Reporting on pedestrian life in the D.C. area

District bicyclists to D.C. Council: Yes, we need protection from angry drivers

November 2, 2011 - 01:25 PM
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Braving the road. (Photo: flickr/tvol)

Today Tommy Wells leaned forward in the council chambers of the Wilson Building and locked his eyes with a young bicyclist and photojournalist wearing a tan jacket and jeans. "That was a very startling, upsetting video," the Ward 6 councilmember told the bearded cyclist with light brown hair. Moments later, Wells sat back and reflected. "If we just enforced the laws, we wouldn’t need better protection … [But] better enforcement is a dodge and an excuse and I don’t support that at all.” No, what Wells supports is the Assault of Bicyclist Prevention Act, discussed this November 2 morning and afternoon in the seat of District government.

The young bicyclist was named Evan Wilder, and he is the man struck in a highly publicized video that emerged in early September.

You surely recall the one I'm talking about — the bike commuter wore a camera and we saw him ride down Rhode Island Avenue. A pick-up truck pulled alongside him. "You better move your genius ass to the fucking right!" the driver shouted on that clear August 31 day.

To learn what happened next, we don't need any video. It was shown today in D.C. Council chambers. The struck bicyclist was here to "tell my story," as he said to Councilmembers Phil Mendelson, Wells, and Mary Cheh. He's a soft-spoken and serious man, at least in these chambers and is a married photojournalist who has worked with National Geographic for the better part of the past decade, a graduate of Baylor and the University of Missouri. These public officials finally heard straight from the source about what happened in the alarming video.

"Before I knew what was happening, the driver accelerated and slammed the side of his truck into my body," Wilder told the councilmembers. "The impact was strong enough to cause my helmet to crack when my head hit the road."

Mendelson asked Wilder to rewind the tape to pause on a specific moment. "You can see that that vehicle is clearly in your lane,” Mendelson said. “He’s very clearly in your lane.”

Chocolate strawberries
Wilder. (Photo: Vimeo/EvanWilder)

D.C. councilmembers gathered today to hear from the town's bicyclists about how they fare on our roads and whether they need special civil protections from angry drivers as part of an anti-harassment bill known as the Assault of Bicyclist Prevention Act of 2011 (PDF), suggested by the Washington Area Bicyclist Association and introduced into the Council on September 20, sponsored by Wells, Cheh, Marion Barry, Jack Evans, Jim Graham, Yvette Alexander, Muriel Bowser, Michael Brown, and Chairman Kwame R. Brown. As WABA characterizes the legislation, the bill's purpose is:

To create a civil right of action available to bicyclists suffering intentional assault, threat, harassment, or injury due to the bicyclist's inherent vulnerable status vis-à-vis motor vehicles on the roadway; and to provide for civil penalties, punitive damages, and attorney's fees to facilitate safe and effective exercise of this right of action.

WABA's executive director Shane Farthing told the council that he simply wanted justice for the region's 29,000 bicyclists, to set "clear and timely deliverables" for addressing concerns voiced in a September 29 Police Complaints Board report on the many communication and enforcement issues involving the District's bicyclists, drivers, and pedestrians. In this bill, he specifically hopes to create better ways for bicyclists to file civil actions against aggressors, "not creating a new set of prohibited behaviors." In a year that sports a triumphant, expanding Capital Bikeshare program and a growing percentage of bike commuters reported, the goal is an admirable, timely, and necessary one and speaks to a true problem.

At this morning's 11 a.m. hearing, close to a score of people stepped forward to testify about suicide lanes and honking, accelerating and fear, open car doors and crosswalks, about how no one stops at stop signs, and the difficulty for bicyclists to get their stories heard by law enforcement. One woman spoke of how a police van struck her, and despite her injuries, still receiving a ticket for traffic violation for "riding abreast" of the police vehicle. Testimony continued for more than two hours. Much of the difficulty speaks to the broader confusion regarding traffic laws and hostility that tenses up relations on the District's roads.

“I’m not a psychologist, but for some reason, when people get in a car, they behave differently," said Ward 3 Councilmember Mary Cheh. "It’s not safe. It’s not safe for other car drivers, and it’s really unsafe for pedestrians and bicyclists.”

What did these complications mean for Wilder and his August 31 accident? No prosecution happened in spite of the MPD's successful identification of the pick-up driver. I have reached out to the police department with a request for the reports and documents pertaining to the accident and am curious to know just why the U.S. attorney's office declined to take the case. Multiple bicyclists noted that lawyers are reluctant to take the cases unless there's a death or serious injury, in large part because the damages involved are too small. Wilder explains to the councilmembers that he "cannot even afford" to file civil charges against the driver, a problem that would ostensibly be fixed in the fee-shifting of the Assault of Bicyclist Prevention Act of 2011. One question that arose today was also whether the bill should continue in its current form. Councilmembers and members of the Pedestrian Advisory Council raised the question of whether pedestrians should be protected in any bill that moves forward. Why just bike riders? Mendelson also wondered whether the potential law should focus more on insurance companies — which have the "deep pockets" — rather than drivers who may not have sufficient money. The notion of the anti-harassment bill has already provoked considerable conversation and some opponents. Yet on the whole, today's hearing underscored many of the anxieties and dangerous transportation problems, and no one suggested that the status quo was acceptable. The council will continue to accept comments on Bill 19-475 up until 5 p.m. on Wednesday, November 16.

Wilder's passion as a photojournalist makes it all the less surprising that he would capture his legislation-inspiring August 31 accident on film. The sandy-haired man has filmed several of his rides in recent months and showcased on his blog about D.C. life, updated through mid-August. What's perhaps hardest to read are his biking fears before the infamous crash. His concern was hardly new, and as he told Mendelson today, they comprised a part of why he was wearing a bike camera at all. For a time, at least, Wilder had begun to feel secure on the road this past summer.

"Since the collision with the delivery truck on July 11, I have been extra vigilant about taking the lane so drivers must maneuver around me safely," Wilder wrote on July 30. "This plan has been going well and I’m happy to say the roads have felt safe except once."

That feeling of safety, clearly, did not last.

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