Killers on the road

ghost bike

A ghost bike tribute to a dead cyclist in Pittsburgh/Wikimedia Commons

I live in a state overloaded with guns, and I fear death.

But it is not the guns that scare me. It is motor vehicles.

Today it was a woman with a Toyota Prius who tried to kill me. She rolled through a stop sign at an intersection along a road I was descending on the bike at close to 30 mph. She was obviously too preoccupied with saving the environment to worry about paying attention to her driving.

Someone less paranoid about traffic might not have been prepared for the split-second braking, and even then it was close. I could have been just another statistic.

On average, motor vehicles kill two cyclists in this country every day. There is an El Paso every 11 days, a Dayton every five days.

And no one gives a shit.

If you spend much time on the roads of Alaska on a bike, you start to wonder why the death toll isn’t two an hour. Half of all drivers appear to be paying attention to something other than the road much of the time.

The smartphone is an obvious distraction. If it was truly smart, it would shock them every time they looked at it and announce: “Watch the road, asshole!”

This is not to downplay the country’s problems with gun violence. It is horrific, and I like most Americans feel for the friends and relatives of the 31 dead in the senseless shootings in El Paso and Dayton, and for the witnesses to those nightmares, and for the cities themselves.

Both places are, however, at almost the other end of the continent from Anchorage, and here are the statistical realities:

The odds of being killed while bicycling in this country, according to the data compiled by Business Insider, are 1 in 4,030. The odds of dying in a mass shooting are 1 in 11,125. 

I’m a numbers guy. Given that I’m about three times as likely to be run down and killed by a car or truck – quite possibly with someone at the wheel texting as personal observations increasingly indicate – I’d prefer the mass-shooting odds.

More than that, I’d prefer someone in this country gave a shit about the people described as “vulnerable road users” – cyclists and pedestrians – killed with alarming regularity.

According to the FBI, 403 Americans were killed with rifles in 2017. Some subset of those people were killed by semi-automatic rifles, ie. “assault rifles.” Americans, most notably those on the left of the political spectrum, are in a tizzy about assault rifles.

There were 777 cyclists killed by motor vehicles in the same year, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, and hardly anyone – except cyclists – says anything. Almost 600 of these dead cyclists were men over 20. I’m in that cohort, and being such my personal odds of dying under the wheels of a car or truck are clearly even worse than those stated above.

The crazy part is that these deaths are a lot more preventable than mass shootings. Obsessed people bent on killing are hard to stop. Ted Bundy killed 30 women and never used a firearm. He didn’t want the noise. 

The story was much the same for Jeffrey Dahmer, though his 17 victims were young men and boys. 

Laws, sadly, do little to deter depraved sociopaths. But laws do work to modify the behavior of many normal people if the laws create consequences for bad behavior. There are almost no consequences for killing a cyclist or a pedestrian with a motor vehicle.

If you want to commit homicide and get away with it, forget guns, knives and blunt objects; just use a car or truck.

Cases in point

After 51-year-old Jeff Dusenbery was run over not far from his home here in Anchorage and left to die, his killer was sentenced to a year in jail where she actually spent but 74 days.

That isn’t a jail sentence. That is a joke.

Were this outcome unique, it would be a troubling anomaly. The problem is that the outcome is frighteningly common.

Caitlin Giddings wrote about it last week at Bicycling in a story titled simply “This Has Got to Stop.” Click the link and read about Dulcie Canton, who survived being hit in New York but suffered a broken shoulder, a fractured ankle, and bleeding brain.

The NYPD’s response was to do nothing despite access to video of the crash and witnesses.

“We did everything we could and the police basically ignored us because they said they didn’t have time,” an attorney for Canton told Giddings.

This is not unusual. Law enforcement officers often don’t want to deal with cycling accidents. The attitude seems to be that if you’re on two wheels and get hit, it’s your fault.

Years back, I was smacked by a red-light runner at an intersection along Anchorage’s Northern Lights Boulevard. I’d stopped at a red light, triggered the push to walk button, waited for the light to not only change to green but flash the “WALK” before leisurely wheeling into the crosswalk only to be banged off the left, front quarter panel of a car.

Luckily, the collision knocked me and the bike away from the vehicle instead of underneath it. The bike was a mess. I, fortunately, was bruised and scraped but otherwise OK. And yes, I’ll admit right here I was partly to blame for the accident.

I should have looked to my right before crossing the street to double-check drivers were obeying the traffic signals. It was a good learning experience in that regard. I no longer trust traffic lights. I now always look to my right and analyze the traffic before crossing.

Anchorage is a city where massive numbers of people try to beat the yellow, and they’re rarely looking for cyclists or pedestrians in or around intersections. This is a motor city.

But smashing people or property with your car or truck does remain technically illegal. So I reported the collision to the Anchorage Police Department. A nice, young patrolman later stopped by the Anchorage Daily News where I worked at the time to take a statement.

Blame the victim

I explained what had happened. He listened but took no notes. And then he told me this:

“I could fill out a report and we could begin investigating this, but first I’d have to cite you.”

What for, I wanted to know. Riding a bicycle in a crosswalk, he said, which was at that time illegal in the Municipality of Anchorage. The law has since been amended to allow cyclists to use the crosswalk so long as they “obey the traffic-control device applicable to pedestrians and enter the intersection at a reasonable and prudent speed.”

Needless to say, the threat of a citation was enough to make me forego filing an official complaint. That collision and others before and after did, however, serve to teach me that a.) cyclists need to wear their head on a swivel at all times and treat motor vehicles like dangerous animals, and b.) law enforcement authorities really don’t care if a cyclist gets hit.

After I was sideswiped and knocked down by a driver while in a traffic lane hand-signaling a left turn, the APD officer who showed up at the crash scene clearly thought the accident my fault. When I explained what had happened – “I was in the left lane signaling a turn when a driver tried to go past on the right and knocked me down” – his response was to defend the driver, arguing no one knows what hand signals mean anymore.

This cavalier approach to cyclists involved in collisions is not uncommon. KTUU-TV in Anchorage in 2017 happened to capture footage of a woman being nailed by a car rolling through a red light near the University of Alaska. The response of APD was to keep the name of the driver of the vehicle out of the news and gently warn drivers of  “a tendency to do two things: 1) only look to their left, as that is where the traffic is coming from, and 2) pull up all the way through a crosswalk and to the corner, before stopping. Drivers need to come to a complete stop, prior to the marked crosswalk, or where the crosswalk would be if marked.”

There was no mention of how anyone might get ticketed for this behavior.

Agency spokeswoman Renee Oistad added that cyclists need to make eye contact with “any driver who is attempting to turn right on red [and] to make sure they’ve been seen…There is no legal requirement for the pedestrian to do this, but it helps to keep them safe.”

It would help those cyclists make eye contact if authorities clamped down on cars with tinted windows that make it impossible to make eye contact with a significant number of  drivers.

By law in Alaska, the windows to the right and left of the driver are supposed to allow “at least 70 percent light transmittance” for safety. This sort of glass is what most people know as “smoked glass” or light-grey glass. 

The standard is regularly exceeded. The authorities don’t appear to care. If you don’t click-it in your car you’ll be subject to a ticket, but if you drive around with opaque windows that’s OK because clearly cyclists and other motorists have super powers that enable them to see through the glass to determine where you are looking and what you might do when approaching an intersection.

Just make sure you’ve got your seatbelt on inside your blacked-out vehicle because Anchorage Police are worried about the “precious souls traversing our roadways without the safe warm embrace of their seatbelts.  Being injured or killed as a result of not wearing a safety belt is 100 percent preventable.  BUCKLE UP.  You’re worth it.  And so are the loved ones you’d leave behind if something happened to you because you didn’t make yourself a priority.”

The “precious souls” not surrounded by a protective metal cage and their “loved ones?” Who cares.

Joking matter

Former professional cyclist Phil Gaimon tried to make light of all this in a YouTube video titled “Please Share This When I’m Killed by Someone Driving a Car.”

“I keep seeing these headlines about a cyclist who gets by a car and the police or the media or the courts, they all blame the victim or they don’t care at all. So, for example, a cyclist was riding along, minding his own business, gets hit from behind, killed, and the police use it as a story about why you should wear a helmet rather than a story about why you should watch where you’re going while you’re driving a car.

“I even saw a headline once that said the cyclist fell under a bus, which does not happen.”

It was unfair of Gaimon to pick on the headline writer. Journalists today don’t report stories. They rewrite communiqués (ie. media releases) from the authorities, and they know they’re not supposed to challenge authority unless it’s named Trump.

Still, I have to sympathize with Gaimon’s feelings about nothing being done.

Given the American media attempt to create a moral panic about semi-automatic rifles, it would be nice if someone at least noticed the slaughter of vulnerable road users or, for that matter, recognized the biggest pool of firearm victims.

Firearm deaths are a national tragedy. Firearms are now among our leading causes of death, though they can’t begin to measure up to heart disease which in many cases is in large part self-inflicted.

Firearms deaths don’t make a Centers for Disease Control top-10 list led by diseases linked to the American sit-on-your-ass, drive-everywhere lifestyle, but suicides do. And firearms were involved in just over half of those suicides in 2017, according to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. 

Firearm suicides account for about 60 percent of all U.S. gun deaths. As BJ Campbell, a data-driven engineer who writes intelligently about firearms and the culture war has observed, “the left is making the wrong case on gun deaths.”

“….Suicide is twice the problem homicide is,” he notes. “Men outnumber women in suicide rate by a factor of three to one, but they outnumber closer to 7 to 1 in gun suicides, which is our topic. That’s a large difference, owing partially to men’s proclivity to choose more violent methods of suicide, and partially to men making up 62% of gun owners.

Mass shootings are miniscule in this number, and not noticeably on the rise, and mass school shootings are such a tiny fraction of our stated problem that they are literally not worth considering in this analysis.

“That sounds terrible. I get it. But consider this. On average, around 10 students are killed per year by gunfire at schoolFourteen times more kill themselves, on purpose, with guns at home.”

I fit the modern profile of those most likely to commit suicide, but I have no desire to shoot myself. I recognize others might, most especially other old, white males. Middle-aged, white males are the loss leaders in suicides these days, according to the suicide prevention foundation, and white males, in general, accounted for about 70 percent of all suicide deaths in 2017.

The white suicide rate is about three times that for African-Americans and Asian Americans and measurably above that for Native Americans. But that’s irrelevant to this discussion except for the fact being white and middle-aged (or actually a little past), I fit the profile.

Despite that I don’t worry about any of my firearms killing me. I don’t worry about getting shot in Anchorage, either, even though many are now in the midst of recession-driven panic about crime.  And despite rural Alaska being portrayed by Politico and the Anchorage Daily News as a dangerous and lawless place, I’ve never worried about being shot while there.

What I worry about is becoming the victim in a vehicular homicide because drivers so regularly now pay so little attention to their driving, and more than that I worry that said vehicular homicide would likely to be called anything but unless the driver was drunk.

If someone happens to clip me in a “bike lane” along an Anchorage roadway – and some drivers have on occasion almost seemed to be trying to do that – it will be called an “accident” because the political system in this country simply does not want drivers to accept responsibility for their behavior.

If one of them is actually held accountable, it threatens all the others who think “hey, it could be me. Let him or her among us who always pays attention when driving cast the first stone.”

There is a legion of people who think like that They provide the perfect excuse for district attorneys to refuse to prosecute negligent drivers by arguing “we’d never get a conviction.”

As for the poor, dead victims? Just more road kill for a society that worships at the altar of the automobile.

Until self-driving cars get here, I fear it’s only going to get worse. People motoring around in vehicles now loaded with safety equipment and, of course, wearing their seat belts don’t really have to pay all that much attention because they don’t have much to worry about. Motor-vehicles death rates have been going down even as drivers have been paying increasingly less attention to the road.

The 1970, motor-vehicle death rate of 27.7 of 100,000 people has fallen to 12.4 deaths per 100,000, according to the National Safety Council.  Today’s motor vehicles are so safe that you are significantly more likely to die by accidentally poisoning yourself (death rate = 19.9 per 100,000) and almost as likely to die from tripping and falling (death rate = 11.2 per 100,000),  according to the CDC.

Motor vehicle drivers and passengers are protected. Why would they worry about those who aren’t? It’s not like they’re going to get hurt if they’re car or truck slams into a cyclist or pedestrian.
















18 replies »

  1. There’s a killer on the road
    His brain is squirmin’ like a toad
    Take a long holiday
    Let your children play
    If you give this man a ride
    Sweet family will die
    Killer on the road

    Riders in the Storm, Doors. Last song Jim Morrison ever recorded. 1971. Cheers –

    • This is not that complicated. ‘A vehicle did not stop in time’. It does not matter who is at fault. 19 pedestrians and cyclists will die today and we need a solution. Why are those in charge at NHTSA and the Governors Highway Safety Association (GHSA) not wanting to scientifically compare the ‘Killer” right foot braking method with the Left Foot Braking Method and either prove it inadequate or adopt it? ‘That’s the way it’s always been taught’, is not a scientific justification. It’s just Tradition and Testosterone.

  2. I don’t get it. You have a perfect opportunity for a righteous rant but then HAVE TO throw some red meat to your faithful toop – guns! Of course riding a bike is exactly like some-thing-or-another-gun-thing. I will hand it to you, however, in that a humpy wasn’t implicated, too.

  3. Let’s do Alaska’s version of green new deal . Bike/ ski paths anywhere there’s a high way or road . With mandatory over and underpasses at all road crossing. Then prosecute anyone who hits a cyclist with 50 years working on slime line at 6.50 an hour . Oh sure let’s throw in some taxes to pay for bike ski paths . It’s worth it . Prosecute any cyclists who uses a bike on a legal road way with 10 years as a concrete form carrier at 8$ an hour 😉

  4. And what is the vehicular assault rate, of what seems to be all to common, drivers focusing more on a cell phone conversation and even more ugly, those texting? Stand at an intersection, off to the side for a period of time, and just count the number of drivers using this device. While the oft too often verbiage of multitasking may be applicable in some venues of daily life, it’s not in a tonnage vehicle more used multi times a day.

  5. Obviously,
    Just like mass shootings and most crimes in America…the underling determination is the urban setting.
    What is it about the “concrete jungle” that drives up crime rates and violence?
    I can see the stress on the drivers faces every time I travel into the city for provisions.
    So much habitable land across AK and yet everone is flocked into a few urban areas in the state?
    My advice to Craig is to retire out here in the upper Valley where there are many bike trails and not many drivers.
    Most days the worst of my biking experience is the occasional ATV rider who rips by in a cloud of dust…as for drivers, most are respectful to my presence on the side of the road and move over to the center to give me space.
    I do think a bright neon Safety Vest and LED strobe on the back of my bike helps, but I am surprised that for how much flack we get for “Valley Trash” the majority of drivers have been great.

  6. Two thoughts-
    First have any of you noticed that the Policia have gone lax on all things traffic in the last few years? Seems they can’t be bothered. Without that law enforcement deterrent bad behavior multiplies. Second is something I have noticed as a long time cyclist- strobes front and rear changes driver behavior. It doesn’t help with the light runners but for fore and aft situations it really helps.

  7. Craig (and for Steve of course), since you are a numbers guy, let us not leave out half the numbers:
    The most recent FBI crime stats show that more people were killed in 2017 with hammers and clubs than were killed with rifles of any kind.
    The most recent numbers–those for 2017–on September 26, 2018. Those figures showed that 467 people were killed with “blunt objects (hammers, clubs, etc.),” while 403 were killed with rifles.
    Why is there a Democrat fueled war on rifles again?

    • Isn’t the deadliest killer of Americans obesity? If we truly care about saving lives we should outlaw Haagen-Dazs, chips and sugary drinks. But we don’t care about saving lives. We care about ratings. So if it bleeds, it leads. Especially if white women are crying.

    • Bryan,
      Let’s not play games with statistics…
      Firearms are the killer and yes, MOST are handguns.
      I am all for legal ownership of firearms but we cannot forget the mental health crisis in America (of which this effects all types of violent crimes).
      By implementing sensible background check policies that look at mental disorders (and require the paperwork on ALL firearm transfers) …many guns could be kept out of the hands of those with “ill intentions”…this could also help with the suicide epidemic and the 22 veterans a day who end their lives prematurely mostly with a gun to their head.
      Even your man Trump seems to understand this is a big issue for 2020.
      “A top White House adviser said President Trump is actively pursuing an expansion of background checks for gun buyers in the wake of mass shootings in El Paso, Texas and Dayton, Ohio, as Democratic presidential candidates renewed calls over the weekend for bolder action to address gun violence.”

      • Steve,

        Mental health, proof of mental incompetency as determined via a process insuring the due process rights of those looking at having the exercise of a fundamental right curtailed, is already used to screen on background checks.

        There is no mental health professional in the US who will claim to be able to predict, in the case of a person who has not already committed a violent crime involving mental illness, future behavior further out than about 24 hours, and that only with the ability to actually examine the individual. Generalized “mental health screening” for purchase is impossible nonsense.

        And there is no evidence “expanded” background checks would or could have any effect on mass public killings ( ) in any event. Uniformly the shooters either were non-prohibited under any restriction scheme currently extant, or, acquired the firearms illegally from persons who would have no reason to do a background check.

        We know from repeated criminological studies, including by the DOJ, over decades, that essentially no (in a statistically meaningful sense) firearms are accessed by prohibited persons from people who were unaware of their prohibited status. Particularly if you then go on to control for use in violent crime (most pp’s are caught with guns kept illegally for protection from other criminals in circumstances not involving an underlying violent offense). If they are willing to commit serious Federal and state felonies now, it is irrational to think that a misdemeanor failure to do a BGC will suddenly deter them.

      • As for suicide, the overwhelming majority of firearm suicides are, as noted, committed by adult male gun owners, these are people no “access restriction” could catch, as they almost uniformly already own the gun, and are not prohibited persons in any event.

        In every culture people with true suicidal ideations, people who truly want to die use the most lethal method available to them (as differentiated by those who are making a “cry for help”). It is no surprise that in the US that cohort use firearms, as opposed to hanging, the most common male suicide method in the Western countries with often higher suicide rates but lower rates of gun ownership. Furthermore, while the act itself may seem spontaneous, in most cases a serious suicide has considered the issue and done planning, so even waiting periods are unlikely to effect more than edge cases.

        In any event, generalized restrictions on a hundred million gun owners that will, even at best, only possibly effect 25 thousand suicides, all of whom can, and some of whom will, simply substitute another method, is not a realistic way to treat a fundamental right nor responsibly and effectively address the underlying social ills that have led to the adult male suicide rates across the West in the post-war period.

      • Gun control won’t help with suicide. People do what people do especially men , there may be a genetic component that requires danger and risk taking every day ,prevention needs to occur long before a firearm comes to play . Ask Epstein. He was in a suicide resistant cell . Unless you want to call it arkancide .

      • Mathew, thank you for your factual logical approach. Why some people go with knee jerk emotional reactions is beyond me . It almost looks like a form of mental illness where their brains crave the endorphins given by emotional reactions. Creates a self serving emotional cycle . I’m not immune.

      • Opinion,
        I understand your strong 2nd amendment stance on gun rights, but I have also read many of your comments that address the mental health crisis in America.
        We have data on this issue.
        “Looking at the 97 (mass) shootings in the remaining database, I’ve marked 34 of them as being committed by U.S. military veterans…
        The result of all this is that, with this updated database,
        35% of U.S. mass shooters (lone, male, 18-59) are veterans,
        whereas 14.76% of the general population (male, 18-59) are veterans.
        A mass shooter is 2.37 times more likely to be a veteran than a random person is.”
        As we move forward into an empire of military conflict that never ends, we will have an exponential amount of veterans with PTSD returning to the homeland.
        “Operations Iraqi Freedom (OIF) and Enduring Freedom (OEF):
        About 11-20 out of every 100 Veterans (or between 11-20%) who served in OIF or OEF have PTSD in a given year.”
        Many years ago, a friend who was a veteran of the first Iraq war returned with PTSD.
        He could no longer handle the stress of working as an officer in the city.
        After an attempt to “get help” he returned to work unchanged…sadly he chose to end his life with a firearm and I think of him every time folks say “expanding background checks” won’t help.
        It could help!
        This dude should not have had his guns…let alone been “signed off” to go back on patrol.
        The stark reality is that many cops across America have PTSD as they have served in Iraq and Afghanistan.

      • Steve I’m with you 100% on mental health. The problem is it’s far more complicated than keep their guns away . Men that reach the point of suicide just change tools . Think Subako . Mental health needs a multi pronged fix over a long term . With massive intervention for returning warriors. Remember part of suicide has to do with irrational thought- life not worth living. The concept of being unable to control or effect life in a desired way . Temporary or long term depression and hopelessness a distorted veiw of reality . Take away or infringe our constitutional rights and that brings that reality into focus . Heavy exercise is one of the few solutions to many cases of suicidal thoughts/ behavior. So if you want to infringe on peoples privacy and constitutional rights do it in a positive effective way . Mandate heavy consistent exercise with life coach counseling. Will Work better than turning America into China . Keep America America land of free home of brave ! Fight back against these power hungry delusional thieves who wish to turn us all into slaves and robots . Give me liberty or give me death ! Honor those who sacrificed all so we may be free . Vote for freedom!

      • Steve Stine, would you call Major Abdul Shan (Fort Hood “mass” Shooter) a “veteran” or a MUSLIM TERRORIST? Curious which side of the aisle he falls under in your stats?

  8. Having read your examples of when you got hit, and reading the accident reports in the papers here, there are quite a few commonalities, and I’m confused as to why the engineers who must plan out roads haven’t accounted for them.

    Cars and bikes don’t mix. You can blame individuals but in general drivers are only so skillful or aware, eventually one should plan to cover most situations. Someone got killed here last week in a crosswalk on a bike at night.

    As a driver the first time I experienced the phenomenon I almost died of fright. You’re driving along and all of a sudden out of nowhere a bike crosses in front of you. No warning at all. They come at such a rate of speed that your headlights pick them up fractions of a second before they are in front of you. The popular flashing lights for pedestrians and bikes are almost as bad, of course they only work if you slow down enough and stop to press a button. Even with use they have problems. People press the button and immediately step in the path of traffic, or people have long since crossed, traffic is once again flowing and a biker at speed catches the tail end of the flashers. I don’t mind having to yield as much as I mind the constant state of heightened alert driving through a town with hundreds of flashing pedestrian lights demands. I’d much rather the lights turn red and it takes me twice as long to get somewhere, at least then a green would mean I can drive.

    Ultimately bikes and cars shouldn’t be on the same roads. In China back in the days of the bike there were steel posts with chain separating the two modes of transport with a general mixing at major intersections. Bikes are a good mode or transport, healthful, low carbon, easy to park, cheap. We should encourage and accommodate their use, and remember, those same people who are a danger to bikes are also bikers. The issue is that we are only human, not that we are out to hurt each other.

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