Legally Speaking - Bikes v. Cars
To the casual observer, it may seem as though tempers have been rising along with the temperatures this summer, but as we’ll see, we know that the summer heat has nothing to do with it. Nevertheless, add higher gas prices, more bikes on the road, and — why not? — alcohol to the usual tension between motorists and cyclists, and you’ve got a potent cocktail for conflict.
On July 4, two southern California cyclists ran headlong into that conflict as they made their way through Brentwood’s Mandeville Canyon, a popular weekend destination for cyclists who want to put in a maximum of miles with a minimum of traffic signals. Ron Peterson, 40, a southern California cycling coach, and Christian Stoehr, 29, a member of the West Los Angeles Cycling Club, and both members of Team Cynergy Cycles, had joined some 300 cyclists for a holiday ride up Mandeville Canyon Road — a five mile climb without a single traffic light. On the descent, somebody crashed. Peterson and Stoehr stayed behind with the injured cyclist until the paramedics arrived, then continued their descent towards Sunset Boulevard, two abreast, along the twists and turns of Mandeville Canyon Road. A late model Infiniti sedan approached them from behind and honked; Peterson obligingly pulled ahead of Stoehr to let the driver pass. Not quite ready to hurry along his way, the driver buzzed Stoehr and Peterson, passing within less than a foot of their handlebars, and shouting his profanity-laced advice to ride single file. Peterson fired back with some choice words of his own; the driver then quickly veered into the path of the two cyclists and braked hard — “as hard as he could,” Peterson recalled.
Peterson went face-first through the rear window of the Infiniti, breaking teeth and nearly severing his now-broken nose. Stoehr, riding just behind Peterson, nearly steered clear of the car, clipping it just enough to catapult him over his bars. He landed on the road just ahead of the car, separating his shoulder on impact. The driver, Dr. Christopher T. Thompson [Note: NOT the same Dr. Christopher Thompson who has been threatened and harassed by angered cyclists since the incident], exited his car, identified himself as a doctor, but according to Peterson, “from that point on, he never offered any help” — despite having spent 29 years as an emergency room doctor.
Dr. Thompson was arrested on suspicion of assault with a deadly weapon; he was later released on $30,000 bail. Dr. Thomspon, who lives on Mandeville Canyon Road, and whose wife Lynne sits on the board of the Upper Mandeville Canyon Association, was subsequently described as “a great guy who has been active in the community” by board president Wendy-Sue Rosen. "People here are very, very angry at bicyclists and their disregard for the laws of the road," Rosen noted. Reports that residents had been spat upon by cyclists only further fueled the anger; reports of what had triggered the spitting incidents were not as forthcoming from the angered residents.
Speaking on behalf of Dr. Thompson afterwards, his attorney emphatically denied “that there was any road rage incident. It was a very unfortunate accident.” Unfortunately for Dr. Thompson, the “accidental” nature of the alleged assault was quickly called into question when it was revealed that he had been involved in a strikingly similar incident a few short months before, in March of 2008.
Cyclist Patrick Watson, one of two cyclists involved in the March incident with Dr. Thompson, recalled that, as on the July 4th incident, the driver had braked suddenly and hard, sending a cyclist to the ground; the driver “then ran me off the road and as I jumped back onto the pavement he slammed on his brakes right in front of us.”
According to Watson, the driver then drove straight at the fallen cyclist, then again “drove straight at me.” The quick-thinking Watson entered the driver’s license number into his cell phone and reported the incident. Although the Los Angeles Police Department promptly investigated the March incident, the Los Angeles District Attorney Steve Cooley declined to file charges against Dr. Thompson, saying the case wasn’t “a winner.”
If this coddling left Dr. Thompson feeling enabled to continue assaulting cyclists, the feeling didn’t last long. His luck with prosecutors ran out after the second assault in Mandeville canyon; in connection with the July 4th incident, he has been charged with two felony counts of reckless driving causing injury, and two felony counts of battery with serious bodily injury. Although no charges have yet been filed in the March assault, Patrick Watson’s quick-thinking and subsequent complaint to the LAPD present a serious obstacle to any defense claims that Thompson’s actions on July 4th were just “a very unfortunate accident.”
A few days after Dr. Thomson’s second run-in with cyclists, another road rage incident broke out in Portland, Oregon, again between a driver and a cyclist, but this time, with a twist. Colin Yates, 47, a bike mechanic, was driving home with his family on July 6, when he alleged that a cyclist who was riding erratically nearly collided with him before running a red light. Yates reported that he pulled up next to the cyclist — later identified as Steven McAtee, 31 — and told him that he was making other cyclists look bad. McAtee’s response? He allegedly urged Yates to get out of his car and fight. When Yates refused, McAtee raised his bike over his head and began slamming it into the front of Yates’ car. Yates, finally having had enough of McAtee’s behavior, exited his vehicle, and was promptly attacked by McAtee, who now began slamming his bike into Yates. While Yates was being assaulted, a passer-by punched McAtee, knocking him down. A crowd of passing cyclists gathered, and assuming that a motorist had injured a cyclist, many began taking photos of Yates. When the police — who had received a report of a car-on-bicycle crash — arrived, they heard conflicting versions of which party was the aggressor in the incident, but after talking with a witness who was too afraid to speak openly in front of the crowd, eventually decided that McAtee was the aggressor, and placed him under arrest; he was charged with third-degree assault, criminal mischief, disorderly conduct, and driving under the influence of intoxicants.
One week later, a speeding driver who passed a little too close to a Portland cyclist — 37 year old Jason Rehnberg — on a residential street elicited an admonishment to “slow down, gashole!” Tires smoked as the driver, 21 year old James Millican, screeched to a halt and leapt out, threatening to beat the cyclist. The cyclist attempted to escape, but after a few moments, jumped off his bike and onto the hood of the car when the still-enraged Millican drove straight at him, crushing his bike. The event made national news when a bystander got cellphone video footage of the driver careening down the street with the terrified cyclist clinging to the hood of the car. Eventually, Millican slowed down enough for Rehnberg to escape from his perch on the hood. Later that day, Millican was arrested and charged with kidnapping, second-degree attempted assault, driving under the influence of intoxicants, third-degree criminal mischief and reckless driving.
Incredibly, two days after Millican assaulted Rehnberg, Portland was witness to yet another spectacle of road rage; this third incident began when 23 year old bike courier Adam Leckie allegedly cut off a vehicle; riding in the vehicle was cyclist Patrick Schrepping, 30, and a co-worker of Colin Yates, the bike mechanic involved in the July 6th road rage incident. As Leckie cycled on his way, Schrepping yelled at him for cutting off his friend who was driving, and then delivering the coup de grace, yelled at him for not wearing a helmet. According to Leckie, he had his helmet with him, but was not wearing it because he wanted to cool off — not that he owes an explanation to anybody. But more to the point, Leckie claims he had had a bad day, and the “get a helmet” comment was just the straw that broke the camel’s back. After yelling back at Schrepping, Leckie apparently reversed course, and followed the SUV containing Schrepping and his friend to the restaurant where they planned to have diner. While Schrepping and his friend were inside, Leckie rode by and keyed the door; unbeknownst to Leckie, however, Schrepping was watching, and he ran out to confront Leckie. A brawl erupted, during the course of which Leckie’s u-lock fell to the ground; Schrepping alleges that the u-lock fell when Leckie swung it at him. Schrepping dove for the u-lock, and in a turn of the tables, delivered some “u-lock justice” to the messenger, opening up a 1-inch gash in Leckie’s head. At that point, a bystander stepped in and broke up the fight. When police arrived — Schrepping says that he called the police — they cited Leckie for criminal mischief and arrested Schrepping on suspicion of assault. Subsequently, Leckie and Shcrepping apologized to each other, and dropped their respective charges; the District Attorney is still reviewing the case.
Something about these incidents, occurring in quick succession during the first two weeks of July, captured our collective attention; for the Portland, Oregon-based The Oregonian, each new incident was evidence of a “bikes vs. cars” war, and as such, merited successive, almost daily above-the-fold headlines in the newsstands. And then the national media took notice. First, Newsweek declared that a surge in ridership had spurred a “new kind of road rage,” in the July 28 article Pedal vs.
Metal. Of course, for anybody who has actually been on a bike before this summer, Newsweek’s discovery of this “new kind of road rage” was very old news indeed.
The New York Times weighed in one week later, addressing the clash between cyclists and motorists head-on in the August 8 article Moving Target .
Of course, despite national attention being focused, even if only briefly, on the issue, “bikes vs. cars” violence wasn’t winding down. On July 25, just three days before the Newsweek article was published, “bike vs. cars” violence broke out again, when the monthly Critical Mass ride crossed paths with a driver who was taking his passenger to her birthday party. It began as other Critical Mass incidents have, with some of the riders corking the driver as the rest of the riders rode past. The driver — identified only as “Mark,” a 23 year old travel agent and former bicycle commuter — reported waiting patiently, at first, but after tiring of waiting, he decided to back up and take a different route. As he tried to back up and leave, the cyclists responded by surrounding his car, preventing him from moving in any direction. That’s when the situation began to deteriorate; the driver reports that some of the cyclists began pulling on his mirrors, taunting him with threats that they would tip his car. His response? Feeling intimidated, and “concerned for my safety," Mark began revving his engine. “[I] was going to…try to be macho and scare some people. I didn’t realize my car was in first [gear].”
As he popped his clutch, Mark’s car lurched forward, striking two of the cyclists who were hemming him in. He was immediately swarmed, and reports that one cyclist tried to punch him. At that point, fearing for his safety, he drove off, with one cyclist — Seattle Attorney Tom Braun — still under his wheel, and another cyclist who had jumped onto the hood for safety clinging to his roof rack. A block away, he heard somebody shout “Someone’s really hurt,” so he stopped his car. “I thought I just knocked two bikes over,” Mark reported. “I wanted to get away from the situation but if I’d hurt someone, I didn’t want to flee.” When the cyclists caught up with him, they began smashing his windows and slashing his tires, reportedly to “in order to make sure that he did not continue operating his vehicle through the city like a madman.”
As Mark exited his car, somebody, attacking from behind, hit him in the head with a U-lock, opening up a large gash in Mark’s head. Cyclists David Maxwell, 23, and John Lawson, 24, were arrested on charges of Malicious Mischief, but charges have not yet been filed in the case. Outside of the courthouse, arguing that Seattle police should have investigated the driver’s role in the altercation, Maxwell said "I think the driver should be in the position we’re in.”
The cyclist who opened up Mark’s head with his U-lock was interviewed as a witness by police, before another witness identified him as the assault suspect. Seattle police, who have his name from the interview, are still searching for him, and expect to file charges when he is found. Speaking afterwards about the violence, Lawson noted that "Critical Mass is supposed to be a positive thing. This isn’t what it’s supposed to be about."
One week later, on August 2, “bikes vs. cars” violence spilled into the headlines once again, this time from just Utah. It was on the Mirror Lake Highway, between Salt Lake City and Kamas; the highway was posted for the Tour de Park City that day. Cyclist Shane Dunleavy reports that as he was on a morning training ride, a pickup truck pulled up alongside him.
"The guy pulled up next to me and was already in a rage,” Dunleavy recalled. “When he started screaming out his window at me, I said something back about having a right to be on the road."
That only further enraged the driver, who began swerving into Dunleavy. The truck’s passenger door was now being repeatedly pressed against Dunleavy’s knee, pushing him off the road, and the mirror was in position to topple him over, so Dunleavy attempted to push off the truck’s mirror; as he did so, the mirror broke.
Now the driver was really mad — “He went nuts," Dunleavy said. "He gunned it right into us and knocked me over. I was dragged along for a little while and pulled my knees back just as he ran over the bike."
Miraculously, Dunleavy wasn’t injured…But the driver wasn’t done with his rampage. After running Dunleavy down, the driver stopped, and jumped out of his truck, intending to continue his assault on the cyclists…at which point, he soon discovered that without his pickup truck, he was no match for the cyclists he was threatening. Dunleavy’s training partner, Patrick Fasse, reportedly grabbed the driver — 41 year old Alexander Barto — by the hair, and began punching him in the face. Dunleavy and Fasse then threw Barto against his truck and held him there while they waited for police to arrive. Other cyclists who arrived on the scene immediately afterwards informed Dunleavy that Barto had just harassed them moments before. When the Utah Highway Patrol arrived, Barto was arrested for investigation of aggravated assault.
For the media, and for the new cyclists who, lured by the combination of warm weather and high gas prices, are venturing out onto the road for the first time, these stories of road violence, one after the other, may indeed have seemed like “a new kind of road rage.” For seasoned cyclists, the stories were more an indication that the daily violence cyclists encounter had finally managed to capture the attention of the public-at-large. But underlying the “bikes vs. cars” eruptions of violence, the larger questions remained unasked, and unanswered in the media: Why are cyclists the daily targets of road violence, and what can cyclists do to change that reality?
Fortunately, for every cyclist who has ever asked those questions, there are answers; next week, we’re going to delve deeper into this issue for answers to those deeper questions.
(Research and drafting provided by Rick Bernardi, J.D.)
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