The story is heart wrenching. A Madeira Beach garbage truck driver hit a bicyclist riding lawfully within the speed limit in a bike lane. Julie Henning was left with “multiple compound fractures, a crushed pelvis, eight broken ribs, a punctured lung and a traumatic brain injury.”
The follow-up Tampa Bay Times story this week is welcomed—and rare. Too often, we hear only the original report of the crash. In this case, that May 23, 2020, story had all the hallmarks of bike meets car collisions. The story said Henning “couldn’t stop before hitting the garbage truck because she was riding downhill,” suggesting it was her fault. It made no mention of the truck driver’s culpability. Perhaps that wasn’t known at the time, but within a few weeks, the official report was available: The driver was cited for failure to yield. Henning had done everything right and yet was left shattered. But there was no follow-up story until Henning sued the city. It was then we learned of the driver’s culpability and that the city was aware of his poor driving habits.
One line in the story illustrates a key problem cyclists face: “The driver, John Leppert, said he never saw her.” How often do we hear that in reports about bike crashes? That simple statement is enough to allow careless, thoughtless motorists a “get out of jail free card.” As long as a motorist is not intoxicated, you can be sure that the police will not arrest and district attorneys will not prosecute. All the driver needs to say is, “I didn’t see her.”
Until we hold accountable drivers who do not pay attention and respect vulnerable road users, including cyclists, pedestrians and scooter riders, etc., there will be many Julie Hennings whose lives are upended, if not ended, by motorists.
Cyclists can help themselves by trying to increase their visibility. It is lawful for bicyclists to take the full lane, even if there is a bike lane available, if staying in the bike lane is dangerous. In the middle of a travel lane cyclists are more visible to motorists behind and in front of them, as well as to those entering the lanes from parking lots and side streets. After all, that’s where motorists look for vehicles. Crouched along the far-right hand side of the lane, especially adjacent to parked cars, hides cyclists from view.
But we need the media to do more follow-up stories because the initial ones are no more than re-writes of law enforcement’s press releases, which usually don’t include any mention of tickets issued. Such stories also often highlight irrelevant issues that suggest the cyclist is at fault. For example, wearing a helmet when hit by a car travelling at 40 mph is not going to save a cyclist, but many stories mention that fact as if to suggest it would have made a difference.
The same day that Julie Henning was hit, an unidentified St. Pete cyclist was killed by a drunk driver. The brief Times story contained this line: “The bicyclist traveled into the path of the car, which hit him,” suggesting the cyclist was at fault for riding into the path of a drunk driver.
We need a true telling of bicycle/motor vehicle crashes. With only the initial reports based on incomplete information, a narrative is created that cyclists are reckless or foolish, when indeed, it’s often the motorist who was, or at least inattentive. Clearly assigning responsibility may change public perception and increase public safety.
Robert Griendling is a past president of the St. Petersburg Bicycle Club and a member of the St. Petersburg Mayor’s Bicycle and Pedestrian Advisory Committee. The views are his own.