Whenever a news story about cycling is posted on a local news site across the country the comments below it inevitably contain a well worn litany of drivers berating cyclists. The specific incident in the cycling crash news story itself has limited significance to the views expressed. Among other tropes, the reaction invariably includes a version of “I saw some other cyclist break the law.” And that results in their view that all cyclists are a menace. Or that “cyclists always break the law.” With the inevitable conclusion being that the cyclist in the particular situation got their just desserts. The commenters are expressing a form of windshield bias.
Windshield bias refers to decision-making prejudice or deference in favor of a car driver’s perspective above all others. The term originated in the world of transportation planning but this implicit bias manifests in many ways. One of which is deference to a driver’s perspective on a crash incident. Essentially granting a driver’s report or perspective on an incident greater credibility than a non-motorized traveler’s report. We regularly encounter it as part of the bicycle crash and injury work we do. The classic situation being the single witness suicide swerve (aka single witness death swerve) where the surviving driver swears up and down the experienced cyclist just swerved right out in front of the car. For example, that’s what Marc Law tried to claim when he hit Rachel Corey and caused catastrophic injuries to her a few years ago.
In crash cases, there is a regular effort to shift and find that blame rests on somebody other than the car driver. It is a hunt for a two-wheeled scapegoat.
A Cyclist Is Hit
This well-worn scenario recently played out in a Boise Idaho case involving a cyclist named Liz Hilton. It was not just the social media commenters who exhibited the windshield bias. The police, prosecutor and judge each exhibited a version of it too.
In this instance, Ms. Hilton was riding her bike towards downtown Boise on a summer morning. She came to a stop at a red light at a three-way intersection. After stopping and allowing traffic to turn left in front of her, Ms. Hilton proceeded through the intersection on red. This is legal under Idaho’s well-known “Stop as Yield” statute—Idaho Code section 49-720(2).
After she cleared the intersection and was headed downhill a car coming from the right went “3/4 of the way through my turn” according to the driver’s testimony and hit her back tire. She immediately crashed and suffered a substantial life-altering displaced ankle fracture. What is called a “pilon fracture.”
The Cyclist Is Ticketed and Goes to Trial
It was in the investigation and the prosecution that the wind shield bias manifested itself. The Boise police officer in charge of the situation concluded that Ms. Hilton deserved a ticket for running the red-light in violation of Idaho Code section 49-801. That is the code section that applies to vehicles. For cyclists, that code section is is superseded by the Idaho Stop as Yield law.
There is, in fact a provision of law, Idaho Code section 49-714, that makes clear that 49-801 does not apply to cyclists. That law says a person “riding a bicycle shall have all of the rights and all of the duties applicable to the driver of any other vehicle … , except as otherwise provided in this chapter. ” For red lights it is “otherwise provided” in Idaho Code section 49-720.
The officer went to see Ms. Hilton in the emergency room where she was awaiting the first of her numerous surgeries. She admitted that her light was red when she started through the intersection. On that basis, he gave her a ticket for a violation of Idaho Code section 49-801. She plead not guilty and recently went to trial on the charge.
Traffic tickets are not heard by juries. Rather a judge decides them. It turns out it was the very first day that this particular judge had ever been on the bench issuing decisions.
The prosecutor argued that section 49-801 applied. He further argued that Ms. Hilton had been broadsided, not hit from behind. The judge, erroneously in my view, found that she violated section 49-801.
Idaho Media Takes Notice
The story was picked up by a wide variety of media outlets. This included one of the local papers the Idaho Press. It had the story of the collision on the front page. The leading local TV new station, KTVB Channel 7 also did a story. The comments on the Facebook post of the story was a prime example of the wind shield bias that permeates society.
As a legal matter, it is not possible for a cyclist to violate that statute under Idaho law because it does not apply to them. But it was really the officer, prosecutor and judge’s windshield bias that resulted in the conviction. The scene evidence shows the story the prosecutor told can not possibly be true.
The Physical Evidence Shows The Cyclist did not Violate the Law
The police body cam and other scene video establishes Ms. Hilton landed in the Bike lane. 100% of the testimony is she was hit and fell to the ground and did not slide after being hit. She was more than 30 feet past the intersection. She was sitting on the “wheel” of the bicycle lane symbol in the bike lane.
She was also 20 feet from where the point of impact on the car should have been if he had turned into his lane. In short, the driver admits he didn’t see her. The only conclusion that can be drawn from this evaluation is that the driver 1. Wasn’t paying attention, 2. turned illegally and 3. drove into the bike lane.
The ruling has been appealed. The legal error will ultimately get rectified. But the fact the injured cyclist has had to go through these legal proceedings shows one of the real prices of such windshield bias.
One Response to The Windshield Bias
The TV new story generated the most commentary on the Facebook page. That commentary reflects much of the standard discourse that shows up in stories about cyclists. Cyclists are dangerous, they should not be on the road, its good they she got hit, cyclists are rude, cyclists should be on sidewalks etc. etc. etc.
But as one of the commenters who was pushing back against the garden-variety anti-cyclist arguments noted:
“For my part, on my bike, I obey the law and no one obstructs me. Plus, cyclists have a RIGHT to lawfully use a public street. You just have a PRIVILEGE. One that should be much harder to get and much easier to lose. “
His point is cyclists have a legal right to use roadways. And its been that way since the 1880s. In addition, it was cyclists that led the way in getting our nation’s roads paved beginning in 1880 with the Good Roads Movement. In truth, cyclists pay for the roads just like everybody else. Cyclists pay income tax, sales tax, property tax, registration fees for their cars and yes, even gas tax when they put gas in their cars.
From their earliest years, motorists began racking up a body count with their cars. Licensing requirements were an effort to limit the carnage. In contrast, cyclists have never presented the same hazard to public health and safety. Motor vehicles, and their operators, have a revocable privilege to use the public roads. Cyclists, pedestrians, and other unlicensed travelers have an irrevocable right to use our public ways.