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Lobbying Our Government: A Citizen's Plan for Safer Streets

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Ok folks, I know this column should be all about the fun of bicycle life in the land of sunshine, but I'm going to rain a little bit of seriousness on the parade this week.

Last time we discussed the perspective that cyclists and drivers both need education in order to safely and peacefully co-exist on the roads in the fair-weathered and mostly flat (yet sexy) City of Los Angeles. But education only goes so far. A culture of callousness has taken over our streets. While I believe that cyclists, pedestrians and drivers all have their place on the road, the burden of responsibility falls largely upon those who have the most power to kill.

To all drivers: no offense, but I want to clarify the basic reality of the law in California regarding usage of the public property known as the streets of Los Angeles. It stands to reason that those who choose to operate heavy machinery (automobiles, trucks etc.) on public land are required by law to pass an exam proving that they can do so safely. We also expect operators of heavy machinery to have financial backing (insurance) so they can cover for any mistakes they make while operating. Makes sense right?

Yet it seems that when cyclists and pedestrians get killed, society shrugs it off as a simple error in judgement, part of the hazards of the road. "I didn't see them" or "the sun was in my eyes" have become acceptable excuses for drivers. Someone's life was just taken away - isn't that pretty serious? Was it worth the time saved to speed through that crosswalk?

...and then there are the hit and runs.

What is worse than getting hit by a speeding car? Getting hit by a driver that flees the scene. The ugly reality is that there are people who actually choose to leave their victims in the street, often with huge hospital bills. In 2011 in Los Angeles, according to LAPD statistics, 1,273 people chose to flee the scene after striking a cyclist or pedestrian with their cars. At least 26 of them left their victims to die in the streets. These stats are collected within the borders of the City of Los Angeles. Imagine the county-wide numbers.

I am one of the survivors of hit and run. I was damn lucky. Though I crumpled the grill, hood and fender before getting thrown 50 feet, I didn't break any bones. It's a peculiar feeling of evil to be on the street post-collision, shocked and dazed, and seeing a driver just continue on. It was more peculiar that despite a solid lead - a plate number in my case - the police didn't even send a cruiser to the suspect's house that night.

Scene of the crime.
Scene of the crime.

When I got out of the hospital the next morning the first thing I did was call the police to find out about my case. "How did it go?" "Did ya find him?" "Did you go to his house and arrest him?" I watched the cop shows growing up. You know how they're always hot on the trail of the bad guys? That night I imagined that an all-out man hunt was underway. I visualized an APB crackling across all police scanners, 15 uniformed cops storming the suspect's house COPS style, wife-screaming-dogs-barking-children-crying sort of thing. Nope.

What I found instead was a level of apathy that had me feeling like I was bothering them by calling at all. Perhaps the sheer frequency of collisions, injury and death on the roads has numbed the authorities. "It'll take a couple weeks to run the plate." said the voice on the phone. "You can try to find the car in the meantime."

Knowing what I know now, it makes sense that the cops seemed apathetic. A staggering 1 in 3 collisions are hit and runs (most are car on car), according to LAPD statistics. We all think we have the most important case in the world. But with a lack of resources your case simply gets dropped on the pile. I felt kinda sorry for the detectives actually. Their apathy isn't personal. These cops do care. When resources finally became available, the detective on my case went above and beyond the call of duty to bring the suspect to justice.

The judicial system is even more burdened. Prosecutors hate to take anything but legal slam dunks to court, citing lack of budget. A costly jury trial won't move forward unless at least two witnesses can ID the suspect independently. Curiously, if a hit and run doesn't result in a serious injury or death, the law "wobbles" and allows it to become a lesser crime in the eyes of the state.

What about the guy that hit me? After about a year and a half of legal maneuvers he plead no contest, got a $500 fine and 30 days Cal Trans. His license was never suspended. He never went to jail. Think about that. Hundreds of hit and run perpetrators are out there driving on streets shared by cyclists and pedestrians - potential victims. We don't know who they are. Our system in many ways actually encourages traffic crimes to occur. We need change.

Watch this video about the Blood-In Ride and Protest, seeking change in how the courts handle hit and run cases:

Now for the plan. For now let's call it "A Multi-Step Action Plan for an Organized but Loosely Affiliated Citizen's Lobby Group to Demand Safer Streets Using Tools We Currently Have Access To."

For the last few years, I've been progressively tuning in to the the local political scene and the workings of city government. I've spent a good deal of time attending public meetings at City Council and transportation committees, submitting comments, learning the rules of engagement. Change in government is an excruciatingly tedious, arcane, archaic, glacially-paced bleepin' process. But at least there is a process to being heard, and I think I'm finally on the right trail. Maybe.

I'm not naive - I understand that money has the ultimate voice in our political system. A cyclist has very few big money interests supporting their place on the road. At least, I can't think of any. Oil industry? Auto industry? If everyone rode bicycles they'd surely lose business. Health or Pharmaceutical industry? They wouldn't want people getting fit and losing weight without pills and surgery - not profitable.

The support would have to come largely from the people on the ground.

First stop: March 6th, 9 a.m. The Police Commission. In my mind, the police are the first layer of protection for vulnerable road users, and the Police Commission is a citizen body that gives direction to the LAPD. They meet every Tuesday with a public comment period. In an ideal world every cyclist and pedestrian in the city will show up as they are and fill the gallery. We aren't there to protest or be disrespectful. We will designate 4-5 speakers to represent the group, make specific asks of the LAPD, and then leave.

Here is my list of asks so far. I'd appreciate any feedback from folks out there.

1. Police must elevate the status of hit and run traffic crimes against vulnerable road users (cyclists and pedestrians) to that of assault or of equal urgency, no matter the severity of injury. Hit and run is tantamount to assault and robbery since the driver is leaving the victim with potentially huge hospital bills.

2. If evidence is gathered after a hit and run crime, license plate especially, a run on the plate must be done within minutes/hour of the incident being reported. A cruiser must be deployed to the owner's residence; if not within LAPD jurisdiction, then notify appropriate police authority. Lack of quick response results in loss of evidence, which complicates the ability of the city to prosecute.

3. The driver's excuse "I didn't see them" is an admission of guilt, NOT a reason to excuse the driver, especially if pedestrians are hit on a painted crosswalk. I was taught that if you can't see what's in the road in front of you, you need to slow down and stop immediately. Drivers have to learn this. If collision results in death or serious injury, the driver must be arrested at the scene. Even without serious injury the driver must receive citation regardless. If crosswalk is a SRTS (yellow paint), then citation for speeding in school zone should also apply.

4. Speed limits MUST be enforced through all means possible. If radar is not an option due to the 85th percentile law, then old school methods must be used. I made a request of Sgt. Krumer to inform me of LAPD's available methods of speed enforcement aside from radar. I'm waiting to hear back.

Stay tuned as I make my way through a web of government bureaucracy, towards safer streets for all...

At a hearing for hit & run accident during Storm the Bastille, Van Nuys City Hall | Photo by Flickr user alexbcthompson used under a Creative Commons license
At a hearing for hit & run accident during Storm the Bastille, Van Nuys City Hall | Photo by Flickr user alexbcthompson used under a Creative Commons license

Top: Photo by Flickr user nicomachus used under a Creative Commons license

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