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Breaking the Cycle 

Marin County has a program to protect bicyclists. In S.F., we keep killing them.

Wednesday, Dec 13 2000
As I find typical of funerary events, noon in front of the Hall of Justice two Fridays ago was a beautiful moment to be outside; the air was unusually warm for early December and the sky glowed a stunning shade of bird's-egg blue.

Around 200 people had gathered to commemorate the death of Chris Robertson, the cyclist hit by a truck during a South of Market bicycle funeral procession last month. Speakers blamed the tragedy on police indifference toward aggressive automobile drivers.

"Right now, it's basic impunity for motorists," said San Francisco Bicycle Coalition Executive Director Dave Snyder to cheers from the assembled cyclists -- and poker faces from the half-dozen cops guarding the event.

As cyclist after cyclist waxed indignant at the top of the steps, saying things like, "We want the human being to be placed above the car and kept above the car," and, "People should be able to ride a bicycle without being killed," I noticed more than anything the beautiful light, the warm early winter air, and what a nice day it would be for a bike ride.

My mind freewheeled across the Golden Gate Bridge, up along Marin County's Panoramic Highway, dropped oceanward to Stinson Beach, then glided north alongside Bolinas Bay. I recalled pedaling that route two months ago on a day as golden as this, enjoying the sensation of speed and wind and fragrant air, when a flatbed truck swerved by honking angrily -- an event so common to Bay Area bicycle rides that I wasn't at all distracted from enjoying the sensation of spinning fast, smooth pedal strokes while watching water birds flapping in Bolinas Bay.

Suddenly, a Marin County sheriff's deputy raced up behind me, paused long enough to ask if the driver had sounded his horn menacingly, then sped off into the distance. By the time I caught him, he had pulled the flatbed driver over, and appeared to be writing a ticket.

I'd suffered plenty of dangerous bullying from motorists during my 150,000 or so miles of bicycle riding, but never, ever had I seen one of California's finest rush to my side.

Most of you by now have probably heard about the death of Robertson, the cyclist crushed beneath a big rig Nov. 17 on Fourth Street, near the China Basin Channel.

Ron Salkin, a friend of Robertson who was present at the accident and spoke to a group of reporters at the Hall of Justice rally, said a truck driver became enraged upon encountering a group of cyclists blocking his path on the evening of Nov. 17, and threw pieces of wood at them, then drove his truck into Robertson and crushed him under his wheels.

District Attorney Terence Hallinan has assured S.F. Bicycle Coalition leaders that his office is investigating Robertson's death, and will, if appropriate, file charges. Still, the appearance of law enforcement inaction gives bicycle riders another reason to feel they don't receive equal protection on city streets.

"I think this whole thing about, "Sorry kid, life on the streets is tough' -- that's bullshit," is how my friend Ted Dively sums up the general sentiment. For Ted, and the thousands of us who ride bikes in the city, Robertson's death is the most profane of a daily hail of life-threatening insults bicyclists suffer on San Francisco streets: cars illegally park in bike lanes, car doors open into bicyclists' path, motorists routinely attempt to force bicyclists off the roadway by swerving in front of us. In the eyes of many cyclists, these motorists imagine themselves to have the tacit endorsement of the police.

The San Francisco Bicycle Coalition keeps a detailed list of this kind of incident, which cyclists weekly call in to a car/bicycle-incident hot line, which the coalition later transcribes.

"... cyclist flipped onto trunk of car and into street, while bicycle was crushed. Called police several times. Police said they were on the way, but no one came. Cyclist went to Hall of Justice to fill out a report, police told him not to," reads a typical entry.

"BMW hit man riding bike and fled the scene. Police wouldn't take a report because the cyclist was not injured and the bike not damaged," says another.

Even when cops do the right thing, cyclists complain that it's hard to get the District Attorney's Office to prosecute.

"The message they're sending to the driver is, this is something they can get away with," says Greg Ptucha, who a month ago was hit by a red-light-running driver who attempted to flee the scene. Motorcycle shop employee Khosrow "Hoss" Khosrowmanesh had been standing at Pine and Polk when he saw a woman hit Ptucha and drive on. Khosrowmanesh ran after the driver and stopped her, keeping her from leaving until police arrived.

No charges were filed, though; Ptucha says he was told by a DA's representative that the case wasn't serious enough.

"That just says that she can go and hit another person. That's so stupid. It just reinforces her," said Khosrowmanesh. "I feel very sad about that."

In the afternoon of this New Year's Day, Marin County District Attorney Paula Kamena read in a local newspaper that Kirk Ross, a 42-year-old from San Anselmo, had been killed by a motorist while riding his bicycle on Nicasio Valley Road. Four months earlier, Cecelia "Cecy" Krone, 42, was killed by a drunk driver while taking part in a weekly group ride to the Nicasio Reservoir.

Bicyclists were outraged; Kamena was simply depressed.

"I turned to my husband and said, "Another cyclist has been killed.' And I told him, "Somebody should be able to do something about this.' He's a psychotherapist, you know, and he said, "What is the District Attorney's Office going to do?' I said, "You know, there are things we can do.'"

So, as her profession prescribes, she investigated. "I did the kind of poking around I do with child abuse and that sort of thing," says Kamena.

About The Author

Matt Smith


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