Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Chris Bucchere manslaughter charges

As virtually everyone knows, in March Chris Bucchere, riding a bike over a Strava segment on which it has been reported he was trying to KOM, rode his bike through an intersection in the Castro district, hitting 71-year-old Sacha Hui. Sacha's head hit the pavement, causing an apparently fatal injury (I'm assuming he didn't happen to die of natural causes on the spot).

The reaction has been almost of lynch mob proportions. The local news web sites are full of comments raging against cyclist irresponsibility in general, and specifically for Chris to be held to the highest standard of accountability. The San Francisco Bicycle Coalition, when asked about the case, has emphasized that "pedestrians always have the right of way" (which is flatly incorrect), and stresses the importance of riding safely and responsibly.

Indeed, recently Chris was charged with felony manslaughter over the incident. Claimed reasons were reports he had run red lights in intersections prior to the collision, that the video had shown him in an aerodynamic position riding into the intersection, and that he'd later posted to the Mission Cycling email group that he had been going too fast to stop. He even posted Strava data showing a reported speed of 35 mph near the intersection. Those data were subsequently removed from Strava (unfortunately I didn't pull them down when they were available).

Then recently, a blog was posted to Bicycling Magazine, Getting the Story Straight. I posted a semi-rambling comment, which I'll reproduce (with fewer typos) here.

As was reported by the SF Chronicle, the video showed the pedestrians and cyclist entered the intersection at the same time. The cyclist entered on yellow. There’s a two-second all-red phase before the pedestrian light turns white. That means the pedestrians entered the intersection at least two seconds early. This is common practice, as videos on this blog post show. Indeed Google maps satellite shots show it’s around 35 meters across that intersection. If the cyclist was going 35 mph, it would take only 2.2 seconds for him to cross. With a 2-second all-red phase, even if the cyclist hit the intersection with only 1 millisecond left on yellow, the pedestrians entering after the programmed 2-second delay would need to instantly teleport to fill the whole cross-walk, since Chris reported there were no gaps available.

And even it this is wrong, even if he was going half the speed and it took him four seconds instead of two, and even if you don't believe the video evidence that the pedestrians entered at the same time Chris did, even ignoring all of these things pedestrians are still required to wait for vehicles which entered the intersection legally to clear the intersection before they enter, whether the pedestrian light is white or not. So I think it's more than safe to say the pedestrians illegally jumped the light.

The video could be used to assess his speed. But the only data I’ve seen reported is from the Strava data uploaded from his iPhone. iPhones are notorious for the poor quality of their GPS data. And if you are trying to determine speed, you need two, not just one, precise GPS point. He was clearly going fast, no doubt, as his riding position shows, and I don’t defend going fast in that intersection. But the issue here is the prevailing standard of manslaughter, not my or your opinion of proper behavior.

I very much doubt if you took a radar gun to cars driving there you’d wait long before finding one matching Chris’s speed, whatever it actually was. Indeed the district attorney was recently quoted by Streetsblog : the reason so few drivers are charged in pedestrian injuries and fatalities is that “in the majority of those cases, unfortunately, the pedestrian has been the one deemed to be at fault.” He was speaking about car drivers, not cyclists. When it’s a cyclist, apparently, even when the pedestrian is proven at fault, as he is in this case, the cyclist gets the book thrown at him. If it had been a car entering the intersection at 30+ mph, and pedestrians jumped the light by over two seconds, the comment sections of the paper would be full of “crazy pedestrians!” comments, not calls for publicly hanging the driver. After all everyone nudges the speed limit when driving, right?

So if the cyclist was behaving like a typical car here, why don't cars pick off pedestrians on a daily basis at that intersection? The reason is, as this blog post noted, pedestrians are programmed to look and listen for cars, while less trained to look for cyclists. That doesn't change the legal obligation to do so, however.

I understand the desire to promote safe and courteous riding. I recognize cyclists, like drivers, like pedestrians, like virtually any pupulation sample, are often guilty of rude and risky behavior. But when discussing “facts”, it’s important to get them straight. In this case, there’s fault to go around. And if we’re going to hold road users to an elevated standard, which I support, it’s important to start with motor vehicles.


mr.g said...

more typos when printed 2x.

CB's lawyers will surely work it. The charges are over the top, but will justice be served?

djconnel said...

Thanks! Blogger changed it's HTML interface: it no longer considers newlines to be line breaks (which is good) but I had to clumsily cut & paste from OS/X emacs... anyway, I was sloppy.

I'm not sure what "justice" is in this case. The two primary issues are (1) what is reasonable on an absolute standard? (2) what's consistent with prevailing practice for drivers?

These are two very different standards, but given the pedestrians clearly share a significant portion of the blame here, even by standard #1 felony manslaughter is too much. A "reasonable person" might expect the cross-walk to be clear if he enters the intersection legally.

And I can't ignore #2. I guarantee a car driver wouldn't be equally charged here unless it was hit & run or if he was intoxicated. Even then, probably not, as this case shows.

Vitaly Gashpar said...

Good post, Dan. I'll only make one minor correction. I believe the DA was quoted as saying that the post Chris is alleged to have made (I'm going with the legal jargon here) didn't have a role in charging him with a felony as opposed to a misdemeanor. In fact, the parts of the post which most found to be infuriating - ode to the helmet - will likely be ruled as inadmissible evidence if there's a trial, as they have absolutely no bearing on what happened prior to the collision.

Anonymous said...

You nailed it about pedestrians not looking for/seeing/hearing bicycles like they would cars. If a car had been barreling down that hill at the same speed as Bucchere allegedly did, I doubt the pedestrians would have "flooded the crosswalk."

Anonymous said...

"There’s a two-second all-red phase before the pedestrian light turns white."

My guess is that the pedestrians were watching the traffic signal and started out when it turned red, as opposed to waiting for the pedestrian light.