Cyclists Outraged by Apparent Murder by Joe Speaks

"When someone dies on our streets there are two killers," says Howard Williams, longtime member of the SF Bicycle Messenger Association. "The first killer is the driver. The second killer is the system that routinely accepts death rather than address its own failings."

More than 200 people gathered at a rally at the Hall of Justice in December. The group demanded justice in the Chris Robertson case, as well as systematic improvements in the way the Police Department and District Attorney¹s Office handle bike-related cases.
The first killer struck with lethal force on November 17th around 8:50 p.m. when SFBC member Chris Robertson and a group of other cyclists were headed southeast on 4th Street toward Mission Rock. The group was returning from a memorial service held for a friend murdered several days earlier.

This first accused killer, reported to be big-rig truck driver Rueben Espinosa, 42, of Fremont, apparently became annoyed by cyclists in the roadway. What happened next is the subject of an ongoing investigation, but a few facts are clear. While passing dangerously close to the cyclists, someone in the truck threw a block of wood at the cyclists. Seconds later, the driver ran into Chris who was crushed beneath the moving truck.

The second killer, the system, was on the scene well before the accident. The system had made no provisions for bikes on Fourth Street.. The system had failed to educate this driver, and many other drivers, that cyclists are expected to be on the road, and have a legal right to take the full lane. And the system failed to educate the police who would show up a few minutes later.

Initial police handling of the incident seems to suggest that they pre-judged the case as "just another unfortunate bike accident." A pre-judgement disturbingly consistent with cases reported to the SFBC's Cyclists' Rights Hotline. (See p. 6) Based on a yearlong survey of calls to the Cyclists' Hotline, police officers did not even take incident reports in more than half of the 21 cases reported to the hotline involving injuries to cyclists. (Filing a police report is a fundamental right in any case where someone is injured or property is damaged.) And in almost no cases were drivers suspected of wrongdoing charged with a crime.

"We have seen a systematic neglect within the SF Police Department and District Attorney's Office toward pursuing cases involving bicyclists as victims," says Leah Shahum, SFBC Program Director. "We want to ensure that Chris Robertson's murder is treated appropriately, and that this victim is not regarded as a second-class citizen because he was riding a bicycle."

To date, several mistakes by the San Francisco Police Department (SFPD) have come to light in the Chris Robertson case. First, the ordinary Night Division was allowed to conduct the initial investigation, rather than calling in the Homicide Division or Injury Accident Investigations as is appropriate in a deadly traffic altercation where negligence or misconduct may be involved. The Night Division then failed to take statements or gather contact information from all the witnesses on the scene.

Even now, the system seems to be searching for a loophole to explain Chris' death as an accident. Sherman Ackerson of the SFPD appeared on KRON television saying, "The issue is really deciding whether the driver intentionally ran over the bicyclist or whether it was an unavoidable accident." Such comments leave cyclists wondering why it doesn't seem serious enough that a professional driver, in full control of his vehicle, maneuvered in a dangerous manner resulting in the death of another road user.

"The implicit message sent by the SFPD and DA's Office is outrageous: Injuring people with a gun is taken seriously as a crime, but injuring people with an automobile is condoned as an Œaccident'," says Shahum.

As of press time, the DA's Office had not yet determined what, if any, charges were to be filed against the driver.

Bike Community Reacts

Chris' death hits the cycling community hard. Not only because Chris was so popular, but because the events surrounding his death are emblematic of correctable problems that go unaddressed despite outrage and outcry from SF cyclists.

The city's bicycle community gathered to protest the second-class treatment of cyclists at a rally outside the Hall of Justice on December 1st. The rally organized by the SFBC, the SF Bicycle Messengers' Association, and the International Longshore and Warehouse Workers Union (ILWU), drew more than 200 people and more than half a dozen media reports. Supporters held signs stating: "Murder is No Accident" and "If He'd Used a Gun, He'd Be in Jail." The group demanded justice in the Chris Robertson case, as well as systematic improvements in the way the SFPD and District Attorney's Office handle bike-related cases.

The first major problem involves the SFPD's rank-and-file officers. While the top brass openly admit that some cops don't understand the California Vehicle Code as it applies to bikes, training to correct the problem has been slow in coming. The ongoing lack of understanding results in a lack of traffic enforcement and improper handling of traffic incidents involving bikes. The message to motorists is that they won't be punished if they violate a bicyclists' rights.

Secondly, the DA's hesitance to prosecute cases involving bikes and pedestrians points to the complacent acceptance of car violence within the system.

A third overriding problem is that the city's Department of Parking and Traffic (DPT) continues to prioritize "car throughput" over pedestrian and bicycle safety, as evidenced by the city's fast, one-way streets, narrow traffic lanes, and dangerous high-throughput intersections. Roadways configured primarily for fast-moving cars erode awareness of, and respect for, other road users and pedestrians.

The SFBC is setting goals for 2001 that address these problems. Implementation of the bike network will help improve the physical infrastructure. The SFBC hopes to collaborate with the SFPD on a training curriculum to teach all officers how bikes belong in traffic. The SFBC has also met several times with representatives from the DA's office, securing commitments that more attention will be paid to bicycle and pedestrian cases.

Immediately after Chris' death, the SFBC called on the Mayor's Office to launch a much-needed driver awareness campaign to stress the importance of sharing the road. A week later, the Mayor instructed the DPT to fast-track the "Share the Road" campaign. The campaign will be launched this Spring, including 300 permanent "Share the Road" signs on bike routes and at entrances to the city. The campaign will also include Muni bus ads, public service announcements, street pole ads, and bumper stickers.

"It is our belief that this kind of public campaign is necessary to change the current behavioral norms that govern our conduct on the streets," wrote DPT Executive Director Fred Hamdun in a letter to California Assemblywoman Carole Migden. "We hope to model our campaign on the successful efforts by public health agencies to stop the tide of tobacco-related disease and death."

Critics would say that our streets won't be safer until the general public changes their overwhelmingly car-centric attitudes. This may be true, but such a societal change can't take place until the infrastructure - physical, legal, and political - aligns to support a more human-centered approach to traffic.