This past weekend, a Fairfax County Police Department (FCPD) officer hit a cyclist with their car at an intersection as the officer was turning right at a red light. The cyclist was taken to the hospital to be treated for his minor injuries, but his bad day didn't end there. After the collision, the FCPD officer gave the cyclist, 55-year-old Thomas Crawley of Alexandria, a ticket.
Ironically, the same department just kicked off a road safety campaign earlier this week mere blocks from the site of the crash, pleading with people to take care when traveling on area roadways. The Street Smart campaign is an effort to address a spike in road deaths in the region.
Here's what the two videos show
Covering the Corridor, a blog focused on the communities along Richmond Highway in southeastern Fairfax County, first covered the collision. The blog shared two videos: One from someone who caught the incident on video while driving, and the second from the police cruiser itself after the FCPD released the video.
The bystander's video shows the police car inching forward at a red light trying to turn right onto Richmond Highway from Fordson Road. You can see the orange hand on the pedestrian signal in the bystander's video when the police cruiser hits Crawley as he pedals through the intersection.
FCPD said in a statement:
As you can see in this video, the officer was stopped at a traffic light waiting to make a right turn onto southbound Richmond Highway from the Mount Vernon Plaza shopping center. The cyclist was riding northbound on the sidewalk of the southbound side of Richmond Highway. He entered Fordson Road from the sidewalk without stopping and disregarded the pedestrian signal. Our investigation shows the officer had the right of way and determined it was safe to enter the intersection when the cyclist came off the sidewalk and hit the cruiser.
The statement makes it seem like the cyclist was riding against traffic, but he was actually on the sidewalk. While that's not always advisable, it's not illegal. In this case it makes sense that a cyclist would take the sidwalk on Richmond Highway where traffic is heavy and dangerous to vulnerable road users.
While the FCPD's statement reads like the cyclist did several illegal things while the officer was abiding by the law, it's very charitable to decide that the officer had the right of way. The FCPD's own dash cam video shows cars going through the intersection even as the officer hits Crawley. Virginia's right on red law says:
Such turning traffic shall yield the right-of-way to pedestrians lawfully within an adjacent crosswalk and to other traffic using the intersection.
The cyclist may not have 'lawfully' been in the crosswalk, but it's also clear that there was still plenty of traffic in the intersection, which indicates that the police officer should not have been making the turn at that time.
Plus, blocking the crosswalk in order to inch forward to try to proceed through a red light is a serious safety issue. Right turns on red are particularly dangerous for people walking and bicycling, which is why DC is restricting the practice across the city as part of its Vision Zero initiative.
This road is not made for people walking and bicycling
So what about the cyclist ignoring the “don't walk” signal? It's true that the cyclist went through the intersection while the orange hand showed he shouldn't, but the situation isn't so clear cut.
The intersection uses “beg buttons” to get a pedestrian signal. GGWash editorial board member Joanne Tang visited the intersection on Wednesday night to investigate, and found that the buttons don't make it much easier to cross the street.
Here’s where the Fairfax County Officer hit the cyclist. I hit the button a few times and it kind of doesn’t matter whether it works. It only turns the signal for only about 20 seconds and I caught at least 4 cars on video going through or stopping inside the crosswalk. pic.twitter.com/LCtFoGPEKh— Joanne Tang (@JoanneLivesHere) April 25, 2019
Problems like this are not uncommon—even though “beg buttons” are meant to be a safety improvement, they can actually make things worse. Overall, this incident highlights some of the indignities that people face when trying to get around the area when they do not or cannot use a car.
Future plans for Richmond Highway aim to make it safer for people walking and bicycling, and include dedicated bicycle lanes that are raised to the sidewalk level. The expectation is for more cyclists to be using the sidewalks and crosswalks along Richmond Highway, rather than the driving lanes. However, those improvements are still a long way off, and safer infrastructure won't solve every issue if drivers aren't paying attention to more vulnerable road users.
The police officer could have avoided hitting the cyclist if they had taken the time to look both ways, and still given him a citation if they wanted to make a point about obeying traffic signals. Instead, we get a statement from FCPD blaming the cyclist and ignoring all the mistakes the police officer made that led to them hitting Crawley.
The combination of heavy traffic, poor pedestrian and cycling infrastructure, and a police officer impatient to turn at a red light led to another cyclist being hit—and then being given a ticket for his trouble. That's unjust. FCPD's first step in being Street Smart should begin inside the department.