Please Stop Using Blaine Klingenberg’s Death as an Excuse to Shame Cyclists

Screen Shot 2016-06-18 at 5.17.00 PM
CBS Chicago’s Dorothy Tucker at Wednesday’s crash site. CBS used the fatal collision as an opportunity to scold bicyclists. Screenshot from the CBS report.

Family and friends, and the Chicago bike courier community, are mourning the death of Blaine Klingenberg, 29, who was fatally struck on his bike by a tour bus driver Wednesday evening at Oak Street and Michigan Avenue.

Meanwhile online commenters are heartlessly ridiculing the victim, arguing that he foolishly brought on his own demise. Even mainstream news sources are running pieces implying that Klingenberg’s actions were largely to blame for the fatal crash. Moreover, they’re using this tragedy as a chance to lecture bike riders about safety, as if reckless biking, rather than dangerous driving, was the leading cause of carnage on our streets.

First let’s get one thing straight. Despite what you may have read elsewhere, we don’t know exactly what caused this tragedy. Here’s the information we do have at this point.

Shortly after finishing a day of finishing a day of delivery work for Advanced Messenger Service, on Wednesday at around 5:30 p.m. Klingenberg was riding his cargo bike north on Michigan with a small group of cyclists, authorities say. Facebook posts indicate that Klingenberg and friends were heading to Oak Street Beach, which can be accessed by a path and underpass at the northeast corner of Oak and Michigan.

At the same time, a 51-year-old woman was driving a Chicago Trolley & Double Decker Co. double-decker tour bus westbound, east of Michigan, according to Officer Nicole Trainor from Police News Affairs. East of Michigan, Oak is officially called East Lake Shore Drive.

As the bus operator drove west, she ran over Klingenberg, pinning him under the bus, Trainor said. She added that a diagram of the collision on the crash report does not indicate that either the bike rider or the bus driver was turning. The cyclist was taken to Northwestern Memorial Hospital, where he was pronounced dead on arrival.

Klingenberg was biking north on Michigan (yellow line), probably to access the path to Oak Street Beach (dotted line). The bus operator was heading west on East Lake Shore Drive / Oak (red line). Some witnesses said both both the cyclist and bus driver had a red, because southbound traffic on Inner Lake Shore Drive (blue line) had a left-turn signal. Note that this diagram does not necessarily indicate the exact location where the crash occurred. Original image: Google Maps

However, the crash report states, “The victim disregarded the [red] light at Oak and turned into the bus, causing the fatal collision.” If Klingenberg was heading to Oak Street Beach, he would have made a slight northeast turn at Oak Street to enter a curb ramp at the northeast corner of the intersection and access the path to the beach underpass. No charges have been filed against the bus operator.

The officer who filled out the report was clearly laying the blame for the crash on the bike rider. However, things may not be that cut-and-dried. Unlike the bus driver, Klingenberg isn’t alive to tell his side of the story.

“I have seen instances time and time again in which [Chicago Police Department] blames a cyclist for a collision when it wasn’t their fault,” Jim Freeman of the bike-focused law firm FK Law (a Streetsblog Chicago sponsor) said this morning. “I guarantee when the truth comes out it won’t be as simple as ‘the cyclist blew the red.'”

We already have indications that the bus driver may have been at least partly at fault. The Chicago Tribune reported:

Two people who said they were in the area at the time said it appeared the bus had a red light. But one of them said Klingenberg also had a red light because southbound traffic from Inner Lake Shore Drive had a left turn light at the time.

This is the second time in seven months that a Chicago Trolley bus driver has struck and killed a vulnerable road user on Michigan Avenue. In November 2015, a 49-year-old female Chicago Trolley driver fatally struck Hiromi Hosono, 42, as she crossed Michigan in a crosswalk with the walk signal.

We’ll surely get a clearer picture of what actually happened in the Klingenberg case as more witnesses provide testimony and authorities review video of the crash. A source told me today me that the Chicago Department of Transportation has obtained traffic camera footage of the collision. I’ve submitted a Freedom of Information Act request to gain access to the video.

[Update 6/21/16:  When CDOT responded to my FOIA request, the department said, contrary to what the source told me, they do not have video of the collision. It turns out there are no red light or speed cams at this location. However, there is at least one other city-owned camera at this location. I have submitted another FOIA request to obtain any footage of the collision from this cam.]

In the meantime, however, local news outlets have been running pieces that assume irresponsible behavior by Klingenberg was chiefly to blame for this tragedy. And they’re using that assumption as an excuse to promote the false notion that reckless biking is a major public safety threat, with no mention of the scores of Chicago traffic deaths caused each year by drivers.

Blaine Klingenberg. Photo: Facebook

Less than 24 hours after the cyclist’s death, MK Communications head Marilyn Katz published a clueless op-ed in the Chicago Tribune, calling for licensing of bike riders, supposedly for safety purposes, while griping about the bike lanes that actually help keep cyclists safe. “Klingenberg… violated the law by turning in front of and into the double-decker bus,” Katz wrote. “All of us who drive in the city know that one never knows what the cyclist next to, behind or in front of us will do. That needs to change.” Read my response to the piece here.

CBS Chicago’s Dorothy Tucker took a similar approach in a segment published Thursday called “Will Chicago Rider’s Death Shine Light on Bicycle Safety.” “The biking community is in mourning because of the fatal crash that happened on this corner yesterday,” Tucker reported from the crash site. “But some bike messengers who make their living delivering packages say the fatal crash will not change the way the operate.”

The clip shows exactly one courier, Jake Baginski, rolling through a red light on Michigan Avenue at an intersection with a side street that apparently had no cross traffic at the time. “The traffic light is clearly red,” Tucker says. “But bike messenger Jake Baginski blows right through it… This casual attitude about red lights comes just one day after bike messenger Blaine Klingenberg allegedly blew a red light and was fatally hit by a double-decker bus.” Next Tucker interviews a limo driver, who talks about she’s freaked out about sharing the road with bikes.

As an ex-courier myself, I’d be the first to say that any bike rider who blasts through red lights in a way that forces pedestrians to stop in their tracks or drivers to slam on their brakes to avert a crash is being reckless and deserves to be ticketed. But that’s clearly not what Baginski was doing here, and there’s no conclusive evidence yet that Klingenberg — who was described as a likeable, professional, and well-respected courier by employers — was thoughtlessly bombing an intersection either.

All people, whether on a bicycle, on foot, or in a motor vehicle, should avoid behavior that endangers themselves or others, and all of us have the potential to act like jerks on the road. But while Katz and Tucker are using Klingenberg’s death as an excuse to fixate on misbehavior by some bike riders, they’re ignoring the fact that unpredictable, careless, and aggressive behavior by drivers is widespread, and it’s an exponentially bigger problem.

While there is no record of anyone being fatally struck by a bicyclist in Chicago, ever, 130 people were killed in crashes with motor vehicles in 2013 alone. If you’re riding a 30-pound bike, you should make sure you don’t hurt anyone. But if you’re driving a 3,000-pound car, let alone a 30,000-pound double-decker bus that has enormous potential to cause death and destruction, your responsibility to prevent crashes is that much greater.

Hopefully the video footage of Wednesday’s collision will shed light on what really happened to Blaine Klingenberg. Until then, it would be great if local news outlets would refrain from using his death as an excuse to point fingers.

I’ll leave you with an insightful comment from a Streetsblog reader that’s very relevant to what’s going on in Chicago now. Reader Karen Lynn Allen nailed our society’s double standard on bicyclist/driver behavior with this post in response to an article on the bike/car debate by Streetsblog USA’s Angie Schmitt:

Yesterday I saw a bicyclist do [insert dangerous, stupid, inconsiderate, boneheaded move here] and it nearly inconvenienced me. This means all bikers better watch out because the responsible, productive, law-abiding members of this community aren’t going to tolerate this kind of of anti-social behavior from you riffraff much longer.

Yesterday I saw a car driver do [insert dangerous, stupid, inconsiderate, boneheaded move here] and kill someone!  A tragedy, but it was an accident, no one’s fault really, just one of those bad parts of living in the modern age that we all have to put up with. After all, anyone can make a mistake. It would be a shame to even suspend the driver’s license over it because they really might need it to get to work. It certainly is no reflection on me or how most people drive.

  • oncewasenough

    I use that transition from the LFT to Michigan Ave on my daily commute and every time I wait to cross I see 3-4 cars run the red on the left turn signal off of southbound LSD. They have no regard for the large groups of pedestrians that use that route to get to and from the beach, and often block northbound Michigan Ave traffic while peds and cyclists are crossing. When they closed the pedway they eliminated a safe crossing option for most people. Similarly to the Fullerton LFT entrance, this route to the beach has been made much less friendly to pedestrians and cyclists.

    It has been clearly established that there are inconsiderate and dangerous road users on bikes and in motor vehicles, but the people who cry the loudest about ‘reckless cyclists’ don’t seem to realize that it is in a cyclist’s best interest NOT TO RUN INTO THINGS. They have no protection if they fall down or hit someone/something so they are actively trying to avoid collisions! If a person runs over something or someone with their car, they are protected from that impact by a metal cage with many safety features. The idea that cyclists are asking to get hit by riding on the streets or running red lights is ludicrous.

  • David Altenburg

    Thanks for your reporting on this. The knowledge and context you bring into this story, as well as the fact that you’ll be looking at the facts of what actually happened long after CBS has moved onto the next sensationalist story really underscore why the journalism you and Steven do here is so important.

    One thing we do know is this: Chicago Trolley drivers have now fatally run over two people in the last seven months. Whether that’s a tragic coincidence or indicative of serious flaws in their driver training and licensing isn’t clear at this point. Whether or not Ms Katz had the explicit goal of distracting the public from that issue by bringing up the sure-to-generate-controversy topic of bike licensing, it certainly has accomplished that.

  • Carolyn S

    Bike messengers are the devil, hope they all get run over

  • Andreana Droz Pena

    I am a cyclist of over 12 years in Chicago. There are many dangerous cyclists on the road, just like there are many dangerous drivers. The big difference is we are on a bike and the drivers are in a car. It’s not a big debate on who will win that collision. Have the roads become more dangerous even for cyclists like me? Yes. Even though the Divvy program is great, it breeds uneducated cyclists and with bikers that only cycle a few times out of the year. My husband and I cycle year round and get a little more experience then most in the city. I have seen him on Wells get plowed into and go flying over a Moody Bible associate as she failed to look before pulling out. We wear helmets and use bright bike lights, which I can’t say for many. But we do what we can to be safe. Then last week my husband was hit by a 75 year old cyclist that had cotton in his ears. He just didn’t see him, nor could he hear him when he yelled stop. Just from that, we had a ER visit and $200 in bike repairs. With increased cycling in the city, drivers need to be educated themselves. I am a driver too, and I will be the first one to admit we can be in blind spots. I get it, so just be more cautious. I don’t ride paying attention so much to what I’m doing, but as what the cars are doing. You must be ready if they open their door or make a sudden move. Creating bike lanes don’t make everything perfect and if the city plans to roll out even more, cyclists will increase. Maybe there should be a totorial drivers in the city have to pass to be even slightly educated about cycling and cyclists should be mandated to have lights, front and back, past dusk or be fined. Any trolley, bus, or limo should automatically have to pass a short course on cyclist awareness. Everyone needs to be more careful.

  • Katz:

    “I’m a hesitant cyclist. I rarely cycle the streets of Chicago, as
    I’ve watched my husband and too many friends land in the hospital (they
    were lucky) with broken shoulders or pelvises from colliding with open
    car doors or disobeying a traffic light.

    But I’m more terrified as
    a driver — truly afraid that I will be the one who strikes a cyclist —
    not because I’m careless but because rules of the road for bicyclists
    are basically ignored.”

    A lot of time has gone into thinking about rules of the road for cars. For bicycles, on the other hand, very little. Instead of thinking the knee-jerk is treat bicycles just like cars.

    At some point we must sit down and draw up a reasonable set of “rules of the road for bicyclists.” As John would say, 30 pounds does equal 3,000 pounds.

    If a pedestrian “blows a four-way stop sign” and steps into a crosswalk without stopping and gets hit by a car mostly no one blames them. It’s because we understand that pedestrian’s have a different and pretty specific set of “rules of the road”. But more important is that drivers do not expect pedestrians to have the same rules as they do. They do not get angry with pedestrians for breaking their own car laws because they understand pedestrians have a different set of laws.

    That difference of expectations between bikers and walkers is a big driver of the anger at bikers so many, like Katz, allow themselves to wallow in. If bikers had a set of specific to them set of rules of the road that allowed things like the “Idaho stop sign” or allowed contra flow on one ways by default, then drivers would begin to internalize those realities and watch for them have many fewer anger issue episodes.

  • Peter Zelchenko

    I’ve been driving in Chicago for nearly 40 years and have never had an accident or moving violation. I’ve also been riding bicycles here my entire life. I practice defensive driving and riding. I also take occasional liberties. Of the several times I have been injured or nearly killed on a bicycle, it has always been due to the driver’s carelessness, not my own.

    Aside from illustrating the typical chauvinism of mainstream media, this tragedy is yet another call for state laws to stop categorizing bicycles the same way as motor vehicles. All road users resist certain laws to cater to their convenience. You will rarely see even the most careful drivers make a full stop behind the white line or yield at zebra crossings, and speeding is simply a way of life. Pedestrians regularly jaywalk and walk against the light. Bicyclists go through red lights, ride against traffic, weave between vehicles, and ride on sidewalks. The fundamental difference among these three modes is that motor vehicles have the awesome potential to kill; in fact, they do this so often that we are inured to it. Pedestrians and bicyclists, on the other hand, simply have no such potential. Note that whether Blaine Klingenberg did run the red light is a point still under debate. However, even if he did, if the minor liberties cyclists enjoy for efficient travel are to be scrutinized, then how much more serious should we be about the millions of traffic liberties Chicago drivers take every day, ones that cause actual grave danger to others?

    Furthermore, drivers’ annoyance about bicyclists is deeply misguided. A motor vehicle is a cumbersome and enormously powerful extension of the human body. It is, in a definitive sense, a robotic exoskeleton. As such, it is very difficult to “gauge from the cage” regarding the speeds and positions of objects around the operator. This fact causes drivers to feel uncertain near more delicate traffic, such as pedestrians and bicycles. And that is how it should be: the driver’s natural senses are gauging a potentially dangerous situation correctly. However, such are not moments to rail about cyclists and pedestrians, but to slow down and start driving with much greater care.

  • Pat

    Time to start referring to rolling stops as “blowing through” stop signs.

  • John H

    If a pedestrian “blows a four-way stop sign” and steps into a crosswalk without stopping and gets hit by a car mostly no one blames them.

    We put pedestrian safety on pedestrians from toddlerhood: “Look both ways before crossing the street!” I agree that we routinely fail to hold motor vehicle operators accountable for harming people through negligence, but I disagree that we uniquely blame cyclists. We blame EVERYONE who isn’t driving a car, becasue driving is our social and legal norm.

  • Except that some of the point of having four-way stop signs at all is that a pedestrian can step off the curb at any time and (a) most of the cars nearby will be stationary, and (b) it is entirely encumbent on the cars to check that their way is completely unobstructed before they proceed.

    Pedestrians simply CAN’T blow a stop sign, because a stop sign instructs drivers to come to a complete stop, check all around them, and yield to any crossing traffic (on foot, bicycle, and car).

  • Amy Ione Jones

    I was driving next to the bus on Oak street turning right to enter onto local Lake Shore Drive and I had a yellow light. By the time I made it on to the ramp I heard someone scream no and then turned and saw the bus hit the cyclist. I stopped my car and ran to the scene, and it was horrific. The bus driver should have stopped at the light but instead plowed her was through the intersection. The cyclist probably is a little to blame as well because he might have entered the intersection as his light was still red but about to turn green. There are also reports that the bus hit him so hard that it knocked his shoes off and this is just another false claim that the news made. I took his shoes off because I could not crawl far enough under the bus to reach his arm to find a pulse. So I in turn removed one shoe to see if I could find a pulse. I sat with Blaine’s foot in my hand until the fire department arrived. I knew that he had passed before they arrived but was in total shock and did not want him to be alone as he left this world. I am curious to know if there are cameras at this intersection and if so why have not been viewed to determine who was actually at fault. My first thought was it was 100% the bus drivers fault and now that I have had time to process the event I believe that bus driver is still mostly to blame.

  • Yes I agree. My point attempted to address the difference in expectations between walkers and bikers and why bikers engender so much more anger from drivers. I believe that it is significantly because of the differences in expectations because everyone assumes that walkers are not bound by laws for drivers. Whereas everyone assumes that bikers should obey laws designed for drivers when in reality there should be a different set of laws and therefore expectations for bikers.

  • Yes I agree. My point attempted to address the difference in
    expectations between walkers and bikers and why bikers engender so much
    more anger from drivers. I believe that it is significantly because of
    the differences in expectations because everyone assumes that walkers
    are not bound by laws for drivers. Whereas everyone assumes that bikers
    should obey laws designed for drivers when in reality there should be a
    different set of laws and therefore expectations for bikers. That is all.

  • What a ridiculous statement by Katz, if you were “more terrified” by driving than by cycling, then you’d cycle, not drive. And yes, you might be afraid to be the one who strikes a cyclist, but then you feel bad, as opposed to being a cyclist who gets hit, then you feel dead. Bit of a difference, I don’t understand why people don’t get this concept.