Photo by rick on Flickr.
Since 1971, there have been 109 fatal bicycle crashes in the DC region. Authorities rarely prosecute the drivers, and when they do, punishments aren’t very harsh.
During that span, there have been 32 cases where either the federal government’s Fatality Analysis Reporting System or media reports said a driver was at fault in a fatal crash with someone on a bike. Authorities only charged a driver with a crime in 15 of those cases, or 47% of the time.
Prosecution was most likely in cases related to DUI and hit-and-run. Three of the 15 cases involved both a hit-and-run and DUI charge. Four were only hit-and-runs, and another two were only DUIs. Charges for the six other drivers included distracted driving, ignoring a red light, excessive speed, failure to yield, and unsafe passing.
There wasn’t information on the results of the prosecution for every case. But in all 13 cases that I was able to track, the driver was convicted.
Even when it looks bad, drivers tend to get off easy
In all of these cases, the average sentence for convicted drivers was only two years and two months. Judges cut the actual jail time down to an average of only 15 months. In four cases, the convicted driver served no time. Another driver went to a night-time only facility, and another was admitted into a medical institution.
In a few cases where there weren’t any criminal charges, there was a lawsuit against the driver but the parties reached a settlement before the case went to court. In the only civil case I could find that did go to court, which was in Maryland, the driver was found to be primarily responsible but got off the hook because the judge deemed the cyclist to have been contributorily negligent.
In another case, where the cyclist was at fault, a driver successfully sued the cyclist’s estate for damage done to the car and for injuries sustained in the crash.
The numbers vary by jurisdiction
As was true with fault, there is a relationship between charges and jurisdiction.
There were nine cases in Montgomery County in which authorities blamed the driver, with driver convictions following in eight of them. Prince George’s County prosecuted three out of five “at-fault” drivers (ignoring cases where the driver was never found). On the other end of the spectrum, Northern Virginia jurisdictions only prosecuted two out of six “at-fault” drivers, and DC only prosecuted two out of ten.
While this may be because Maryland treats these crimes with greater import, it is more likely due to the fact that Maryland crashes more often involve DUIs and/or hit-and-runs, which are easier to prosecute.