Tuesday, May 21, 2013

No harm, no foul

The day of our last FABB meeting one of our members, John, was riding on Gallows Rd headed north near Annandale Rd where he was struck by a motorist's vehicle. Below is John's account of the incident, including his attempt to report it to Fairfax Co Police. Because John was not severely injured and his bike wasn't damaged, police said there was nothing they could do, even though John had a description of the vehicle and the driver.

Had John wanted to press charges he could have requested that a report be written, then traveled to the Magistrate's office to seek a summons. If the summons was issued, the motorist could receive a ticket. See our summary of this process in an earlier blog posting. In this case the motorist did not pass at least two feet to the left of the bicyclist and met at least one definition of an aggressive driver (passing when overtaking a vehicle).

John does not think the motorist intentionally struck him but from reading his account, you could draw a different conclusion. He and I agree that there should be a way for cyclists to report aggressive drivers without having to go through the gyrations of physically going to the Fairfax courthouse and filing a complaint with the magistrate's office. If we can report a litter we should be able to report an aggressive driver.

Here's John's account:
In Annandale, four lane 35-mph residential artery Gallows Road is not the best place to ride a bicycle because drivers want to drive much faster. By virtue of the street design, however, there are few viable alternatives for bicycle riding from Annandale to Merrifield, and, since I was headed from Annandale across the beltway to INOVA Fairfax, that is where I chose to ride my bicycle, taking the lane, since the lanes are rather narrow. 

Not that it should matter what I was wearing, but as someone who does not want to be involved in a crash, I was wearing a helmet, a bright reflective construction zone vest with neon green and orange, and neon green reflective bands around my ankles and wrists. My bicycle had a steady front light and steady red rear light on (thanks to a dynamo hub). During rush hours, night, or high-traffic times, I will also turn on a rear red blinky light on my helmet. At night I will also turn on a white strobe on my helmet.

About 2pm I was headed northwest on Gallows Road on 15 May in beautiful weather. I stopped for a yellow light at the intersection with Annandale Road. Some vehicles pulled alongside me and behind me. When the light turned green I proceeded across. After about 100 feet or so, the driver of a silver van behind me honked. I turned and waved at him. He gestured at me to get on the sidewalk.

As a side note, there is a sidewalk for one short block, but the next block the sidewalk is overgrown and in disrepair. A few seconds later as I continued in the center of the right lane, I felt what seemed like a roundhouse kick underneath my left arm and saw the silver van inches away to my left. With a loud pop, the van’s passenger side mirror had buckled inward (thank goodness) from the impact with my arm, immediately above my elbow. 

I yelled at the driver to stop, which he did immediately. Extremely fortunate for me I stayed upright on the bicycle since no part of the van hit my bicycle, the speed differential was not very large, probably no more than 10 miles an hour, and the collapsing side mirror reduced the severity of the blow.

Now, some may think this was an intentional assault, since he clearly saw me when he honked at me. However, after our short discussion, I do not think that was the case. With surprise I was looking into my father’s eyes. Well, since my father has been gone a decade, the eyes conveyed the same impression of sheepishness and defiance as were in my 80-something year old father’s eyes when my mother described a slow speed but expensive accident he had had in backing into a parking space. I interpreted the look as “yes, I screwed up, maybe I’m getting too old to drive, but don’t make me give up my mobility.” 

The driver was an older man driving a van with handicapped plates, and said he was just trying to pass with traffic. In disbelief, I said I had never been hit by a car in over a decade of bicycle commuting. He admitted he did not know that bicycle riders had the legal right to the road or that he had to pass with at least two feet clearance. After a minute or so of discussion, I decided my arm was not hurt and that this driver had just made a major error in judgment. I popped his side mirror back into its place and we both moved along.

Subsequently, I wondered if this should be reported, since I may have been too sympathetic and if this driver had a record of bad driving, then maybe something should be additionally documented in his files. I went to the Mason District police station, told the story to the dispatcher, and was told, essentially, “no harm, no foul.” She said since this was an “accident” with no property damage or injury, it was not reportable. Even if a policeman had shown up on scene, she said the patrolman would have given the same answer. So the police records will show nothing about this little incident.

Anyway, my arm may not have been hurt, but this episode certainly injured my expectation that drivers are reasonably competent in being able to change lanes.

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I dont know what to say. I live in Annandale, but avoid that part of Gallows, since I am off Hummer. The intersection of Gallows and Annandale is awful. I don't know whether to be mad at the police (because the cyclist didn't seem interested in pressing charges) or at the County for the lousy infrastructure.
I'm confused as to how you can violate the passing law and not be ticketed.
Police say that unless they witness the infraction, they can't do anything, that it's your word against the drivers'. There are some specific steps a cyclist can take as we outlined in an earlier blog posting.
Thanks, Bruce. The Traffic Division report from December doesn't mention video. I imagine this would be helpful but did you get a sense that they could/would write a ticket for an unsafe pass if provided with video evidence? I'm thinking of this because Jeff did this and got a ticket out of it. Very impressed. Here's his story:

I wonder if the dispatcher was exaggerating by saying that the accident was not reportable. Certainly when two cars bump and the damage is minimal, a report is filed anyway to facilitate the insurance compensation. Minimal damage can either be simply let go, or end up costing many hundreds of dollars if someone insists.

Here's how you could play it: Call the police immediately to report the collision, and wait for the officer to show up. Then say you are probably ok, but since you are not a doctor you intend to seek medical assistance just to make sure. Exchange insurance information.

If a cop wants to obstinately fail to file a report after actually showing up, you can still file your claim with the driver's insurance company.

What is your claim? Well, if you go to the doctor, I guess it is either your co-pay, or the entire bill, depending on whether your state tort law treats insured damages as compensable. (In Maryland they are, so bottomfeeders go to the emergency room and get to keep $1000 in medical bills even for a simple "I'm fine" conversation with a doctor.)

The point here, of course, is that for most people, the insurance company matters more than whether you get a ticket. If a driver has a lot of these accidents, he may lose insurance. But before that point, the fear of losing insurance may induce increased care.
I was too scared to bike in Annandale when I lived there (I love biking in DC but Annandale just doesn't have the infrastructure and it has too many angry and inattentive drivers). However, the police response doesn't surprise me. We once called the police to report a very aggressive driver that was making threats against us (in particular my partner's elderly mother who was in the passenger's seat). The police were very condescending to us and refused to confront the guy, even though we had his plate number and saw him parking at a shopping center. Apparently aggressive and reckless driving is a way of life and not an enforceable crime in Fairfax County.

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