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NYTimes op-ed cites infamous $42 ticket in 2011 death of John Przychodzen

Click to watch the KOMO News report, featuring an interview with John's brother
John Przychodzen. Click to watch the KOMO News report, featuring an interview with John’s brother

I’ll never forget the first time I saw the number: 42.

That’s how many dollars Nick Natale was fined for veering his work truck onto the shoulder and killing John Przychodzen as he biked on Juanita Drive in the summer of 2011.

I was stunned. I just sat at my computer rereading the notice. I must have been missing something. John was dead, and it was this teen’s fault. There’s no fine that could make that OK, but $42? That’s spit in the eye of John’s friends and family.

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Or, as Daniel Duane put it in his recent New York Times op-ed, “the penalty’s meagerness defied belief.”

The ticket was for “unsafe lane change,” and the amount is the same fine that a person would get whether they hit a person or not. It’s as though John’s death was inconsequential in the eyes of the law.

His tragic death came at a strange point in Washington law. The Vulnerable User Law had passed earlier that year, but would not go into effect until 2012. That law was aimed at similar instances in which a person walking, biking or operating another vulnerable vehicle (farm equipment, for example) is killed or seriously injured due to negligence that falls short of criminality. The law gives the legal system powers to suspend the offender’s driver’s license, issue stiffer fines and order relevant community service.

However, as Cascade reported earlier this year, many law enforcement agencies appear to not completely understand how to pursue the law. There is a lot of work yet to be done to make sure the law is properly used, but it is a step closer to making the point that death and injury on our streets is a serious matter.

But other states are worse off than Washington in this regard, and that’s largely the subject of Duane’s op-ed: Is It O.K. to Kill Cyclists?

The nation appears to finally be waking up to the idea that death on our roads is not simply the cost of doing business. It is unacceptable. And just because the person responsible was not intoxicated at the time of the collision does not mean there should be no significant penalty and/or rehabilitation process. From the op-ed:

But when a car hits a bike, it’s like there’s a collective cultural impulse to say, “Oh, well, accidents happen.” If your 13-year-old daughter bikes to school tomorrow inside a freshly painted bike lane, and a driver runs a stop sign and kills her and then says to the cop, “Gee, I so totally did not mean to do that,” that will most likely be good enough.

Duane suggests two young (in the US) efforts to help solve the problem: Governments installing protected bike lanes and passing so-called vulnerable user laws.

Unfortunately, despite these few interesting moments, the op-ed is a bit clumsy. For example, Duane suggests there’s a bikes vs cars cultural fight that breaks along urban liberal and suburban/rural lines.

Cycling debates often break along predictable lines — rural-suburban conservatives opposed to spending a red cent on bike safety, urban liberals in favor.

At least one major US city, Indianapolis, has a Republican in charge who is making investments in cycling for Republican reasons. And the whole US Bike Route System is based around the support and economic benefit of small town in rural areas.

Sure, places that were built with only cars in mind are less likely to support bike lanes, but is that really about the same old trite “liberals vs conservatives” framing? I’d say it has more to do with habits and the pan-ideology fear of change than which color your county went in the 2012 election.

Duane also tries to argue that — despite the fact that the majority of fatal collisions between people driving and people biking are the fault of the person driving, according to data from several states — somehow the blame for people on bikes getting killed without repercussions must be shared by people of both modes. Because, you know, some people on bikes break traffic laws:

Laws in most states do give bicycles full access to the road, but very few roads are designed to accommodate bicycles, and the speed and mass differentials — bikes sometimes slow traffic, only cyclists have much to fear from a crash — make sharing the road difficult to absorb at an emotional level. Nor does it help that many cyclists do ignore traffic laws. Every time I drive my car through San Francisco, I see cyclists running stop signs like immortal, entitled fools. So I understand the impulse to see cyclists as recreational risk takers who deserve their fate.

So here’s my proposal: Every time you get on a bike, from this moment forward, obey the letter of the law in every traffic exchange everywhere to help drivers (and police officers) view cyclists as predictable users of the road who deserve respect. And every time you get behind the wheel, remember that even the slightest inattention can maim or kill a human being enjoying a legitimate form of transportation.

This is a frustrating and weak argument that crops up all the time. Yes, people on bikes should obey traffic laws. Yes, people on bikes don’t always do this. But it’s irrelevant to this discussion. For every person on a bike who runs a red light, there’s a person behind the wheel speeding or failing to stop for someone in a crosswalk. It’s a human thing, not a bikes or cars thing.

People break laws, especially when the benefits of obeying them are not made clear through intentional urban design. When a crosswalk is clearly marked and people are reminded of their duty to stop when people are present, the number of people driving who obey the law goes up. Got a spot where people keep illegally crossing on foot? That doesn’t mean that people near that intersection are a band of rebels with no respect for the law, it’s a sign that the street needs a crosswalk there.

Likewise, when streets are designed with the comfort and safety of people on bikes in mind, people on bikes are more likely to comply with the laws.

If people breaking the law on your street is the rule rather than the exception, then there’s something wrong with your street, not the people. It’s a distraction to suggest that if somehow the tens of thousands of people who bike every day in Seattle (or any city) could somehow all simultaneously stop breaking any traffic laws we would suddenly have the political power to then make our streets safe. That’s a myth.

Make the streets safe, and people will stop breaking the laws so much. That’s a fact. And as a bonus, fewer people will die.

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33 responses to “NYTimes op-ed cites infamous $42 ticket in 2011 death of John Przychodzen”

  1. Gary

    It’s the old rubrick, “if one person walks into a chair, they are a klutz, if two people hit it, it’s a coincidnece, if three people hit it, it’s time to move the chair.”

    Same for traffic laws. Idaho has it right on bikes and stop signs and stop lights. Bikes roll through stop signs because we are going so slowly that we can see whether it’s clear or not well before the sign, same for traffic lights. Although having the pedestrian signal next to the road where I could reach it without riding up over the curb and back would make me use it more often. Especially if it had some minor priority that would change faster if there is less traffic on both roads.

    Still this editorial bugged my SO, in that it made her fearful for my life of riding. I had to point out that driving is just as dangerous, it just doesn’t get the paper space in the NYTimes because we are all so used to the danger.

    1. Tom Fucoloro

      Good point. I also found it make cycling sound super scary. It doesn’t have to be, but it can be. Op-ed makes it sound like everyone will be terrified the first time they try to bike, which is not true.

    2. Andrew

      My deepest sympathy to the family of John. I just wanted to say that something did not add up with that case. How can you hit someone twice, and then crash into a telephone pole 50 feet up the road? Does that make sense to anyone? I read the op-ed in the ny times, and at first i liked it, but I did not like his attitude toward cyclists. It was very negative, and it seemed like a lot of fear-mongering.

      I honestly do not think a person of his caliber should have written an article like that. In a perfect cycling world we would all obey the traffic laws, but unfortunately we do not live in a land of protected bike lanes. This guy cannot say anything pro-cycling without bashing us first.


      I think this is a very good dissection of the article, and the ny times op-ed article deserves to be criticized

      Anyway, I hope that John’s family and all of the cyclists that are wrongfully killed are given justice.

    3. Christopher Keeble

      “Although having the pedestrian signal next to the road where I could reach it without riding up over the curb and back would make me use it more often”

      Wouldn’t matter – most crosswalk buttons don’t do anything when you push them.


      1. Gary

        “Some cities also program it so that the buttons won’t actually affect the timing of things, but only whether the “Walk” signal will display. “If you stand here and wait and don’t push it, you’ll never get that walk signal and legally, you’re not supposed to walk into the intersection without that walk signal. It’s a ticket-able offense,” states signal operations engineer Val Melvin in Spokane, Washington where this type of system is used widely.”

        Oh great… now I don’t feel so bad jumping the signals. If the city isn’t going to take the input why the heck should I wait?

    4. Andreas

      “I had to point out that driving is just as dangerous, it just doesn’t get the paper space in the NYTimes because we are all so used to the danger.”

      I’m sorry, but that’s complete bull.

      If your wife was afraid of flying, you could confidently reassure her that in reality, air travel is far safer than car travel, because cars, trucks, trains, airplanes, etc, all have tons of data regarding miles traveled, trips taken, time spent traveling, which makes it easy to compare the safety of those modes of transport. The same cannot be done for cycling (and walking), because that sort of data is virtually non-existent for those modes.

      Nonetheless, when folks have tried to gather such data, the numbers firmly support your wife’s fear. For example, the UK Department of Transport’s “Reported Road Casualties Great Britain: 2011 Annual Report” states that, per billion miles traveled, the death rates for various modes were as follows (serious injury in parentheses):
      Car driver: 3 (26)
      Pedestrian: 42 (542)
      Pedal cyclist: 35 (1,035)
      Motorcycle rider: 122 (1,868)

      And that’s in the UK, a country far more ped- and bike-friendly than the US.

      The simple fact is, if you’re in a cage, you’re far more likely to be doing the killing than being killed—ergo, you’re safer. It’s only by dint of the fact that the overwhelming majority of people drive so many, many, many more miles than they cycle or walk that vehicular deaths so greatly outnumber pedestrian and cyclist deaths. But if your wife’s worry is that every time you get on that saddle, you’re more likely to die than if you got in the driver’s seat, her fear is definitely supported by the data.

      1. Andreas

        PS I recognize that deaths per billion trips might actually be a better dataset for justifying or brushing off the fear that for any given trip, you’d be safer getting into a car than onto a bike. (After all, bike trips are almost invariably shorter than car trips.)

        Anyway, I’m too lazy to hunt it down at the moment, but I do recall a report from the US that used that measure and found the same pattern as the UK rates above, but with a smaller difference between modes. IIRC, it was something like, per trip, cyclists were ~10x more likely to die than someone in a car, and motorcyclists were ~50x more likely to die than someone in a car.

        As I mentioned, the datasets these folks are working with are really small (peds and bikes don’t come with odometers built-in), but the trend is undeniable. Certainly if everyone all of a sudden biked and walked a lot more, and thus the number of vehicles on the street dropped dramatically, it might well be just as safe to walk or bike as to drive. But that’s not how it works. As it is, if the average American were to bike or walk the 13,500 miles or 2,800 trips they normally drive each year, they’d be much more likely to get dead.

  2. Janine

    Nice counterpoints, thank you. I also commented on my posting of this that I wish the illustration hadn’t been of a weirdly devilish-looking bicycling person, but maybe that “thirteen year old daughter.”

    1. Tom Fucoloro

      Agreed. That illustration is awful.

  3. Jack Nolan

    “It’s a human thing”

    Exactly, thus my concern. You can make all the rules and laws you want. But we have an amazing capacity to be stupid.

    I’m all for advocacy, but nothing solves the issue. Unfortunately.

    1. Tom Fucoloro

      Well, that’s not exactly true. Humans do have a tendency to break laws, but we can design our streets so that the opportunities for devastating mistakes are as few as possible. This will solve (or dramatically reduce) the issue.

  4. Paul

    ” Yes, people on bikes should obey traffic laws. Yes, people on bikes don’t always do this. But it’s irrelevant to this discussion.”

    As a year round bike commuter who actively participates in cycling advocacy, I take issue with your statement here. It’s 100% relevant to this discussion, unless you believe that the solution is only to punish the bad drivers. (hint, it’s not).

    If we are to have a dialogue where everyone participates and respects the opposing side, we have to respect each other. You can’t have respect if you flagrantly disobey the law, no matter how much in the “right” you are. Obeying the rules of the road is the only way we will get understanding on the issue from all sides. If we don’t as a community, and draw attention to it.

    1. Tom Fucoloro

      I feel like you didn’t read the rest of the story, which addresses this.

      1. fresh

        Every bicyclist is an ambassador for all bicyclists.

        Tragedies in the article aside, which I read, it’s human nature to feel one’s one incorrect behavior is acceptable if others are behaving incorrectly.

        When I’m in my car, at a light with no crossing traffic and a bicyclist is also waiting it out with me, we can respect eachother.

      2. Tom Fucoloro

        “Every bicyclist is an ambassador for all bicyclists.”

        Does this also go for people who drive? Is the drunk driver who runs into the side of a community center an ambassador for all people who drive? Of course not.

        I drive a car sometimes, but I don’t see some ass driving drunk as somehow “speaking for me.” That’s ridiculous. Why, then, should that same reasoning apply to people on bikes?

        Jerks will be jerks, and there are laws to deal with (some of) them. The rest of us just want to have a safe way to get around.

        The day people who drive cars get the magic ability to make other people who drive stop speeding or failing to stop at crosswalks, then I’m sure people who bike will be granted the same ability. Until then, this argument is simply a distraction.

  5. Donna

    Thanks for the commentary. Cyclists do break laws, as do drivers. Here are the stats for Seattle recently published in the Seattle Times article titled “Police speed trap snaring bicyclists, too”. It’s about how Seattle police officers ticket anyone on any vehicle type:

    “This sort of equal-opportunity enforcement isn’t well-known in the city of cycling Mayor Mike McGinn, where online news commenters love to complain about cyclists who flout traffic rules.”

    “Of the 32,666 traffic citations issued by Seattle police in the first nine months of 2013, 346 were to bicyclists, or around 1 percent, according to the Seattle Municipal Court. Between 3 and 4 percent of Seattle commuters ride a bicycle to work or school, multiple surveys have found.”

    Here is a link to the article if you are interested:



  6. Gary

    “Bike Snob” weighs in.


    Not for those who can’t take some raving against cars and their drivers.

    1. Tom Fucoloro

      I was with him until he got to the rape analogy…

      1. Gary

        yeah that bit was way over the top. But I too am sick of the attitude that “Some cyclist rolled through a stop sign with no traffic, and then got hit two miles later by an SUV not paying attention.”

        I also hate that cyclists are too cheap to buy decent lights to ride in the dark and rain…. Sheesh, how much does a trip to the ER cost??? A lot more than some lights and a reflectors/vest/ etc.

      2. Andres Salomon

        Typically bike lights are annoying. Really, stupidly, frustratingly annoying. Make sure your batteries are charged! Make sure you take it off when you get to your destination, so it’s not stolen! Make sure that you don’t misplace/forget it while you’re there! Make sure to remember to put it back on your bike when you come out! Oops, sorry, your lights only hold a charge for 3 hours, and you were out in the dark for 3.25 hours! Make sure you tilt your light up to see! No, wait, now down so you don’t blind people! Now up! No, too far, now down! Whoops, you didn’t clip your light in just right, and it fell off while you were biking and split into three pieces!

        I look forward to the day when generator/dyanamo-powered lights that are bolted to the frame/fork come standard with all bikes. Until then, I have a really hard time faulting bike ninjas. We’ve all been there.

  7. stardent

    Actually if a car driver who has just run over a pedestrian or a bicyclist doesn’t leave the scene, he/she usually gets a very light sentence in most parts of the country. The system is tilted towards cars in any car-human encounter. Bicyclists flouting laws play into the hands of those who oppose bicycles on roads and would rather relegate us to sidewalks and isolated trails.

  8. Great commentary Tom. Bad design is indeed why many people on bikes or on foot go through red lights. Make cycling and walking safer through good design , and it will be well, safer.

    The bikesnob reply is brilliant.

  9. Owen

    It would be great if you submitted your response to the NYTimes. I think the points you make are very important to moving the dialogue forward and they often publish responses to opinion articles.

  10. ODB

    I think Duane felt he had to buy a little credibility with the non-cyclist readership by starting off with an interested-but-concerned posture re bicycle safety and closing with some standard-issue pox-on-your-houses false equivalence. Personally and anecdotally, I think more cyclists should obey more rules more often (maybe not all the rules all the time), but the idea that by obeying the laws cyclists might earn the right not to be killed with impunity did sound a bit of a false note. However, the overall thrust of the article–that it’s not ok to kill bicyclists but the law says it is–was spot on. I’m prepared to cut him some slack.


  11. Doug Bostrom

    Sometimes I feel despair about integrating bicycles with cars.

    The other night I was returning from the airport, exiting on Lake City Way from I-5. A cyclist joined the flow of traffic just past the short tunnel leading to Lake City Way proper, after the off-ramp. At the next light the cyclist passed me in turn, allowing me to witness some jerk practically run the person over because he/she wasn’t able to accelerate as rapidly as a car when the light turned. The person in the car had to make a great flouncing display out of the “issue” of being delayed for a handful of seconds, this display of course requiring a threatening last minute swerve around the cyclist.

    At this point I’d seen enough. Not only was there the issue of drivers with their desperately broken schedules permitting not the waste of a second as well as their infantile, emotional approach to driving, but the cyclist was nearly invisible. Flashing light and reflector, sure, but the batteries were probably down on the light and it was dark and rainy. Maybe the cyclist was creeped-out but I ended up hovering about 100′ back the rest of the way down the hill, until my turn at 95th. I just couldn’t stand the idea of that fragile vessel traveling alone down the road, completely at the mercy of luck. The disparity of power and the consequences of a single bad decision or moment of inattention are just too great.

    We’ve got a long road ahead to make all this work.

    1. Charlie

      Doug, I understand your hesitance about passing the bicycle, but please don’t. As someone that rides many hours a week in the dark, on both rural and city roads, I really hate being shadowed by a car. First of all, it is very distracting. I have a mirror and know what is going on behind me. Having a set of headlights constantly in the mirror is mildly annoying. Second, when you trail the cyclist, you are holding up other vehicles. I have found that the other drivers that are being blocked by you get more and more frustrated, and they take their anger out on me.
      When you come up on a bicycle, night or day, wait until you can safely pass them. When you do pass them, give them as much room as possible. There is no need to honk your horn, race your engine, or cut back into the lane quickly. Hopefully the other drivers that see you pass me safely will follow suit.

      1. Doug Bostrom

        Advice duly noted, and thank you, Charlie.

        Those are all common-sense and generally along the lines of my usual practice. For some reason the combination of Lake City Way (a hostile environment even for automobiles), the weather, the dark and especially the naked vulnerability of the cyclist got the better of me, so I pulled out the stops. It would be easy to misunderstand, but the situation aroused basically the same instincts as if I’d seen a family of ducks crossing the road (and let me emphasize, I don’t consider cyclists to be helpless or anything like that).

        It might help to understand that drivers routinely speed on Lake City at insane rates; my headlights were at least a good ways back and stable, as opposed to being a rapidly expanding mystery with “will he run me over or won’t he” as the salient question.

        Parenthetically, it’s often the case there’s simply no safe way to pass a cyclist. It’s incumbent on automobile drivers to recognize that situation and respect it. “Taking the lane” is sometimes the best and often the only course for a cyclist; the rest of us should just acknowledge that, lump it and stay well back. If only we’d actually do that in practice, which takes me back to my despair.

    2. Gary

      When I ride and can catch up with cyclists with little or no lighting I try to tell them how invisible they are but some seem imune. One even said “car drivers tell me that I look like a christmas tree”, well his leggings had lots of great reflectivity, but the battery on his tail light was shot, his helmet light was almost out…. The only reason I saw him was his shadow under the street lights. To save us both, I trailed him for two miles so that my lights would illuminate him and my tail lights save us both. But totally clueless….. Sometimes I wish I had a video camera that would show these guys how invisible they are.

      1. adot

        Y0ur comments on this blog and the opinions / perceptions they illustrate repeatedly indicate that you have no business behind the wheel of a running motor vehicle.

      2. Allan

        I just want to remind you all about the great deals on lights you can find on ebay. Usually the lumens advertised are a bit optomistic but half of a lot is still a lot. Search in flashlights, search in bike lights and search in headlights as they are actually different listings in ebay. Than search T6 in th search bar as they are really great led’s with a lot of power. Q5 is the minimum led and gives longer battery life as it is not so bright and not drawing so much. Only get lights that use the 18650 lithium batteries. You need batteries and a charger. There are mounts for a light on the handle bars for as little as $2. You can use a Lance Armstrong yellow rubber band to hold most small flashlights on the handle bar, maybe put a small piece of rubber between to cushion shocks. If you need a light fast there are some dealers in the USA and you get them in a week or 10 days. Some of the lights are actually too powerful for night time use in the city, but great for daytime visibility or off road mtb trails at night. The UltraFire C8 or 501B with T6 led costs $9 to $15 and has the power of a 600 lumen light from the bike shop. They adjust for levels of brightness or flashing. You also need a $4 charger, a $2 handlebar mount and some 18650 batteries. If you want a lot of batteries cheap go to RE-PC on 6th Ave S and buy laptop batteries for $1 each, crack them open and sometimes you get lucky and find a half dozen good lithium batteries inside, other times not, so you gamble until you get enough of them. Carry a few spares and you can ride all night. There are assorted tail lights on ebay for cheap as well. Every year before Christmas Home Depot has terrific bargains on lights if you want something with throw away batteries. I feel more visible at night than in the daytime. I really think people should get a $40 ticket for not spending a few dollars on lights. If you get hit in the daytime it is the usually the drivers fault but if you get hit at night, without lights how do you blame him.

      3. stardent

        Speaking of lights, please dim them or block them partially when you are riding in the BGT. Some of the lights can momentarily blind the cyclists going the other way.

      4. Gary

        adot… uhh, I was following this clueless bicyclists on my bicycle not in a motorized vehicle… although I am getting stronger the more I ride.

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