T4America's campaign blog, "Nelson, 30 and African-American, was convicted on the charge this week by six jurors who were not her peers. All were middle-class whites" and did not ride public transit. "In other words, none had ever been in Nelson's shoes."

Many have asked if there's any way to help. Some expressed a desire to contribute to Nelson's legal fund. Others wanted to know if they could write a letter to someone demanding that Nelson's charges be expunged.

I've left two messages over the past week with Nelson's lawyer asking these (and other) questions. Neither message has been returned. So I can't answer your questions about a legal defense fund. Nelson's sentencing hearing is on Tuesday.

But there are now two petitions circulating. One, circulating at the Care2 petition site, asks the governor to overturn Nelson's verdict. At the moment I'm writing this, the petition has gathered 4,369 signatures, on the way to its goal of 10,000.

Another, which currently has 1,061 signatures at Change.org, asks not only for Nelson's release but for the installation of a crosswalk. That petition is addressed to the Cobb County Transportation Department, Cobb County Commissioner District 1 (Helen Goreham), and the Solicitor General (Barry Morgan).

We'll stay tuned for news on Nelson's sentence on Tuesday.

Cross-posted at Streetsblog Capitol Hill.

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