Are police in bike-friendly Santa Monica holding a dooring victim to a different standard?

Are cyclists being held to a different standard?

So it would seem in bike-friendly Santa Monica.

This past Friday, a cyclist was critically injured when he ran into a car door while riding south on 11th near Oak, just below Ocean Park Blvd.

The rider, identified only as a man in his 40s, reportedly flew over the door and landed directly on his head, suffering a life-threatening head injury.

It’s worth noting in this particular case that he wasn’t wearing a helmet, as the story points out; this is exactly the sort of slow speed collision bike helmets are design to protect against.

And then the officer goes on to immediately blame the victim, accusing the rider of being drunk at the time of the collision.  According to Santa Monica Patch, SMPD Sgt. Richard Lewis said,

“Alcohol played a big role,” Lewis said. “We do not know that he is going to survive.”

He goes on to add,

“There will not be any criminal charges,” he said. “It appears to be an accident.”

Witnesses said that the rider had been swerving in and out of traffic lanes before he hit the car door, which had been left open for several seconds.

By reading the news stories, it certainly sounds like the riding was completely at fault; a drunk rider collided with a car door that he should have seen and been able to avoid.

And maybe it happened just that way.

Then again, maybe it didn’t.

While the police spokesperson suggests the rider was drunk and there’s a reference to a blood test being done at the hospital, there’s no report of just how high his blood alcohol level was. He may have had a couple of drinks, or he may have been plastered.

Then again, it may not really matter.

One thing I’ve learned dealing with the LAPD on other cases is that under California law, whether or not a driver is drunk is a secondary factor unrelated to the cause of a collision.

For instance, let’s say two cars collide at an intersection, and one of the drivers is drunk. If the drunk driver ran the red light, he caused the collision by running the light — not by being drunk. His drunkenness might be why he ran the light, but it’s not the cause of the collision under the law.

On the other hand, if it was the other driver who ran the light, the fact that his victim was drunk is entirely unrelated to the cause of the collision.

Yet in this case, police are suggesting that drunkenness was the cause.

Even though state law prohibits opening a driver’s-side car door if it interferes with traffic. And then, only as long as necessary to get in and out of the vehicle.

22517.  No person shall open the door of a vehicle on the side available to moving traffic unless it is reasonably safe to do so and can be done without interfering with the movement of such traffic, nor shall any person leave a door open upon the side of a vehicle available to moving traffic for a period of time longer than necessary to load or unload passengers.

The Times story reports that the driver left the door open while she gathered her things, which would seem to be a clear — yet non-cited — violation of CVC 22517.

The driver should have gathered her things before opening the door, or she could have moved around to the other side of the car where the open door would not have interfered with traffic.

We’ve also learned from the CHP in the Carol Schreder case that witness reports of what a driver was doing in the moments leading up to a collision have little or no relevance to the actual collision.

In that case, numerous witnesses said they saw the driver operating his truck at a high speed and in a careless manner for several miles prior to hitting Schreder’s bike. Yet police didn’t even talk to those witnesses, as they said what occurred a few miles away had no bearing on what actually caused the collision or the charges the driver eventually faced.

I might argue that point. In fact, I have.

But if that’s the way the law is applied to drivers, that’s how it should be applied to cyclists.

So the fact that the victim had been drinking wasn’t the cause of the collision. Nor were the comments that he was weaving in and out of traffic prior to the collision.

The cause of the collision appears to be a car door that was left open in violation of the law, as well as a possible careless cyclist who may or may not have been able to see the door in time to stop safely.

There’s one other thing we should note.

On the Patch site, there’s an imbedded video showing the police investigation at the site of the collision. At the end of that, there is what seems to be a local resident blaming the narrow road and lack of a bike lane in the direction the victim was traveling.

It’s entirely possible that traffic on that narrow street caused the victim to ride in the door zone and could have prevented him from swerving out of the way when — and if — he saw the door blocking his path. It’s also possible that he may have tried to brake to avoid the door.

Bikes seldom leave the skid marks police use to determine if a vehicle tried to stop, which can lead them to erroneously conclude that a rider didn’t brake prior to a collision.

Which is just one more reason why every police traffic investigator should be trained in the unique physics and forensics of bicycle collisions.

This wreck could have occurred exactly as the police suggest. It’s entirely possible that the victim could responsible for his own injuries through his own drunken carelessness.

Or he could be the victim of a careless driver and bad road design.

We’ll probably never know.

But it certainly looks like the police may be going out of their way to blame the victim and let a dooring driver off the hook.

Thanks to Evan G for the heads-up. And say a few prayers for the victim; reading between the lines, his outlook doesn’t sound good.

10 comments

  1. exactly. a dooring is the doorer’s fault. i had the same reaction to the article – just clearly biased against the cyclist. and the fact that he didn’t have a helmet somehow makes him at fault. this guy may have been riding like a jackass – but it doesn’t matter. if there’s a witness that said he was texting and didn’t see an open door, then maybe… but otherwise i seriously doubt the statement that the door was open ‘a few seconds’ before he hit it. i’d need some witnesses to buy that a guy is riding along and just runs into a door sitting there open. anyone who rides regularly knows how this works, and this isn’t passing the smell test to me yet.

  2. and yes, that street has the now more common santa monica set up – a bike lane in one direction, and a sharrow in the other. if he was going south, then he was in the sharrow, so very possibly squeezed. i ride that section every day and i often head onto the sidewalk there when i pass pico and turn up bay to get to euclid where there’s wide open space. it’s too narrow, and cars are racing after the pico light.

  3. Evan says:

    While I can’t say that the road design is to blame, I have noticed that on some streets with the new “climbing” bike lane/sharrows configuration (one direction has a lane, the other direction has a narrower travel lane with sharrows) that the lane with sharrows can feel very tight indeed.

    Here is how 11th looked previously: http://goo.gl/maps/1sFl

    I don’t have a photo of how it is now, but consider that the center divider has been moved over to the side, and with a narrower lane and cars parked to the right, a cyclist riding in the sharrows may feel less safe than they did previously, especially considering how some cars refuse to move to the left to pass.

  4. Eric W says:

    Hmm – I bike on 11th quitea bit. Southbound has Sharrows. Northbound a bike lane. The whole idea of the sharrow mark in the road is that you ride directly over it. The sharrows on 11th St. are ( I think) 11ft out from the curb. That should be outside the door zone. As I visualze tthis he had to be gutter riding to hit a car. There is a slight downhill there. I think quite probably the collision is his fault for running into someone. Then again we don’t know much. Maybe another car pass him too closely and squeezed him into the door. Ted does have a very good point above about police lack of expertise with cycing. I just think he’s wrong on the details of this one.

    So, the safety takeaway is to ride on the sharrows. And they may be safer than the usual bike lane, which is in the door zone.

    PS — James – have the courage of your convictions. Stay off the sidewalk. Take the lane, the cars will slow down or go around you.

    • LK says:

      Eric, I bike in Santa Monica all the time (including on 11th), and I didn’t know that you are supposed to ride ON the arrows. That makes sense, though. It might feel safer to move farther to the right, but in cases like this one it clearly is not! Thanks for the pointer.

  5. [...] Why Does Santa Monica Have Different Standards for “Doored” Crashes? (Biking In LA) [...]

  6. Elloise says:

    While it’s very clear that the police did not conduct an unbiased investigation to the cause of this accident, the fact still remains that the victim was not wearing a helmet. In this light, I can’t help but emphasize the need for bikers to wear protective gear especially when ridding in high traffic roads. I think this should actually be made law.

  7. Evan says:

    Antonio Cortez, the cyclist involved, has died from injuries he suffered in the crash. Again, police will not bring charges against the owner of the car who left their door open.

    http://santamonica.patch.com/articles/cyclist-succumbs-to-crash-injuries?ncid=newsltuspatc00000001

  8. Very sad. My condolences to the family and friends of Antonio Cortez.
    I always try to ride 3 feet to the left of parked cars (which is legally-protected for cyclists to do). Motorists can blame themselves for the need to do that and they can be inconvenienced for the second it takes to drive around me. I also wear a helmet. I’m not a fan of putting my life in others’ hands, even if a law doesn’t require me not to.
    There’s also a huge amount of people who leave their driver’s-side door open unnecessarily (i.e., they are not getting things out of their car or unloading passengers) around here – happens on my neighborhood streets ALL the time.
    No matter how many safety-related laws and changes to infrastructure are made, the source of the problem will always be present — people not paying attention to their surroundings, to varying degrees. This goes for pedestrians, cyclists, and motorists alike. One person doing something stupid and/or inconsiderate (e.g., the person who left their car door open) can inadvertently cause another person harm due to a whole ‘nother combination of factors. The self-centeredness and lack of common sense, in general, is a problem.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

1 × five =

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>

%d bloggers like this: