Dying of Indifference: How Officials, Media, and Police Trivialize the Epidemic of Reckless Driving in New Orleans


 

In the dark, early hours one summer in 2016, two people killed a man. We don’t know his name, because the journalists who reported his death never bothered to report his name. The two killers did not act in concert, and they didn’t know each other. In fact, they probably had never met. And they almost certainly were not planning on killing anybody. But as night trickled into the morning, at 1:30 am, on June 2, 2016, this man was riding his bicycle on the Earhart Expressway, either in the far right lane or on the shoulder.

Suddenly, as most of the city slept, he was struck from behind by a car. 

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The driver kept going. 

    We do not know where this unidentified man was heading. Perhaps he was returning home to join the city in slumber. What we do know is what happened next. 

Another driver, in another vehicle, hit the same man. 

Again, the second driver kept going. Our protagonist was killed, not by intention or premeditation, but by a callous and gut-wrenching display of inhumanity. He died alone, in the dark, as two individuals who were in a position to save his life left him on the side of the road.

It is easy to think about this as a freak accident or to imagine that this individual was doing something wrong by riding his bike. Fox 8 News took the news of this absurd tragedy as an opportunity to note that people who ride bikes must follow the same laws as motorists, even though the victim here was not breaking any traffic laws. Even more pessimistically, the reporter elicited a statement that “some bicyclists don’t follow the letter of the law.” 

That statement was made by Charlie Thomas. Thomas is an attorney and a member of Bike Law, a national organization of attorneys who advocates for cyclists who are hurt or killed on the road. He remembered the conversation with Fox 8 after the death: “That was one line, and I was talking for ten minutes,” Thomas said. 

I find it to be dangerous and, in this case, insulting when the media insists on raising the victim’s potential for fault every time a person is killed on a bike. To be sure, people are not perfect; we are human and make human errors, and those errors raise legitimate factual issues in making determinations of fault and negligence. However, to editorialize that people who ride bikes are sometimes at fault in story about a tragic, gut-wrenching, and completely preventable death is disrespectful and irrelevant. I have found such punditry to be common in our media, and the attitude permeates the very institution charged with protecting us – the New Orleans Police Department. Thomas agreed. 

“There’s too much victim blaming, especially when the victim cannot tell their side of the story,” Thomas told me.

As the founder of Bike Uneasy, which advocates for safer street conditions for people who do not drive a car, I often ponder just how many people who were killed on their bikes would be alive today had they “followed the letter of the law.” I remember when a delivery driver tried to run me over when I was biking Uptown on Nashville Ave., or when I was a teenager and a man in an SUV told me I needed to be on the sidewalk before slamming on his brakes in front of me (I was 19), or when a driver side-swiped me on Canal Boulevard and drove off, leaving me with a massive bruise on my thigh; I was following the letter of the law all of those times. 

When drivers don’t respect your right to be on the street, sometimes following the law does not prevent you from dying. 

Whenever someone is killed on a bike in New Orleans, no matter who they are, the cycling community comes together as if a family member had passed; we usually do not know the victim. Yet, despite the strong institutional memory of every such tragedy, no cyclist/pedestrian advocacy group had a comprehensive list of the names of everyone who had died on two wheels. 

Ghost bikes get taken down. Roadside memorials fade away. Traffic reports get buried in news archives. These people needed to have their names preserved in a concrete way. So I made that list. But after researching the background of every cyclist fatality, I learned that the narrative that people who ride bikes “don’t follow the letter of the law” is not as accurate as the media and Facebook comments might lead us to believe – particularly when compared to the lawless and entitled driving on our streets.”

I poured through the archives on both Nola.com and The Advocate, the Louisiana Crash Data Reports published by Louisiana State University and the state Department of Transportation and Development; I also spoke personally with the leaders of the local Ghost Bikes organization – Angie Bailleaux, Alexander Fleming, and Quentin Price – as well as Charlie Thomas, who is an attorney with Bike Law Louisiana. Limiting my research to the years of 2015 to the present, I identified 25 people who were killed on their bikes in a crash with a car – 16 of which were within the city limits. 

I made many unsettling findings. First, I discovered that in New Orleans more people on bicycles have died this year than the past two years combined (five versus one). If we include surrounding parishes, the number of deaths this year is equal to the past two years combined (five in 2019 and five in 2017 and 2018 combined). 

Second, I learned that more often than not, it was the driver – not the individual on the bike – who was at fault in their death. 

In fact, from 2015 to the present, people driving cars were at fault over 50 percent more often than people on bikes. It’s considerably more likely that the driver was violating the “letter of the law” than any other party. Motor vehicles were responsible for 14 of the 25 deaths of people on bikes, the cyclist was responsible nine times, and in two cases there is no information available. 

Our unidentified cyclist on Earhart was one of those fourteen. There were actually 15 motorists at fault, in light of the fact that two motorists struck him and left the scene. 

Much of what we read and hear, even from official sources, suggests otherwise. Perhaps this narrative of the lawless cyclist feeds into our perception, causing us to notice or remember those people breaking traffic laws more readily than when drivers do so. But if you’re still skeptical, camp out next to a major intersection and count how many motorists speed through yellow and even red lights with impunity. Never is this behavior generalized to the driving population as a whole. I’ll bet you’ll see quite clearly that motorists “don’t always follow the letter of the law.”

Similarly, our encounters with reckless cyclists shouldn’t influence our ideas of every bike rider. Fox 8’s coverage of this unidentified victim not only disrespects the gravity of his appalling death, but it also contributes to this false generalization that every person who rides a bike operates lawlessly.

Finally, in looking at the issue of fault, I made another discovery that was perhaps the most appalling. 

The unidentified man on Earhart was not the only victim of a vehicular hit and run – and it’s not even close. Even though Louisiana law requires a driver who is “involved in or causes any accident” to stop the car at the scene, give their name and render reasonable assistance, among the thirteen individuals who died on bicycles because the driver was at fault, the person driving the vehicle fled the scene a staggering 10 times. See La. R.S. §14:100. An astonishing 40 percent of all cyclists’ deaths were caused by motorists, who left the injured person to die alone on the street. The leading cause of death for people while riding their bikes in Greater New Orleans is a hit and run.

Bernard Jones, Ben Gregory, Sandra Duet Royer, Monique Massey, Eddie King, Bruce McJilton, Wayne Clement, David Hynes, Sharree Wells, and the individual who is the subject of this article. 

All of them were killed because a driver could not be inconvenienced to stop or even call for help after hitting another human being with their cars. Many of their killers are still at large. 

“This is the easiest way to get away with murder,” Thomas said.

We often think of this year’s terrible incident on Endymion night – when a drunk driver sped into a bike lane and kept going, killing David Hynes and Sharree Wells – as an exceptional case, an aberration that shocks the conscience of civil society. The reality is that this is the most common way for a person to die on their bike – alone, as the tail lights of the only other person around fade into the distance. 

We do not see media coverage raising the issue of fatal hit and runs, nor do journalists and politicians take pains to explain that drivers also need to “follow the letter of the law.” Focusing on the impressively large cycling population of New Orleans sends a clear message that even when we, like the victim in this story, are following the law, we are still at fault for the actions of others who ride their bikes irresponsibly. It undergirds a message that we do not belong on the roads. 

The purpose of this piece is not to point fingers or deflect from personal responsibility on the roads. Thomas spoke of a major disconnect between how the New Orleans Police Department treats drivers and how they treat people on bikes. 

“There is very little education for cyclists who do break the law, and they may have learned the wrong rules and simply do not know better.” Thomas said. This bias extends to the NOPD and prevents innocent victims from achieving justice, due process, and compensation for their injuries. 

The NOPD and Chief Michael Ferguson bear a lot of the blame. 

The nameless hit and run victim – all hit and run victims – deserve to be treated like an innocent party, yet there are myriad instances of NOPD officers scoffing at people who use bikes, insinuating that they were to blame for their own hit and runs, and fail to investigate or work with the victims. 

In 2017, there were over 8,000 hit and runs in New Orleans. Yet the NOPD has only two officers in charge of investigating these accidents. 

The prevailing notion by cyclists in New Orleans is this: if you are a victim of a hit and run accident, the driver is never going to be caught, unless – maybe – if you die. If you survive, the police will never call you back, at best, and at worst they will blame you for the accident that almost killed you.

The result of this is that innocent people are left to fend for themselves. Some never recover.

Recently, a man (who did not wish to be named, for fear of police retaliation) was in a serious accident while biking from work. He has to use a wheelchair and incurred thousands of dollars of hospital bills. When he spoke to the police at the hospital, “the officer tried to make it seem like it’s my fault.” This belief was reflected in the police report, which suggested “that I would “basically completely disobey the signal and risk my life by trying to cross oncoming traffic,” he told me.

A man suffered a nearly fatal car crash – that has led him to weeks of pain, immobility, and disability. And according to him, the NOPD tried to blame him for it. He is one of countless people who have been stuck with the bills caused by the negligence of motorists and the inability of the police to help. 

The situation is dire, and since I started writing this piece, another cyclist was killed. This time, it was on a stretch of St. Charles Avenue that was recently repaved by the City. When local advocates pushed for a bike lane to be installed to complete the existing lane to downtown – a route that many working class individuals take to their jobs – the City balked, citing the inconvenience it would cause to motorists without a second full lane. 

Until the City, the media, and the police decide to take our lives as seriously as the comfort of motorists, there will be more dead in our streets. 

When news first broke of Robert “Hog” Blair’s death, someone on social media said the accident was yet another hit and run. It wasn’t; to the driver’s credit, he stopped and owned up to what happened. But for a few days, everyone just assumed that yet another driver left another human being to die alone on the streets. 

It’s just that likely here.


Charles Schully is founder of the Bike Uneasy Facebook Group. 

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