Bicyclists seek better protection
Two people injured in bike wrecks say they believe the motorists who hit them were not adequately punished by the court system.
BLACKSBURG -- While biking home from work in late October, Elizabeth Hokanson of Blacksburg was struck head-on by a vehicle.
The impact knocked her off her bike and from the southbound lanes to the northbound lanes of South Main Street, which she was crossing.
Thanks to her helmet -- which was cracked in 11 places -- and the condition of her body at time of impact, her injuries were minimal, considering the severity of the crash.
"The crash was not anticipated at all. ... I didn’t have time to think," Hokanson said. "And because of that, my body was still loose -- they said like a rag doll."
She suffered a concussion, several cracked ribs, wrenched joints and a large knot on her left shin bone.
The driver of the vehicle that hit Hokanson was found guilty Dec. 2 of failing to yield the right-of-way in Montgomery County General District Court and fined $30.
The maximum fine she could have received was $250.
Beth Lohman, president of the New River Valley Bicycle Association, said the fine was "insulting to the cycling community."
Today, Hokanson joins Lohman’s outrage and questions whether the punishment would have been more severe had she also been driving a vehicle.
Their concerns are mirrored by other bikers, who say not enough is being done to punish motorists at fault in these type of incidents.
"To me there are two issues at hand," Lohman said. "One is how these cases are perceived and two, how these cases are handled by police and the judges."
According to state law, Hokanson has two years from the time of the crash to take civil action, and she said that possibility is under consideration.
Hokanson is an avid cyclist, and before the crash, she commuted to work at Virginia Tech on her bike, no matter the weather.
"I wear my bike gear under my work clothes," she said. "I love to ride."
She is a League of American Cyclists-certified biking instructor and vice president of the New River Valley Bicycle Association.
On the day of the crash, Hokanson said the weather was clear and it was still light outside when she began her ride home at about 5 p.m.
From Hubbard Street in Blacksburg, she approached South Main Street, and with a green light, began to cross onto Ellett Road. At the same time, the motorist was driving west on Ellett Road and began to make a left onto South Main Street.
"And then I remember a loud noise and a silver blur," Hokanson said. "Beyond that, I don’t remember anything until the emergency room."
The trauma caused by the crash have prevented Hokanson from riding her bike.
She was unable to drive her car for more than a month after the crash because of back and joint pain. She goes to physical therapy three times a week to build her strength so she can go back on the road again.
Cases like Hokanson’s are not uncommon in the New River Valley.
Months earlier, Michael Kiernan, a friend of Hokanson’s and Tech faculty member, was sideswiped by a motorist on Nellies Cave Road in Blacksburg and suffered arm and shoulder injuries.
Kiernan said in court the driver claimed to not have seen him. She was charged and found guilty of illegal passing on the left and fined.
"Drivers need to know that we are out there, and we are legal and vulnerable users of the road," Hokanson said. "The ’I didn’t see the bicyclist’ plea is not a good enough excuse to get off scot-free."
Kiernan said he is still in the dark about what happened that day.
"If I could go back to that day in court, I would have asked the judge, ’Well why didn’t she see me?’ " he said.
Kiernan said he was not given an opportunity by the judge to seek details that he believes could shed new light on the case.
"In my opinion, I believe the judge already knew what sentence he planned to hand down before we even entered the courtroom," he said.
To prevent such incidents in the future, both Kiernan and Hokanson say drivers should be banned from talking on the phone.
"It’s a no-brainer," Kiernan said.
Hokanson said getting rid of that distraction will force drivers to stay focused on their surroundings.
Lohman said she wants to see more protection given to cyclists through the law. She cited legislation in Texas and Oregon that protects vulnerable road users such as bicyclists and pedestrians.
Lohman said this legislation provides a higher level of care for these road users and ensures higher fines against motorists at fault.
"Bicycles are treated like vehicles under the law," she said. "Therefore, bicyclists should always be subject to all laws and principals."
As president of the area bicycle association, Lohman said she is hearing more concerns about bikers’ safety every day.
"I get a lot of feedback from bikers saying they want more justice and recognition," she said.
"People need to know that we’re present in the NRV and that we have connections to other organizations that can help justice be done."