Stop Victim Blaming Pedestrians and Cyclists Fatally Struck by Drivers
[Last year the Chicago Reader launched a weekly transportation column written by Streetsblog Chicago editor John Greenfield. We syndicate a portion of the column on Streetsblog after it comes out online; you can read the remainder on the Reader’s website or in print.]
On June 21, middle-school math teacher Janice Wendling and her husband, Mark, a power plant engineer, were training for an upcoming charity bike ride near the southwest suburb of Morris.
As they pedaled down the shoulder of Old Stage Road, a two-lane highway, around 7 PM, a 16-year-old boy—who happened to be a former student of Janice’s—struck the couple from behind with an SUV. Mark was killed instantly; Janice was pronounced dead at a hospital shortly afterward. Police concluded that the crash was unintentional, and the teen was cited for failure to reduce speed to avoid a crash.
Some commenters on an ABC report of the tragedy were quick to blame the Wendlings for their own deaths. One person implied that the couple should have been more visible and shouldn’t have been on the road. “Wear bright colors and a helmet,” the person wrote. “I no longer cycle on the two lane roads. . . It is not worth dying by riding out in rural areas.”
“That is a bad stretch of road, and the cyclists often ride three or four abreast, and block the whole lane,” wrote a commenter named Anton Bender. “They have no business on those two-lane country roads, and should ride on the bike paths. They are just a nuisance on the road!”
And yet, the Morris Herald-News reported that, earlier that month, the boy had been clocked by police doing 87 in a 55 mph zone on I-80 in Joliet. And earlier on the day of the crash, he’d been ticketed for driving 24 to 36 miles over the speed limit in nearby LaSalle County.
And according to the crash report, a witness at the scene told police that the teen threw an object into the woods. The police retrieved a baggie that was found to contain 15 grams of marijuana. The boy told the police that the last time he had smoked marijuana was two days earlier. He was taken to a nearby hospital for evaluation and provided urine and blood samples. Ken White, deputy chief of the Grundy County sheriff’s office, said Tuesday that the results of the tests have been forwarded to the Grundy County state’s attorney’s office, but declined to provide the results of the tests. “We’re waiting for them to decide what they’re going to do,” he said.
This kind of horrendous victim blaming reminds me of what often happens to victims of sexual violence. When a woman is a victim of a sexual assault or rape, there’s a tendency for other people to blame her for the attack. They often callously argue that she should have conducted herself differently, that she shouldn’t have been in that place at that time, or that she was wearing the “wrong” clothing. In 2011, for example, Toronto police officer Michael Sanguinetti infamously remarked at a law school safety forum that “women should avoid dressing like sluts in order not to be victimized.” The ensuing backlash sparked the international SlutWalkmovement of demonstrations calling for an end to rape culture.
Just as there’s been a growing movement to raise awareness that rape and assault are the fault of the perpetrator and not the victim—rape is caused by rapists, as the saying goes—we need to change the prevailing tendency to blame traffic violence victims for their own deaths.
When a motorist fatally strikes a person walking or biking, there’s often a focus on whether the victim was following the letter of the law, with relatively little attention paid to whether the motorist may have been speeding or distracted. Piloting a vehicle that can easily kill people should require an increased level of responsibility. In reality, unless drivers are intoxicated or flee the scene, it’s unusual for them to face serious consequences for killing pedestrians and, especially, bicyclists.