One Year Later: Assaulted Cyclist Reflects

Anthony Ryan near the spot where he was attacked by a raging motorist. Photo: Streetsblog.
Anthony Ryan near the spot on Phelan Avenue, in front of City College of San Francisco, where he was attacked by a raging motorist. Photo: Streetsblog.

Last year, Streetsblog brought you the story of Anthony Ryan, a middle-aged art instructor who teaches at several San Francisco colleges. He was on his way home one evening from a job at San Francisco State, around 9 p.m. this time last year, when he suddenly found himself in mortal danger at the hands of a motorist who was determined to harm him. You can review the details here.

The end of the attack was caught on video and detectives tracked down the assailant by the license plate. The man driving the car was eventually convicted of assault. But the incident still troubles Ryan. Streetsblog has covered several stories about cyclists who have been harmed or threatened, either intentionally or because of irresponsible behavior. But it’s important to remember that the physical and psychological pain and disruption from these incidents, even when there aren’t serious injuries, lingers. All the more reason that the core causes are so important to address, both with law enforcement and better infrastructure.

That’s why Streetsblog sat down with Ryan to reflect on the incident and the trial and prosecution, one year later.

Streetsblog: How often do you ride your bike?

Anthony Ryan:  Every day, basically. Even when I take the bus and BART to Diablo Valley College, where I teach in Pleasant Hill, I bring my bike for the last half-mile and to get around campus.

SB: I understand the road rage incident in 2015 wasn’t your first life-and-death experience on a bike?

AR: Yes, I had a crash in 2011. I was in a crosswalk at Victoria and Ocean and someone ran the red and hit the front of my bike. And I was launched and landed on my face.

SB:  You ended up in the hospital and had your jaw wired, is that right?

AR: Yes. I was cited for unsafe movement.

SB: What! Did you challenge that?

(Shook his head)

SB: Why not?

AR: I was talking with a lawyer for a while. I had minimal liability from the driver and then I was battling with my insurance company. I had a $100,000 bill from SF General and spent close to two years fighting Anthem Blue Cross, getting them to pay. Pretty typical.

SB: What did the lawyer do?

AR: She actually really helped with the insurance company and didn’t get any money for herself out of that.

SB: But you didn’t go after the driver? I guess that’s hard if the police cited you. Did you talk with your Supervisor about the police?

AR: I was in touch with the Bicycle Coalition. They said to file a complaint with the Office of Citizen’s Complaints. I didn’t pursue that.

One year ago, Ryan dove between two parked cars at this very spot to avoid a raging motorist who tried to back over him. Photo: Streetsblog.
One year ago, Ryan dove between two parked cars at this spot on Phelan to avoid a raging motorist who, at this point in the attack, was trying to back over him. Photo: Streetsblog.

SB: Hmm. Well, let’s review the incident that happened last year, in 2015.

AR:  I was taking a left–a left on Ocean to Phelan. I was in the middle of the lane. And then a driver starts honking at me, even though it’s a red arrow.

SB: So you’re in the left hand turning pocket, exactly where you’re supposed to be, waiting at a red, left-turn arrow. So the driver has no justification for honking.

AR: Right. Then it turned green and I took the turn and before I could take the bike lane on Phelan he laid on the horn and pulled up along side me on my right.

SB: So he zoomed around onto your right?

AR: There’s two lanes there, he pulls on my right, he may have been riding the bike lane, opens the door on me.

SB: To hit you with the door? Like right next to you?

AR: Yes. So I realized this guy’s a bad actor and I pulled across the yellow lines–

SB: Into the opposing lane of traffic?

AR: Yes, to get away from him. So I just rode across the double yellow to the opposite side of Phelan, over by the buses at the Phelan loop. And he chased me across the street.

SB: Wait. He’s now coming at you with his car across the yellow line and he’s in opposing traffic!

AR: Yes. And he’s coming at me in a t-bone orientation.

SB: Wow.

AR: Yes, but he returned to his lane of traffic, and started heading north on Phelan.

SB: What did you do then?

AR: I followed him, got my phone out, was attempting to take a picture of his license plate. And he was stopped at a red light.

SB: Right. Now this gets into the part you can see in the video?

AR: As I approached him to take the picture of his plate he put the car in reverse and backed up towards me. He actually backed up past me, and I was in the bike lane, and then this is fully visible in the video.

SB: He was trying to run you over!

AR: I dove between two parked cars and he backed past me.

SB: Whew.

AR: But I got a photo of the license plate. As he was behind me, I already had the phone out, so I turned around and got it. And then he sped off.  Three people approached me. They saw the last part. That’s when the guy showed me the video. City College police approached and they called SFPD.

SB: How did it go with SFPD? Better than your experience in 2011?

AR: The detective from Ingleside station contacted me. They identified who was driving from the license and he was arrested. He denied nothing.

SB: He confessed?

AR: He thought he was in the right so they arrested him on the spot.

SB: So it was one of those incidents where the driver thought you had no right to be on the road, and that justified attacking you?

AR: (nodding)

SB: And then what happened? He was prosecuted?

AR: It all happened pretty quickly. In early June, they had a preliminary hearing and he was charged with felony assault with a deadly weapon and held on $250,000 bail. I was amazed when they told me. It’s really unusual. But then at the trial, the judge decided that it didn’t merit a felony charge and reduced it to misdemeanor assault with a deadly weapon, which means maximum would be a year. His bail was lowered and he posted bail and was released.

SB: How did the trial go?

AR: I testified for two days, but that means mostly waiting around. I think I was actually on the stand for a total of three hours. It was very interesting. The defendant’s attorney produced a picture from my Facebook profile of me making anti-car statements. At one point I [had] put the stop sign with “stop driving” in my profile pic. They had fun with that, trying to turn me into an anti-automobile zealot who was provoking the attack.

SB: Like you wanted to get attacked and run over. Anyway, it didn’t work; the jury convicted, right?

AR: Yes.

SB: So in the four years from your first crash to this road rage incident, have you seen a difference in how the police react?

AR: I’ve seen both sides. There is a culture in SFPD that if you’re riding a bike in the street you are at fault, period. That’s what I experienced in 2011. But then I saw these detectives at Ingleside in 2015, well, they were very respectful and they really cared, that was my impression.

SB: So, much has changed?

AR: Maybe. Or maybe it’s the difference between some beat cops and detectives.

SB: And what about the prosecutors? Did they care?

AR: Yes, I got the same thing from the DA. But she confessed to me that it was a learning curve for her. She didn’t know bikes are legally allowed to use the lane. She honestly didn’t know that. And there was one really amazing moment where the defense attorney asked me if I ever ride without a helmet…I said I don’t always, and he said “you’re breaking the law.” I had to explain to him that if you’re over 18 you’re not legally required to wear a helmet. The jury laughed.

SB: It sounds like that may be the moment you won the trial, by showing that the defense attorney doesn’t know what he’s talking about.

AR: And I wasn’t trying to make a gotcha moment.

SB: I guess knowledge really is power. Do you have some parting thoughts?

AR: Yes, and it’s about video. Ms. Williams, the Assistant DA, after polling the jury, said their initial inclination towards the motorist was to say this is a 20-year-old kid; he’s just being a crazy 20-year-old. That was their initial inclination, but the video was what really convinced them that there was an element of malice behavior. This was a violent act. It was an undeniable violent act that could have resulted in killing somebody. I can’t stress enough the importance of the video.

SB: You ride with your own camera now?

AR: (Nods) Without the video I don’t think the police would have pursued the investigation and the jury would not have delivered the conviction. You can’t argue with that. And it’s video specifically. It showed the driver’s actions. And it’s conjecture, but I think it changes drivers’ behavior when they see the camera–they yield more.

SB: Because they see the camera on your helmet?

AB: It’s a psychological deterrent. I encourage all people who ride in the city to have a camera.

This interview was edited for length and clarity.

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Last night, Anthony Ryan was biking home from his job as a lecturer on fine arts at SF State University when he was nearly rammed by a motorist on Phelan Avenue. Ryan says the driver tried to door him and run him over multiple times. He posted footage taken by another driver showing the end of the encounter, when the assailant attempted to […]