Thursday, September 20, 2007

J-Hooks Are No Accident

J-hook turn
After being J-hooked (see pic at left), I have biked to the offender's window and asked what the devil he was thinking. Usually they speed away to my trailing curses, but twice I caught up to the offender. Both times, the driver has looked dumbly with an open mouth. Once he said nothing and the other time he said he thought he had lots of time to make the turn.

Biking downtown and around, I am finding this more common than twits opening their doors into traffic without looking. That does happen and I literally always watch windows of parked cars before I get close (I hate heavily tinted windows). Even claim-a-lane guys like me have to learn lots of techniques for cycling amidst inattentive and even hostile Boston-area motorized-weapon drivers.

J-hooking is a serious problem. It is plainly illegal and should, but rarely does, bring tickets or serious punishment, even when drivers maim or kill cyclists. Yes, it is reckless driving (and here the more serious driving to endanger when it involves injury), but we are left wondering what the drivers are thinking, if anything. We would very much like to get judges, prosecutors and cops on board to stop this madness.

Crossposting: This also appears at Harrumph!

You can meet and listen to some of the good guys next month at Moving Together 2007, the ped/bike/car conference. It's for serious transportation geeks and includes policy and practice at the state and local level to encourage and maintain safety for walking and cycling. Plus, there are also very pleasant surprises from the new cycling advocate mayor in city hall.

With upwards of 800 American cyclists killed and over 40,000 injured annually by drivers, you'd think — inaccurately — that cops and judges would bring the hammer down on J-hookers and such. Instead we face such ingrained problems as:
  • Judges and prosecutors seem to suffer from the there-but-for-fortune-go-I syndrome.
  • Police don't bother enforcing traffic laws or aiding in prosecution of motorists who injure or kill cyclists
    In a personal example, an unregistered, uninsured driver turned left suddenly across three lanes and broadsided me on a bike. The Hyde Park cop investigating gave her a pass and did not notify me of her court appearance as required and agreed to. She was an unwed mother working at a downtown department store. Apparently because she was irresponsible in bed, she was also allowed to be irresponsible behind the wheel. She paid something like a hundred dollar fine. The other cop who handles such wrecks sort of apologized and said that was SOP there and throughout Boston.
  • Most drivers look in front of their hoods instead of at the whole front and peripheral scene. That leads to tailgating, running into or in front of foot, bike and car traffic coming from the side. This may be the toughest because it requires a different way of thinking and a lot of brain power to process the flood of visual and aural data. Most of us just aren't that bright and we can't add more RAM to humans.
Of course in sheer numbers motor vehicle operators are more dangerous to their peers and themselves. They kill each other by the tens of thousands annually. So you'd think that cops, DAs and judges would try to shift attitudes by prosecuting and punishing the reckless and inattentive to change the culture. Enforcement does not prevent crimes of impulse or passion like most murders, but sure punishment for drivers likely would.

Instead, what we generally find is the attitude that it is too much trouble. Likewise the whole culture, particularly the mass media, terms inattentive and reckless driving that kills a cyclist as an accident rather than the irresponsible crime it is.

One example of how this works was clear from a 2003 study of the issues by the Silicon Valley Bicycle Coalition. They followed up on such crashes and reported:
(D)rivers are seldom charged in fatalities involving pedestrians and cyclists. Three out of four at-fault drivers were never even cited for hitting and killing pedestrians. The two-year study revealed that 22% of fatal pedestrian crashes involved hit and run drivers, yet, none of the run-away motorists were found or charged.

According to Russ Westbrook, past president and co-founder of Walk San Jose, "The high percentage of hit-and-run crimes are just one symptom of an auto-centric culture we have created through five decades of cars-first public policy. These policies have relegated pedestrians to second-class citizenry, and turned our neighborhood streets into get-away freeways for traffic outlaws. Every year hundreds of pedestrians are left bleeding in the streets while the perpetrators just go home and wash their cars and pick up the kids."
That rhetoric is not melodramatic either. Many of us recall Douglas K. Richardson, whose killer walked. In 2002, the Beth Israel physician was biking the eight miles from Newton when he suffered an ignominious death by BFI garbage truck. The driver raced by and J-hooked him, and crushed Richardson. The Brookline DA actively prosecuted but the case went no place in court.

In contrast, this week's death of a 13-year-old girl cyclist in Walpole has brought charges. From the reports, this looks like another J-hooking. The NStar truck driver wasn't wearing his corrective lenses as required. We know that seventh grader Justine Trainor was riding legally on the right side and place when he drove by her, turned and rode over her, dragging her and her bike.

My cynicism suggests that he may do a short prison sentence, pay a fine and lose his commercial license because of the circumstances. The victim was a young girl, not a 30-year-old tattooed messenger. This was suburban. They don't cotton much to murdering their kids.

One such prosecution is the right thing to do. Particularly because the penalties remain light, less than other types of homicide and less than pot sales, consistency is key here. Drivers need to be aware that killing cyclists will surely mean loss of license, high fines, a huge jump in insurance premiums, and maybe jail time. Nothing else would make for the necessary alertness and attentiveness.

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Anonymous said...

Hey there! Great blog and yes, biking in Boston is just terrrrrible. Very scary. Just a short note, however, that an "unwed mother" was not "irresponsible in bed." My goodness. Lots of "unwed mothers" wanted to have children without being married, and/or there is no way to know their situations, so jumping to conclusions about how they are irresponsible is not so nice. Clearly she was an irresponsible driver, yes. But perhaps we could leave it that.

massmarrier said...

Yes, I should either have not expressed it that way or revealed the other details I knew that support that assertion for that particular driver. Everything I learned of her life says she was very immature and irresponsible.

By the bye, she apparently was looking at her kid in the car seat when she floored it on the left turn, not seeing a big guy on a bring yellow bike and not hearing the screams from onlookers, including me. She really was in over her head in life it appears. I'm fortunate not to have died from her recklessness.

Anonymous said...

Elizabeth made the comment about the "irresponsible in bed" statement that I wanted to make. Having a kid out of wedlock might suggest that you love kids, are Catholic, are not pro-choice, lack good judgment, or many other things, but it's unrelated to ones driving ability.

That being said and out of the way, I agree with pretty much everything else you said. Portland (Ore.) is fairly bike friendly as far as big cities go, but I know several people (including one close friend) who have said outright, "I hate bicyclists." I've been a pedestrian, a bicyclist and a driver, so I understand the frustration with some cyclists. But to "hate them?" Certainly motorists who make mistakes or can't drive are more of a hassle and danger, so I think this animosity stems from a sense of entitlement.

A month or two ago, a former coworker of mine was struck and run over by a motorist in a van. He was j-hooked, and he made eye contact with the driver. He paused (almost stopping) until he'd made eye contact with her, and she slowed down. He proceeded, and she hit the gas. Then she hit him. He recalls realizing that one of the van's tires was on his chest, and then he passed out. He spent a day or two in the hospital, but she was only given a citation. She told police she had not seen him.

Absolutely, things have to change. I think there will have to be an intentional effort to bring bicycling to the mainstream. The more people who experience it, the less likely they are to "otherize" riders.

massmarrier said...

Right you are about the need for change. That can start with the police. Many don't seem to like the paperwork involved in such cases and many seem to like to play DA, deciding what case to put in the prosecution hopper. Both of those attitudes put their pledge to ensure public safety and enforce the laws at question. Those are uphill battles, but need more of us to keep at it.

As for my driver, it's empathetic and positive that both of you are eager to see a different side. Unfortunately, this one doesn't fit. I went to a leading cyclists' lawyer with my serious concussion, busted bike and helmet, broken wrist and fingers and so forth. He said I'd have no problem and that she was totally at fault. When he checked her out though, he found not only had no insurance but made little and had little. She left debts in Illinois, moved her solo a couple years before, never registered or insured the car (she was a couple of blocks from the main Hyde Park police station and they passed her expired plates all the time. She didn't know who the dad was and quite clearly had not sought the baby. All in all...immature and irresponsible.

The lawyer said I'd win any suit and get a good judgment. However, getting the money would be dribs. She'd be working for me. He also figured that given her history, she'd skip out of state as she did Illinois. I figured it would seriously degrade my karma to sue her.

Again, as had happened in much of her life, others, such as I, paid for what she did and did not do. We can only hope that she got it together enough to give the kid a decent life.

Anonymous said...

This story gave me chills. I'm teaching my kids to ride responsibly and I just CANNOT imagine getting the phone call telling me something like this has happened. Boy-oh-boy.

massmarrier said...

My wife is good on stories like this. You certainly don't want to ask for details of her laser eye surgery.

She tells of getting a call from the Faulkner Hospital -- "Your husband is fine," with no context. They made her drag the wreck, ambulance, head x-rays and so forth from them. Clueless!

A doctor later asked to see the helmet. It had three long cracks, which he said would likely have been in my skull if it had not been encased.

The woman never apologized or called or made any effort. It was as the police like to say, "...just an accident..."

Anonymous said...

This is about that part that you were talking about, how that girl got run over in walpole. I am from Walpole, and that girl never got dragged. She was riding her bike nearby the driveway entrance to the Nstar place, and she lost her balance, and fell. When she fell, the driver didn't see her, and rode into the driveway, running over her chest. There was no J-hooking involved.

Anonymous said...

We know that seventh grader Justin Trainor.......... Her name is JUSTINE Trainor, not Justin.

There is much to this story than you know of. J-hooking was involved and much more.

Anonymous said...

In response to Julia regarding Justine Trainor's accident. I dont know where you got your information but you are completely wrong. Being a neighbor and freind of the family and having spoken to witnesses I know first hand that this was a tragedy that should have been avoided and the driver is completely at fault. The local and state police are taking this case very seriously. The driver has been charged with vehicular homicide as well as numerous other violations. The investigation will be ongoing for atleast 6 months.

The facts as I know them: this is a residential neighborhood where the driver should have used care when entering the NSTAR driveway. The girl was not on the roadway but riding a well worn path besides the road. Several witnesses reported that the driver failed to use his turn signal when entering the driveway. One witness reported that the driver had turned to wave at a passing vehicle as he turned into the NSTAR property. Justine WAS hit and dragged. Her father had the horror of arriving on the scene before police and fire got there.

Having driven large trucks in the past myself I can not conceive of making a turn like that without using a directional, without slowing down to a near stop and most importantly without looking where I was turning. This was clearly a tragedy that should never have happend.

massmarrier said...

Gee, anon, in the future, when you see an underlined and blue link on the internet that almost always indicates a link. That is in the post. It is to the published reports, this one in the Boston Globe, with quotes provided by the police. That article is still available online. "Completely wrong" is an odd statement. If you disagree with the report and driver citation by police, perhaps you need to come forward and discuss it with them.

I think that drivers far, far too frequently plough down cyclists, kids and adults alike, only to pay no penalty or perhaps a few hundred dollars. That has happened to me, in fact, by a reckless woman who broadsided my bike while turning blind.. I think a driver who harms cyclists though carelessness or malice should bear the full punishment possible. That is the best approach for making people attentive.