Bike Crashes and Police Priority

by / January 15, 2013

About a month ago Amelie Le Moullac was killed when a truck driver turned right into her path as she was pedaling east on Folsom Street in San Francisco. As usual, the police showed up, called it an “accident” and no charges were filed. As usual, the bicycle advocacy group and loved ones of the victim showed up for a memorial a week later.

Then an extraordinary thing happened, and it could change how police deal with bike crashes in California.

At the memorial, police sergeant Richard Ernst parked his car in the bike lane, blocking traffic. When Leah Shahum, the executive director of the SF Bicycle Coalition politely asked him to move, he refused, stating he was trying to teach bicycle riders a lesson about moving around to the left of cars in the bike lane, and that the crash was Amelie’s fault because she didn’t do that, and that bike riders are almost always at fault in crashes. “Did you read the report?” he asked. Amelie’s family heard the whole thing. Leah was furious. The mourners sadly continued their memorial.

Later, Marc Caswell, an SF Bicycle Coalition employee, asked if he could go look for a security camera that might have captured some evidence, and immediately found one aimed at the intersection. The camera’s owner, a small business person nearby, gladly gave the evidence over, just hours before it would have been erased from the device which keeps data for just seven days. He said the police never asked him for it, even though they claimed their investigation turned up no such camera. It turns out that the driver was at fault and the police have turned the case over to the district attorney.

The final verdict about the crash will take a while, but the verdict on the police is in. They did not do an investigation but blamed the bicycle rider anyway. I’m not the slightest bit surprised, and I’m frankly grateful that Sgt. Ernst was on hand to be so rude because it sparked a call for a hearing about police investigation of crash sites.

The San Francisco Police Department was embarrassed by this. They issued an immediate apology and will probably do a better job next time.

What’s the takeaway?

1. Support your local bicycle advocacy organization. Marc was on the job when he went looking for a videotape. It takes time and focus to research any case, and most of us don’t have the time. But if we pool our donations to support advocacy, someone like Marc is on the job for us.

2. Don’t believe official statistics about who is at fault in crashes. Those statistics that say bicyclists are at fault about half the time rely on police reports which we know are not accurate.

3. We can change this. At the California by Bike 2013 summit, one of our workshops will be about affecting police investigation of bike crashes. We’re going to look at this case, best practice, and good examples, like in the case of domestic violence enforcement where police practice was completely changed after years of advocacy and regulation.

Changing police investigation of crashes is important, but it’s good to note that at the San Francisco public hearing where the police were asked about their investigation practices, a common theme was preventing these crashes in the first place. San Francisco has unapproved plans for protected bikeways on Folsom Street. May they be approved soon!

It’s not too late to register for the summit where you can be part of the solution for this problem and many others, although hurry, because about 80% of tickets are sold.

Keep riding, and be safe.


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