Another bicycling death brings call for tougher penalties for motorists

Another bicycling death brings call for tougher penalties for motorists

Whenever a rider is killed or badly injured by a motorist it sends shock waves through the close-knit bicycling community.

But the death of 33-year old Shelton Berel 10 days ago west of Oregon has sparked an unprecedented outpouring of support, along with calls for stronger legal protections for bicyclists and pedestrians. The driver of the pickup truck involved in the crash left the scene—he told police he thought he hit a deer—and is now facing a tentative charge of hit-and-run causing death.

Among the most outspoken about the incident has been former Madison Mayor Dave Cieslewicz, who now serves as executive director of the Wisconsin Bike Fed. The Milwaukee-based membership group advocates for bicyclists and lobbies at the State Capitol, in addition to running safety programs and sponsoring rides.
Cieslewicz in a blog post takes to task the driver for hit-and-run but also a TV reporter who questioned whether Berel should have been riding on Lincoln Road, a fairly well-traveled two-lane town road that runs past the The Legend at Bergamont golf course and housing development.

“Can we just make this clear once and for all: cars and their drivers do NOT own our roads,” he writes. “Roads are a public right of way and bicycles are vehicles under the law with every bit as much right to every inch of that roadway as somebody driving a vehicle with an internal combustion engine.”

You could say the same thing about the incident in July when 62-year old Cynthia Arsnow was killed by a motorist while riding on U.S. 14 east of Cross Plains. While a major highway is perhaps not the best choice of routes, bicyclists still legally have a right to the road and should not be blamed when they are hit by a passing motorist – who in this case did stop but told police he was distracted by looking at some papers.

Look. I’ve been pedaling bikes around Madison and beyond for over 50 years now and have been sworn at, intentionally “coal-dusted” by diesel truck exhaust and almost clipped numerous times along Seminole Highway by angry commuters. But I think the riding atmosphere and relations with motorists is way better than it was when getting forced into the gravel was a common occurrence.

And, the vast majority of cyclists I know are decent, law-abiding folks who also drive cars and pay registration fees and gasoline taxes. The tight shorts and colorful jerseys don’t mean they’re all political lefties, either.

So do we all come to a complete halt at stop signs or wait at red lights if nobody is there? Certainly not. Yet as I try to explain to non-cyclists, setting a foot down at a stop sign would be akin to a car driver turning off the engine and getting out of the vehicle. Maybe Wisconsin will one-day adopt the “Idaho stop” which lets bikers treat stop signs like yield signs.

For now, my best piece of advice to ease road tensions is for cyclists to use basic hand signals. Point right if you are turning right; point left if you are going left. I can’t tell you how many times I get a friendly wave from a driver for simply signaling my intentions. And please, ditch that silly and outdated “bent left arm” signal which only confuses everyone about what is about to happen.

Of course, no amount of common courtesy is going to bring back Arsnow or Berel, a UW Graduate School employee and father of one with another on the way.

Cieslewicz notes in his blog on the Oregon fatality that the pickup truck driver Kevin Meister, 35, has been convicted three times for driving with a revoked or suspended license over the past 11 years. His original revocation came in 2005 as the result of a drunken driving charge. Last year, Meister was ticketed for deviating from a designated lane, speeding and failing to wear a seat belt.

“The fault lies squarely and entirely on the man who killed (Berel) and the man who killed him didn’t have the character to stay at the scene, call for help, render what aid he could and answer to authorities for his actions,” Cieslewicz writes.

Cieslewicz adds that Meister is likely “headed to a very long sentence in a very cold prison cell, as I so deeply hope will be his fate.”

I imagine some of Cieslewicz’s anger comes from the continued stalling by Republicans in the Legislature of the so-called “Vulnerable Users Law” which would create a new class of penalties for those convicted of killing or injuring a cyclist, pedestrian, farmer driving a farm vehicle or those offering aid to someone along the road. Right now, killing a bicyclist often results in just a traffic ticket unless you leave the scene.

Perhaps the two bicycling deaths this summer will finally get the Legislature to move forward in a state known nationally for its great tourist-attracting bicycling scene.