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Friday, February 15, 2013

Who's to Blame for the Death of Diane Sullivan, Cyclist Killed Last Weekend?

Posted By on Fri, Feb 15, 2013 at 9:30 AM


Last Saturday morning, a woman authorities identified as 48-year-old Diane Sullivan was killed while riding her bike along King Street.

As I write this, privy to no more information other than what was widely reported earlier this week, I don't feel qualified to say anything about the accident itself other than to state the obvious: It is an unspeakably horrible thing to have happened and a tragedy for everyone involved.

Beyond that, I can only issue the predictable (and maybe futile) post-tragedy call to thoughtfulness. That's a request that the implications of what's happened be considered; that it not be shrugged off as another gruesome inevitability of life in a crowded city; that, at the very least, we use this as an opportunity to talk earnestly about road safety and not use it as fodder in the typical back-and-forth over which kind of vehicle bears more responsibility for carnage and lawlessness on the road.

I hope, in other words, that comments like "I wonder what traffic laws SHE was breaking at the time?", posted on the Snitch's first report on the incident, or "Sounds like vehicular homicide to me," posted on SFist's take on the story, are not representative of the general take-away from the death of Sullivan, (who according to other news outlets went by Diana).

Not just because those comments are callous and speculative (they are), but because with them the discussion ends.

Even if it turns out that one party was unequivocally at fault in this case, using Sullivan's death as an opportunity to rail against every cyclist you've ever seen blow through a stop sign, or every driver who has ever cut in front of you without signaling, cedes the point that car-on-bike accidents are inevitable. If the only conclusion we're willing to draw from this incident is that this is just one more example of [people who operate the type of vehicle that I do not] acting like an entitled jerk, then we are stuck.

Entitled jerks will continue to be entitled jerks and, as tragic as they are, accidents like this happen.

Which they do. But not only because one party wantonly refused to signal or stop or yield, but because when you try to pack a single channel of traffic with dozens of vehicles of different size and weight, with distinct destinations, blind spots, rates of acceleration, and top speeds, it's shocking that accidents like this don't happen more often.

The problem with road safety in San Francisco isn't that every cyclist or every driver unfortunate enough to be involved in an accident is careless by nature. The problem is that the current infrastructure is unforgiving of the slightest carelessness. If a momentarily lapse in judgment or focus can result in someone's death, then we are not dealing with a safe system.

And so when those who advocate for more and better bike-friendly infrastructure are dismissed as self-entitled whiners or anti-car zealots, I am perplexed. For a cyclist to push for more breathing space between bike and car traffic (like continuing the King Street bike lane at least as far as Fourth Street, rather than letting it just dissolve into a clusterfuck of 280-bound traffic intermittently crisscrossed by Giants fans) is not an expression of ideology or pure self-interest. It is a practical suggestion to reduce the likelihood of an accident. And one assumes that even the most ardent anti-bike fanatic is looking to avoid one of those.

When the Chronicle ran its story on Sullivan last Monday, one such fanatic was ready to take on the situation: "i'm sorry that ths woman died but i strongly believe that bicycles should not be permitted on the same streets as motor vehicles [sic]."

And in a fantastically unintentional way, this commenter does have a point. Clearly they recognize that, as things currently stand, it is often unsafe for cyclists to share the same road with cars. But then I wonder which solution would strike them as most practical: a ban on bikes or a ban on dangerous streets?

Ben Christopher is an Oakland-based freelance journalist. His favorite pastimes include pretending to work at coffee shops and shaking his fist disapprovingly at errant drivers from atop his baby blue Cannondale.

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