Court Applies Reckless Driving to Bikes. When Will Gascón Apply it to Cars?

A California state appeals court ruled last week that “reckless driving” can be applied to people on bicycles who kill or injure others, just as it’s applied to people driving, as the SF Chronicle reported. No one, including bicycle advocates, seems to dispute that full accountability should be brought to anyone who commit acts of traffic violence — but the reality is, drivers who maim and kill rarely ever face penalties.

DA George Gascón in a Streetfilm in 2010, when he went on a bike ride with advocates. He was the SFPD chief at the time.

There are countless such examples. One of the most egregious is the case of 29-year-old Kieran Brewer, who killed 17-year-old Hanren Chang in a crosswalk on Sloat Boulevard while he drove drunk, and was sentenced to just six months in prison. Or consider Gilberto Alcantar, who will face no charges for illegally turning his truck across a bike lane and killing 24-year-old Amelie Le Moullac at Sixth and Folsom Streets. SF District Attorney George Gascón claims that despite video of the crash, prosecutors can’t make an adequate case to file charges.

“Prosecution of deadly traffic crashes needs to be investigated, and prosecuted, to the fullest extent in order to reflect the severity of traffic crimes,” said Walk SF Executive Director Nicole Schneider. “We also need to ensure fair and equal enforcement across modes, which historically had not happened.”

As the Center for Investigative Reporting reported last year, 60 percent of the 238 motorists “found to be at fault or suspected of a crime faced no criminal charges” between 2006 and 2011 in five Bay Area counties:

When drivers did face criminal charges, punishment often was light. Licenses rarely were taken away. Of those charged, less than 60 percent had their driving privileges suspended or revoked for even one day, an automatic penalty in drunk driving arrests.

Forty percent of those convicted faced no more than a day in jail; 13 drivers were jailed for more than a year. By contrast, those charged in accidental shootings often serve lengthy jail terms, according to media reports.

In that CIR report, DA Gascón acknowledged that “if we had 700 people being shot every year, we would be jumping up and down. Reckless driving is just as bad as people using a firearm recklessly.”

Gascón repeated a similar refrain in the Chronicle’s article this week, which reported on a state appeals court ruling that a man who was bicycling while drunk in Los Angeles could be charged with reckless driving after he crashed into a woman, hospitalizing her and putting her in a coma. Gascón told the Chronicle, “The rules of the road should apply to everyone, and are set up to avoid exactly the type of injury that occurred in this (Los Angeles) case. Far too many people are getting seriously injured or killed on our streets.”

While drunk drivers in SF have often been prosecuted for killing and injuring pedestrians, they often get off light — as we saw in the case of Brewer crashing into Chang.

But more to the point, SF’s district attorney continues to claim that traffic violence is prosecuted using consistent and equal standards. He would apparently have San Franciscans believe that all of the roughly two dozen drivers who kill pedestrians each year in the city are held to the same scrutiny that Gascón applied to bicyclist Chris Bucchere.

“Law enforcement professionals across the state need to be part of the solution, as we work to shift the culture towards a fair systems that treats all traffic crimes as crimes,” said Schneider.

  • Michael Morris

    I’ll admit I’m still split about the moral implications of sentencing drivers to jail time for something they didn’t really mean to do, except when alcohol is involved. But if you severely injure someone with your car I think your licence should be suspended for life, these people are not capable of handling the challenges of driving, they shouldn’t be on the road.

  • Rahya Blackwell

    This article really touched home. A cyclist was killed here in New Orleans just a week ago. “The truck driver, identified only as a 51-year-old man from Violet, was neither arrested nor cited, according to NOPD spokesman Officer Garry Flot.”

  • Rex

    Unfortunately you appear unable to grasp the concept of what constitutes criminal actions as opposed to what is simply unfortunate.

  • BJToepper

    I have some of the same qualms. These are civil issues. At the very least we should 1) require proof of car insurance before issuing license tags, and 2) require the driver to show innocence in a crash involving a vulnerable road user.

  • The notion that these are civil issues is a problem. Or more to the point, that sticking the word “vehicular” in front of “assault” or “homicide” means it’s somehow less of a choice and less of a crime. Even more to the point, dismissing a whole range of deadly choices as “violations” and “infractions” under the law.

    Lower your expectations, and sure enough, they’re yours.

  • BJToepper

    I get the idea that our courts tend to be biased towards drivers, that getting away with murder is most easily accomplished in a car, and that our vehicular codes are unevenly enforced. But we cyclists and pedestrians are too quick to think that locking up every Mr. Magoo would make us safer. Criminality requires intent, or at least extreme negligence, and has to be seen in a broader background of punishment fitting crime. These difficulties don’t make the criminal system an especially effective or efficient way to encourage better driving behavior, nor do they help mitigate harm. By contrast, risk to the pocketbook tends to be very effective. If we held drivers liable for at least half the cost of a crash with a vulnerable user, as they do in the Netherlands, or require drivers to prove they didn’t cause the crash or else pay up, we will have taken some useful first steps at equalizing the roads.

    Ultimately, though, we need better infrastructure.

  • murphstahoe

    The most important thing to extract from a negligent drivers wallet is his drivers license

  • murphstahoe

    It is unfortunate that we allow incompetent people to drive cars, indeed.

  • Motorists kill 2 people every 3 weeks in San Francisco. How simply unfortunate.

  • Sanfordia113

    It is unfortunate that people entrusted with the fiduciary duty of the D.A.’s Office perceive any death involving an automobile to be an “accident.” If your car assaults another object or being, you are at fault for driving too fast for the conditions and should be held 100% liable.

  • Sanfordia113

    Not half… should be 10x, and a lifetime ban from driving. That would be equitable.


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