Cyclists Face Lack of Legal Protection in Crashes

| Tue Nov. 2, 2010 2:11 PM EDT

Today is election day, but one candidate that won't be on the ballot is Maryland candidate for Senate Natasha Pettigrew. Thirty-year-old Pettigrew, who represented the Green Party, was struck and killed by an SUV while biking on September 20. The driver of the Cadillac Escalade who hit Pettigrew said she thought she had hit a deer or a dog so she didn't stop and continued driving for four miles until reaching her home. Upon parking the SUV, she saw Pettigrew's bicycle lodged beneath it and called police. Pettigrew's mother, Kenniss Henry, is running in her place but looks like Maryland is re-electing Democrat Barbara Mikulski. 

The death of a promising young person is tragic, but at least charges for the driver are pending. (An eyewitness says she saw the SUV stop after striking Pettigrew, then take off with sparks and smoke trailing behind due to the bicycle stuck beneath the vehicle.) Often, charges aren't filed in cases where bicyclists are killed by cars because it's an accident. One could argue that's what manslaughter charges are for, but of course traffic laws (and their execution) vary from state to state and city to city. Pettigrew's mother has advocated stricter laws in Maryland, where if a driver hits a pedestrian or cyclist, they must be impaired, grossly negligent, or show intent to cause harm in order to be charged with a crime. Cases in other states show similar outcomes: in Florida this July, a Navy vet and executive was struck and killed by an SUV driven by a nurse, but no charges were filed because police considered it an accident. The same was true in a 2009 case involving the death of a Virginia bicyclist by an SUV. In 2008, there were 716 cyclists killed in crashes with motorized vehicles, making up 2% of all traffic fatalities.

A few weeks after Pettigrew's death, a Maryland law was enacted that requires a 3 foot buffer zone between cars and bikes on roads, and require vehicles yield right-of-way to bicycles. But the fine for motorists who cause a crash that involves a bike is just $1000. "A loss of life is a loss of life," Henry told the Maryland Gazette. "We seriously need to look at how we balance these scales."