Photo by Daquella manera on Flickr.

“Is it okay to kill cyclists?” That’s the question an op-ed in the New York Times asks. It’s not, but if a spate of other op-eds are any indication, it’s sure okay to hate them and the facilities they ask for in a quest for safety.

As Daniel Duane explains in the Times, most crashes involving a cyclist never lead to any charges or other consequences, no matter how egregious the circumstances:

But studies performed in Arizona, Minnesota and Hawaii suggest that drivers are at fault in more than half of cycling fatalities. And there is something undeniably screwy about a justice system that makes it de facto legal to kill people, even when it is clearly your fault, as long you’re driving a car and the victim is on a bike and you’re not obviously drunk and don’t flee the scene.

When two cars crash, everybody agrees that one of the two drivers may well be to blame; cops consider it their job to gather evidence toward that determination. But when a car hits a bike, it’s like there’s a collective cultural impulse to say, “Oh, well, accidents happen.” If your 13-year-old daughter bikes to school tomorrow inside a freshly painted bike lane, and a driver runs a stop sign and kills her and then says to the cop, “Gee, I so totally did not mean to do that,” that will most likely be good enough.


The same applies to pedestrians, and in 2010 we had an article with a title quite similar to Duane’s: “You’re free to mow down pedestrians in Prince William” County. On the other hand, TheWashCycle actually manages to think of one example (but just one) where a driver, in Montgomery County, did get prosecuted and convicted.

To a lot of people, though, the problem in our society isn’t that those who hit and kill cyclists face no consequences; the problem is that those damn cyclists are in the way of driving faster. Like on King Street in Alexandria, where a potential bike lane has driven GMU law professor Frank Buckly to unload on cyclists and the “preening activists” who want to make the road safe to ride on in a Wall Street Journal op-ed. The article is behind the WSJ paywall, but WashCycle has the choice quotes along with good rebuttals.

And Christopher Caldwell writes in the Weekly Standard that “Bicyclists are making unreasonable claims to the road—and winning.” Caldwell admits that “Bicyclists sometimes do require the middle of the roadway,” and “Almost 700 cyclists died on the road in the United States in 2011,” not to mention “the environmental, aesthetic, and health benefits of cycling.”

Except, Caldwell argues, since our transportation system is over capacity, that means we can’t afford to give up a single square foot of asphalt to cyclists or let them slow down drivers. Never mind that you can move more people in less space when some drive and some bike, as opposed to all driving; a bike lane would “place drivers in a position of second-class citizenship on roads that were purpose-built for them.”

Caldwell must not know that roads were originally paved to accommodate bicycling, not driving. People using any mode of travel very naturally feel irritation toward those on other modes if they get in the way. That psychological inevitability leads to this constant drumbeat of op-eds bemoaning cycle advocacy.

But, as many have said many times before, if there is a war on cars, why are cyclists the casualties?

Update: “M.S.” at The Economist compares the American system (“it’s probably the cyclist’s fault” to that in the Netherlands:

n the Netherlands, if a motor vehicle hits a cyclist, the accident is always assumed to have been the driver’s fault, not the cyclist’s. ... The driver of the motor vehicle is liable for the accident, unless he can prove he was overpowered by circumstances beyond his control ...

[C]yclist fatalities in America were estimated at somewhere in the range of 58 to 109 deaths per 1 billion kilometres cycled in the early 2000s. ... In the Netherlands, ... there were 12 deaths per billion kilometres cycled in 2010, down by a third since 2000. So I guess it depends on how much one values human life, as against the inconvenience of having to look in the rearview mirror more often.

We've just launched our brand new website and are working out some kinks. Find something that looks like a bug? Please help out by sending us an email with the details!

David Alpert is the founder of Greater Greater Washington and its board president. He worked as a Product Manager for Google for six years and has lived in the Boston, San Francisco, and New York metro areas in addition to Washington, DC. He lives with his wife and two children in Dupont Circle.