San Francisco Examiner * December 15, 2000 * Page C10

City's Cyclists Are Treated Like Second Class

By Leah Shahum
Program Director, San Francisco Bicycle Coalition, a 2,800-member nonprofit
advocacy group promoting bicycling for everyday transportation.

What's worse than being hit by a reckless or malicious driver while riding a bike in San Francisco? Being told that it does not really matter by a police officer.

Despite the growing number of people choosing to get around by bicycles in San Francisco - 25,000 a day - two-wheelers are treated like second-class citizens by the SF Police Department (SFPD). The unspoken credo in handling traffic collisions seems to be to assume the citizen with the bigger vehicle is always right.

Well, those of us in the smaller vehicles are tired of it, especially after a young man riding his bicycle was hit and killed last month by the driver of a big rig truck. According to witnesses, the driver yelled and threw a block of wood at the bicyclist before swerving into him. Might does not make right.

The bicycling community is calling for justice in the case of 30-year-old Chris Robertson's death. We fear the worse, given local law enforcement agencies' dismal records of dealing with bike-related cases.

San Francisco police officers regularly deny people riding bikes even the most basic legal right of filing an incident report after a collision. The numbers speak for themselves. Based on a year's worth of calls placed to the Cyclists' Hotline, set up by the SF Bicycle Coalition, police officers did not take incident reports in more than half of the 21 cases reported to the hotline involving injuries to cyclists. (Filing a police report is a fundamental right in any case where someone is injured or property is damaged.)

It is frustrating enough that many drivers are not aware of cyclists' rights to the road (which are, for all intents and purposes, the same as drivers'), but for trained police officers to be ignorant (at best) or negligent (at worst) of the legal rights of people on bikes is unacceptable.

In case after case in which people were injured but, thank goodness, not killed, police failed to give equal treatment under the law to citizens who happen to be on bicycles:

A man was "doored" while bicycling downtown, or hit by a car door flung open without the driver's first looking, suffering severe bruises and requiring x-rays. When he requested a police report be taken, the officer refused and told the victim "to go away."

When a semi-truck jumped a curb on Market Street while making a turn, hitting a cyclist and dragging his bike under the truck, police insisted that there was no need to file a report, claiming falsely that reports were only filed in hit-and-run cases.

Another man hit by a car on Market Street was refused a report by police officers three times. These cases - and many more like them - occurred after Police Chief Fred Lau circulated a department bulletin reminding officers to take bicycle .vs. motorist incidents seriously and to "prepare incident reports in all such cases....and....not unduly dissuade bicycle riders from making accident reports."

Strong words from the Chief? Not really, just the law.

Police brass quietly explain away the lack of reporting as efficient use of their time since, according to them, the District Attorney's office would ignore such lo-priority cases anyway. Judging from the DA's track record in prosecuting cases involving bicyclists and pedestrians as victims, that may be the unfortunate truth. The DA's Office, on the other hand, blames the SFPD for not sending them more cases to prosecute. It is time for both departments to stop pointing fingers and take responsibility for their apparent prejudice against those choosing non-motorized transportation.

If the police and DA's offices would consistently uphold the law and protect bicyclists' rights to the road, perhaps more drivers would respect the law and give bicyclists their rightful space on the road.

Perhaps San Francisco would not have a reputation for habitually letting the killers of bicyclists and pedestrians off scot-free.

Perhaps one man in a truck would have thought twice about the consequences
before he steered into another man on a bicycle.

Perhaps Chris Robertson would be alive today.



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