Recent bike-related deaths renew safety debate

By CATHERINE SHEFFO, Capital Gazette

After a rash of high-profile bicycle accidents, Maryland's General Assembly might consider strengthening laws that allow judges to punish careless drivers.

Last month saw the sentencing of a Calvert County driver who hit and killed bicyclist Patricia Cunningham, of Annapolis, while she was riding on Riva Road last year. Cunningham was an assistant track and cross-country coach at Annapolis High School.

A grand jury had charged the driver with four traffic violations. A judge found her guilty of three of them and imposed the maximum penalty: a $1,500 fine, as well as points on her license.

This angered some in the community. Prosecutors and bicycle organizations hope the Cunningham case will spark a debate about Maryland's laws on the rules of the road and the severity of charges that can be brought against reckless drivers.

"We're open to any changes in the law that give individuals the tools for justice," said House of Delegates Speaker Michael E. Busch, D-Annapolis. "If the state's attorneys have any suggestions, we're willing to listen to them."

At the center of the debate is a 2011 Maryland law. The measure aims to establish a middle ground between the longer prison sentences associated with drunken driving and excessive speeding and the fines for minor traffic violations, such as running a red light.

The law uses the term "negligence" to describe the actions of a driver who is careless or not paying attention. Minor negligence is a traffic violation punishable by only a fine. Criminal negligence — legally, a "gross deviation" from careful driving — can carry a sentence of up to three years in prison.

Anne Arundel County Deputy State's Attorney William Roessler said that while the new law is a step in the right direction, juries and judges struggle to determine what should be considered criminal negligence.

Roessler, the prosecutor in the Cunningham case, said the law's wording is too similar to the laws on drunken driving for it to be effective. "It's so close that grand juries and judges are going to hold it to a very similar standard," he said.

"There may very well be a small category of cases, but it's not going to work very much. I haven't seen it yet."

Grand juries decide on how defendants are charged, so the way a law works depends on the way a grand jury interprets it, Roessler said.

In this case, the grand jury decided that defendant Whitney Decesaris' actions didn't amount to criminal negligence. She was charged with traffic violations instead, leading to fines instead of potential jail time.

"The loss from a human standpoint compared to $1,500 … it just seems grossly out of proportion," said Jon Korin of BikeAAA, an area bicycle advocacy group.

Roessler said prosecutors asked lawmakers to amend the law's wording to better reflect what they wanted it to accomplish. He said delegates were confident the law would work as intended.

Some delegates, however, said the problem is harder to fix than it seems.

"When something bad happens, people want to propose a law, but (Decesaris) didn't obey the current law," said Del. Herb McMillan, R-Annapolis.

McMillan said changing the law won't force people to follow the rules of the road that keep cyclists safe — namely, allowing 3 feet when passing at appropriate speeds.

"I don't really know what to think, aside from this was a tragic accident," he said. "I'm not sure a law new could have fixed it."

Busch said this is the first he has heard of attorneys having problems with the law, and lawmakers will consider working with prosecutors to make it more effective.

Meanwhile, bicycle advocates said harsher penalties for careless drivers are the key to reducing injuries and deaths.

"Enforcement is important," Korin said. "You can do education, but enforcement is a very, very critical element of changing behavior."

He expects the state level of BikeAAA to discuss legislative changes it may take to the legislature.

"It's a conversation that needs to be had so that proper charges can be applied."

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by B' Spokes

Like most people I live a hectic life and who has the time for much exercise? Thanks to xtracycle now I do. By using my bike for daily activities I can get things done and get an hour plus work out in 15 minutes extra of my time, not a bad deal and beats taking the extra time going to the gym. In case you are still having trouble being motivated; the National Center of Disease Control says that inactivity is the #2 killer in the United States just behind smoking. ( ) Get out there and start living life! I can carry home a full shopping cart of groceries, car pool two kids or just get lost in the great outdoors camping for a week. Well I got go, another outing this weekend.
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I have a couple of thoughts regarding your comments. Unlike driving and motorcycling (which is considered a privilege not a right), bicycling does not require any training or licensing. While no one wants to see anymore hurt or killed, regardless of whose is at fault, the fact remains there are many cyclists riding without the necessary knowledge and skills to manage many of the roads they are riding. We are not talking about bike trails. We are talking about major roads. We are talking about narrow two lane country roads. Just because someone has all the gear and looks good doesn't make them capable. I believe cyclist show be required to be licensed and the bikes be registered. Just like every other vehicle on the road. I also believe (and there may already be) saftey training courses for cyclists. I don't care whether you are riding a bike or riding a motorcycle I take upon myself to ride defensively.
I am all for more people learning to ride/drive defensively but what you are purposing boils down to getting the police to enforce traffic law when there is due cause. Again I am all for that when enforced across all modes but we can't get them to reasonably enforce what laws we have. Baltimore has twice the frequency of car crashes than the average large city, my assertion is that people who drive here are seriously lacking defensive driving skills but the police turn a blind eye to illegal and unsafe driving here so that becomes accepted thus turning the vulnerable road user into the "unsafe" road user simply because they don't have a steel cage around them. America has got to stop stressing safe cars where the occupant is invincible, even when they drive straight into a tree at 60 MPH. Europe does not have that kind of nonsense and they have a lot lower crash and fatality rates then what we do in the states. There is a lot of things that contribute to this but I really like their education program that begins at an early age and stresses all travel modes, not just driving. So when we can get the driver test to something more significant than 30 simple questions (CA has 100 questions on theirs) and some significant traffic enforcement then maybe I might consider what you purpose but till then traffic enforcement is a joke and I will not support any more harassment then what cyclists already have to put up with.