Blaming the victim: Beverly Hills police blame sidewalk riding cyclist over dangerous driver

Last week, I received the following email from cyclist and budding brewmeister Todd Mumford.

As you may recall, Todd recently described a collision that left him with minor — though painful — injuries and a badly mangled bike. Now his neighbor has been the victim of a law-breaking driver.

And, apparently, the Beverly Hills police.

Todd notes that the story is second hand, but he has no reason to question his neighbor’s version of events.

He was headed east on Olympic Blvd. At some point he was riding in the street, but jumped on to the sidewalk (there was a car blocking his path or something like that).

He was on the sidewalk when he entered the crosswalk at Olympic/Doheny on a green light with the pedestrian walk sign. According to my neighbor, he checked the road and all was clear as he entered. However, as soon as he got into the crosswalk, he looked left just in time to see an SUV make a right turn from the middle lane at the last second, hitting my neighbor and sending him to the ground; he took the brunt of the impact with his shoulder.

The driver stopped and checked on my neighbor. My neighbor said two or three drivers that witnessed the accident also stopped, and started berating the driver that hit him for driving like a maniac. According to them, the driver of the SUV was speeding down Olympic, weaving in and out of traffic and finally made an illegal right turn from the middle lane before striking my neighbor.

The paramedics arrived as did the police. My neighbor got checked out and nothing appeared broken, but his shoulder was in a lot of pain (it has since become worse and he is going to get it checked to see whether he needs surgery). The police took the statements of the witnesses, the driver and my neighbor.   Their conclusion at the end of the police report was that my neighbor was entirely at fault because he was riding on the sidewalk. (My neighbor also said the police treated him like he did something wrong the entire time.)

Now, as I explained to him, it’s illegal to ride on the sidewalk in Beverly Hills. If he was just a little farther down Olympic he would have been in Los Angeles and it would not have been an issue. What I am wondering is if the police came to their conclusion because the law states it’s illegal to ride on the sidewalk or they think he’s at fault because the driver couldn’t see him because he was riding on the sidewalk.

All of which begs the question, what would the police have concluded had the SUV hit a pedestrian who was walking down the sidewalk had just entered the crosswalk and got hit?

If the police assigned 100% of fault to my neighbor because he broke the law by riding on the sidewalk, they are absolutely in the wrong. There is a legal concept in torts called negligence per se  (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Negligence_per_se), which, although not applicable here, feels like the police may be following the same concept. “You broke a law, you got hit, your fault.”  I have not seen the police report, but if they assigned 100% of fault to my neighbor, I would assume the driver was not cited for anything.

My neighbor said he has since retained an attorney and the driver’s insurance company assigned 80% of the fault to the driver and 20% to him, which is a small victory.

(As a side note, when I was dealing with the adjustor for the insurance company of the driver that hit me, they asked if I was riding on the sidewalk when I was hit.)

This story raises a number of issues.

Not the least of which is the problem of sidewalk riding, which is legal in some California cities and banned in others. And even legal in some areas of cities that ban it in others, such as Beverly Hills, which bans sidewalk riding only in business districts — even though BHPD bike officers routinely ride on the gilded sidewalks of the city’s Golden Triangle, including Rodeo Drive.

This patchwork of laws makes it virtually impossible for cyclists to comply with the law, as they may have no way of knowing if it is legal or illegal as they pass through the many various communities of the county.

In effect, it’s no different from the speed traps that plagued the state in the ’40s and ’50s. By refusing to post regulations on the street where cyclists who don’t live in the city can see them, jurisdictions that ban sidewalk riding virtually ensure that riders who take to the sidewalk for whatever reason will break the law at some point and be subject to ticketing.

Or worse, as this case points out.

Of course, the one solution is for all cyclists to always ride in the street. But simple common sense says that will never happen, as some riders will always feel more comfortable on the sidewalk, while others will jump on and off as needed to avoid road hazards and dangerous streets.

A better answer is to establish a uniform standard from city to city so it’s actually possible for riders to know and observe the law, wherever they ride.

Then there’s the problem of police in the Biking Black Hole of Beverly Hills ignoring witness statements that the driver broke the law by making a right turn from the wrong lane. And deciding that the relatively minor violation of riding on the sidewalk completely outweighs a reckless driver in a dangerous vehicle putting others at risk by committing a major moving violation.

Despite the driver’s potential to cause harm, they insisted on blaming the victim. Instead of holding people operating vehicles that are capable of killing their fellow road users accountable for operating them in a safe and legal manner, they heaped all the blame on the bike rider, who posed a danger no one but himself.

All of which begs the question, what the f*** is wrong with Beverly Hills??????

Maybe you can ask them yourself.

The Beverly Hills City Council is meeting tomorrow afternoon, Tuesday, March 6th, at 1:30 pm. Bikes are on the agenda — a discussion of the city’s first planned bikeways, making them only 40 years or so behind the rest of the world.

But maybe we can use the opportunity to ask why they seem intent on remaining the most bike-unfriendly city on the Westside.

19 comments

  1. Eric W says:

    Uhh, it seems that it states that he was in the crosswalk. Not on the sidewalk, at the moment of collision. Probably a better discussion…

    In any case, riding on the sidewalk, at any speed greater than a walk, is a bad idea. As happened above, drivers don’t see you on the sidewalk. The human perception is tuned to walker at a slow speed, not more rapid cyclists. Most drivers just doesn’t see a bicyclist riding into the crosswalk. Sorry to hear it , but the above sounds typical. Especially with a marginally competent driver in a hurry.

    Yes, the local laws vary. In many, many cases it’s just very bad cycling form. Act like traffic on a bicycle, stay on the road.

    The lesson in all this: sidewalks are not safer than on the street. And it’s the point where you exit the sidewalk to an intersection, or cross a driveway – that’s the place where you’re likely to collide.

    Eric W

    PS Sidewalk riding anywhere in Santa Monica isn’t legal. Also not allowed on the Venice boardwalk section, even though it’s in the city of LA. There’s another spot somewhere near USC downtown also…

    • Terry Leuin says:

      I agree with Eric. As most of the other readers of this blog,I am both a cyclist and a driver. Whether legal or not, riding on the sidewalk is dangerous when crossing an intersection. As Eric points out, it is difficult for a driver making a right turn to see a bike rider, who may be behind the driver when he starts his turn, but given the rider’s speed, reaches the crosswalk as the driver is actually turning. This doesn’t excuse the driver (particularly in this case), but as bike riders, we have to use some common sens to protect ourselves.

      Terry L

  2. Anonymous says:

    There are legitimate complaints of “anti-bike bias,” but this isn’t one.

    I’m no lawyer, but I think the story you’ve related is, rather, an excellent illustration of the maxim that those who want the protection of the law must take care to obey it.

    There is no need to change the legal framework for regulation of sidewalk bicycling. In California, the “uniform standard” you propose already exists: bicycles are always permitted to use every street or highway, except freeways where signs are posted and certain toll bridges. This provides a reasonable default option for bicyclists traveling from city to city, for whom investigating local regulations might be a burden, if only a minor one.

    A bicyclist who wants to ride on the sidewalk, just like someone contemplating any of the myriad other activities local governments can regulate, is responsible for learning the laws that apply. That these laws might vary from one city or county to another is no reason to deny the right of representative self-government.

    Far from being “virtually impossible,” it took me less than 60 seconds to find section Beverly Hills Municipal Code section 5-6-801, which prohibits sidewalk bicycling in business districts. Incidentally, this section specifically exempts on-duty peace officers from the prohibition, so your comment about “BHPD bike officers” is irrelevant–police officers do many things in traffic that are prohibited to civilians, so someone seeing an officer on bicycle patrol can’t properly assume that sidewalk bicycling is allowed.

    You also haven’t convinced me that the actions of the Beverly Hills police in the account you’ve quoted were improper, and I think you would do better to focus your outrage on the negligent driver.

    Please understand that it is not the responsibility of the police to allocate fault for traffic collisions. Unless officers witness a traffic infraction or misdemeanor or have probable cause to believe a felony has been committed, they have no basis to make an arrest without a warrant or to issue a citation. Though the account describes violations by both bicyclist and driver, there is no mention that either was cited.

    If there is no conduct so reckless as to be criminal–and a driver’s failing to anticipate that a bicycle, moving at bicycle speeds, would unlawfully enter a pedestrian crosswalk from the sidewalk, doesn’t meet that standard–the officers’ work is done. It’s entirely the task of insurance companies and the civil courts to place the blame–to decide who pays and how much.

    It is true that the investigating officer’s determination of the primary collision factor (usually a violation of the Vehicle Code or a local ordinance) and the one party most at fault are recorded in a collision report, but these reports are prepared for purposes of traffic safety studies and, by law, cannot be introduced as evidence in civil or criminal cases. (Indeed, the form doesn’t even include a space to allocate liability on a percentage basis.)

    If the police had refused to investigate or had hauled the injured bicyclist away to jail, I might be more sympathetic, but it seems like you were expecting the officers to overlook the bicyclist’s own contribution to the collision, which would be an actual bias every bit as wrong as the one you assert here.

    • bikinginla says:

      Actually, I never said the police should overlook the cyclist’s contribution to the collision. My point is that the police should not have placed all the blame on the cyclist, and ignored the fact that the driver made an illegal turn across traffic from the wrong lane, injuring someone as a result.

      Both parties broke the law, but only one was held responsible — and that one was the one who broke a local ordinance and posed a minimal danger to anyone else, as opposed to the driver of the more dangerous vehicle who violated the state traffic code. Had the police found both parties at fault, I would have no complaint, but to say the cyclist was 100% responsible is absurd.

      As far as I am concerned, this is a textbook case of police bias.

      And while collision reports may not be used in court, they are often used by insurance companies to deny an otherwise valid claim — as I know from firsthand experience. Fortunately, in this case, the insurance company saw fit to apportion blame in a fair manner, as the police should have done.

      • Anonymous says:

        You seem to have confused being “held responsible”—real consequences like being made to pay damages or a fine, serve time in jail, or pay higher premiums for insurance—with being named in a confidential report, prepared for purposes of traffic safety, that can’t ever be put in front of a jury.

        If you’ve seen the second page of the CHP 555 collision report form, also used by all local agencies, and read its instructions in the CHP Collision Investigation Manual, you know that the investigating officer is required to identify only one primary collision factor and only one at-fault party, the party most at fault. The officer also has the option to identify “other associated factors,” including violations, for each party, but there is no way to say both parties were at fault, equally or in some other ratio. Apportioning the blame, giving percentages of comparative negligence, is just not something the police do.

        You shouldn’t try to interpret collision reports made primarily for statistical purposes as though they were court judgments in tort cases, then claim to find bias when it doesn’t work the way you expect.

        If you have some specific facts that explain how the officer’s conclusion was incorrect, then please give them. The Legislature has said that drivers and bicyclists have equal rights and duties—both are required to follow all the laws. If you think that principle is wrong, you should say so directly, rather than making unsupported and, frankly, unhelpful assertions that the police acted unfairly in making their collision report just because they didn’t afford some special deference to the bicyclist.

        • bikinginla says:

          No one asked for any special deference, as you well know, having read both this piece and my response. If you want to continue building straw dogs just so you can knock them down, be my guest.

          And by the way, a little cowardly to hide behind that anonymous screen name, isn’t it?

          • Anonymous says:

            Arguing that the investigating officer’s conclusion was wrong because of “the driver’s potential to cause harm” or because of a distinction between “people operating vehicles that are capable of killing their fellow road users” and “the bike rider, who posed a danger no one but himself,” when both parties have the same rights and duties under the law—or rather, the bicyclist has the additional duty to comply with the sidewalk bicycling ordinance—is asking for special deference to bicyclists.

            As for screen names, I don’t see your name anywhere on this page; when that changes, I might consider using mine.

            • bikinginla says:

              Oh please. You’re the one coming on here with an anonymous ID and a fake email address.

              My name is Ted Rogers, I’ve been writing this blog as bikinginla for nearly four years, and my identity as author of this blog is quite well known in Los Angles, and around the country, for that matter.

              The reason I don’t put my name on this blog is because this blog not about me; it’s about improving conditions for cyclists in Los Angeles. Don’t like it? Fine. Don’t read it.

              And as for your exceptionally weak argument about showing special deference to bicyclists, bullshit.

              No seriously, bullshit.

            • Stephen Yang says:

              Ted,

              He raises points about how things work in reality versus how we think they should work ideally.

              While you may think the arguments are weak, they’re also unfortunately shared by many. Education should be how things like this are dealt with, and not by simply calling “bullshit”.

              Attack the arguments, not the person. Don’t confuse the messenger with the message.

              We understand you have a personal stake in this. But don’t let it deprive you of your objectivity.

              In this case, the simple reality is that not all police fully understand the laws they are tasked to enforce. What should be asked, is how can we address that?

              It’s obvious that the police need better education. How can we help improve that?

              The second issue should be, if you’re involved in an incident like this, how do you get a second opinion and change the official report?

      • Donny Brook says:

        When you ride on the sidewalk and then cross to the street (even if it is a crosswalk) you run the risk of not being seen by a person in a car. Modern cars have many obstructions in the view, even out of the front window (mirror, posts etc). The guy on the bike was being risky, he should know that he isn’t going to be as easily seen, and even if the driver of the car was being negligent, that is all the more reason for being extra careful on a bike.

        I would give 100 percent fault to the guy on the bike because from his side this was 100 percent avoidable.

        • bikinginla says:

          Yawn.

          By the same standard, the rider would be 100% at fault because he chose to ride a bike that day. If he had stayed home, this never would have happened, right?

          The screen name you chose says a lot about what’s really going on here. You came on here trolling for a fight that you’re not going to get.

          You’re wrong, you know you’r wrong, but you’re just trying to be outrageous to stir up conflict. Get over it, and get a life.

  3. [...] Driver Hits Cyclist After Making Turn from Center Lane in Bev. Hills. Cops Blame Cyclist (Biking In L.A.) [...]

  4. Thanks for pointing out the absurdities of local sidewalk-riding rules. The uncertainty created by locally-established sidewalk-riding rules not only puts bicyclists at risk, but it also burdens police officers with a variety of rules that they often don’t fully understand. This is especially the case in cities that allow children under a certain age to sidewalk ride but ban all others, or cities that ban sidewalk riding in the tortuously-defined “business district”.

    Setting aside the arguments surrounding this particular incident (and even setting aside the meta-argument of whether or not bicyclists should be on the sidewalk), the current ambiguous structure of the California Vehicle Code in regards to sidewalk riding shows a disregard for bicyclists. It’s a relic of the dino-auto era when bicycles were still viewed as a solely recreational vehicle.

    What’s needed is a uniform statewide rule for bicycles on the sidewalk, whatever that rule may be. Until certainty can be established for legal bicyclist conduct that extends beyond City Limits, we will continue to see needless accidents and we will continue to see bicyclist victim-blaming by police – even in places where sidewalk riding is legal.

    The vehicle code allowing right turns on a red light is not defined by cities, it is statewide. When turns are not allowed, signage is required. Why should drivers be afforded this kind of certainty while bicyclists are left to slog through the arcana of a municipal code to find out if what they are doing is legal or not? When you cross a city limit, there is no sign saying “SIDEWALK RIDING NOW ILLEGAL”.

    There needs to be a uniform state vehicle code for sidewalk riding. We deserve nothing less.

  5. Biker395 says:

    For “Anonymous”: Riding a bicycle on sidewalks is also illegal in business districts of Culver City. But good luck trying to figure out what qualifies as a “business district” and which does not. And if something is to go from legal to illegal on as thin a basis as that, don’t you think it would be a good idea to sign that change? OK if jurisdictions change speed limits without telling motorists about it?

    As for your statement that the “If there is no conduct so reckless as to be criminal–and a driver’s failing to anticipate that a bicycle, moving at bicycle speeds, would unlawfully enter a pedestrian crosswalk from the sidewalk” … who said he was going bicycle speeds?

    Sidewalk riding is dangerous. I think we all know that. And it is dangerous because motorists do not expect you to be there. But there ARE times when it is the safest alternative … albeit usually for short distances. I personally ride on a sidewalk on my commute for about 0.2 mile and I do so because the only other alternative to ride in the street with an inadequate shoulder and the morning sun directly in motorists eyes. And when I do so, I give every deference to pedestrians (even to the point of getting off and walking) ride as if I am invisible, and check intersections (which include driveways when you’re on the sidewalk) carefully before going through them.

    As for negligence per se, there is an exception under common law if the victim can show that violating the ordinance was a safer alternative. He may or may not be able to show that here.

  6. Mark Elliot says:

    I think we can agree that sidewalk riding is dangerous. There are too many conflict points, including driveways, alleys, and of course crosswalks (considered an extension of the sidewalk under state law, I believe). Cyclists should stay on the road because in general it’s more safe, and because we need to claim it as our space. Unfortunately the patchwork of laws puts the onus on the cyclist. And as problematically, puts the discretionary power in the hands of the street cop.

    But this timely anecdote confirms two recent reports to Better Bike of BHPD officers totally treating cyclists involved in injury/property damage collisions poorly.

    In one case, a very serious hit-and-run, the rider found it difficult to motivate the BHPD to properly investigate a hit-and-run. Securing compensation for being rear-ended on SM Blvd. (ironically right near the PD) and paying for a month-long hospital stay is now compromised because the cops did no fact-finding. He did it himself.

    In the other case, the cop on the scene found 100% fault with the cyclist despite him being struck from behind. That leaves this cyclist at a disadvantage in court, where liability will be decided, even though the cyclist submitted an additional clarifying statement. But the BHPD has been unwilling to revisit the original report. What does the cyclist do then?

    Collision reports (as Ted noted) are used as evidence; they help decide liability. They are factual documents, so it’s important to get them right. These three cases really underscore the need to implement training programs so that cops understand how all road users enjoy rights and bear responsibilities. And they’re supposed to know already.

    In this account, the cyclist certainly seems to share fault for the collision, but at least according to witness accounts the motorist deserves fault too. We all have a responsibility to exercise due care. That means turning on red only from the proper lane and only after looking.

    The open question is whether cyclists in the crosswalk enjoy the same presumption of right-of-way as a pedestrian. I’d argue that they do, but perhaps they shouldn’t if they’re not exercising due care (like speeding into the crosswalk, hypothetically speaking).

    Where damages are concerned, the erroneous police report is a sobering reminder that we have to aggressively assert our rights at the scene. As all three cyclists’ experiences suggest, in BH that may not matter if the police aren’t prepared to listen, or are predisposed not to care to fully investigate.

  7. BC says:

    “In any case, riding on the sidewalk, at any speed greater than a walk, is a bad idea.”
    and
    “Sidewalk riding is dangerous. I think we all know that. And it is dangerous because motorists do not expect you to be there.

    Come on guys – sidewalk riding, per se, is not more dangerous than riding in the street.

    When the sidewalk is wide, has few walkers, good sight lines, and few intersections, it is safer than most street riding. There are a lot of sidewalks like this.

    Only when the sidewalk has many blind driveways/intersections, poor sightlines, or many walkers, is it more dangerous than most (but not all) street riding. And it is safer to ride in the same direction as traffic, less safe against traffic

  8. BH BO says:

    The “anonymous” commenter seems to have some knowledge of law–perhaps a police officer or attorney representing Beverly Hills or the driver? Regardless of whether the cyclist made an infraction of a municipal ordinance, the action of the driver was in clear violation of the state vehicle code. For BHPD to ignore that entirely indicates that BHPD is not applying the law correctly.

    • Anonymous says:

      I hadn’t intended to comment further, but to answer your question, I have no connection with the the parties in the traffic collision described in Ted’s posting, the City of Beverly Hills, or any other government agency or insurance company, and as I wrote in my first comment, I’m not a lawyer.

  9. Alan Thompson says:

    An interesting side note. As the 555 report is often written at the scene, the bicyclist may not even be there (dead or in hospital) meaning the only witness is the automobile driver (if he/she hasn’t driven off). Rarely, if ever, are the 555 reports revised weeks or months later

    The 555 reports are used by transportation planners and safety planners. Planners that I speak to recognize the limitations of the 555 form in that regard.

    However, journalists, politicians and concerned citizens who may not know of the 555 limitations can seize upon that data to talk about “scofflaw cyclists.”

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