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Why the victim-blaming responses to fallen cyclist Carla Aiello’s death are wrong

A “ghost bike” memorial recently installed at the crash site. The cycle is painted light green, the same color as Aiello’s road bike. Photo: Joe Sislow

A negligent dump truck driver took the life of school guidance counselor Carla Aiello, 37, as she rode her bike in the Irving Park neighborhood last Wednesday morning, but her legacy will live on in the two children she left behind, and the many students she influenced. And hopefully the heartbreaking story of her death will help prevent future tragedies, since it has galvanized the local movement for safer conditions for cyclists, particularly when it comes to the danger posed by trucks on city streets.

At about 7 a.m. on Wednesday, Aiello, who lived in the Far Northwest Side Union Ridge neighborhood and worked at Josephinum Academy of the Sacred Heart in Wicker Park, was biking southeast on Milwaukee Avenue in the faded bike lane. At the Kilbourn Avenue intersection, truck driver Juan Gonzalez, 41, made a right turn, striking her. According to some reports, Gonzalez had been stopped at a red light and made the turn after the light turned green. A bystander reported hearing a scream when the cyclist was crushed under the wheels. Aiello was pronounced dead at the scene.

There are many touching remembrances of Aiello on her obituary page and in this article from Cape Cod, Massachusetts, where she previously worked as a counselor. "What a wonderful, curious, positive and witty lady," wrote the parent of one of her son's friends. "She was always so kind and caring," remembered a grammar school classmate. “What people remember was what a sweet human being she was,” a former colleague said. “You couldn’t find a nicer human being who is also so competent at what she does.”

A photo from Aiello's days as a guidance counselor on Cape Cod.
A photo from Aiello's days as a guidance counselor on Cape Cod.
A photo from Aiello's days as a guidance counselor on Cape Cod.

The night of Aiello's death, several dozen cyclists gathered at the crash site to honor her, forming a "human protected bike lane" and holding a banner for motorists to see that read "Please don't kill us." Local alderman James Gardiner said he's in talks with the Chicago Department of Transportation about improving the Milwaukee bikeway.

Illinois state rep Kelly Cassidy, who previously sponsored legislation mandating convex safety mirrors for trucks that was killed by the Illinois Trucking Association lobbying group, has expressed interest in working with the Active Transportation Alliance and the Illinois Department of Transportation to revisit the issue of preventing truck deaths. Other possible solutions include requiring truck side guards -- safety gear that prevents pedestrians and cyclists from going under the vehicle -- and legalizing the "Idaho stop," allowing cyclists to treat a red light like a stop sign, which lets them get out of the way of turning drivers.

Last Friday the Chicago Tribune ran a very good editorial about how Aiello's case underscores the need for drivers to be on the lookout for cyclists:

Illinois’ Rules of the Road requires motorists to give bicycles their space on streets, and to be alert to their presence. But how often do drivers check the bike lane for approaching cyclists when opening the driver’s side door? How many drivers think to check the right-side mirror before making a right turn to ensure there isn’t a cyclist passing by?... Until motorists accept the reality that cyclists are as much a part of the urban landscape as pedestrians, bikers will face unnecessary dangers.

Sadly, despite the fact that it was Gonzalez's responsibility to be certain it was safe to turn before doing so, several Tribune readers wrote to the paper implying that the cyclist was partly to blame for her own death.

"I must wonder whether crashes like hers could be avoided if cyclists had a better understanding of their surroundings," wrote one man who described himself as a daily bike commuter. "Riding alongside a large vehicle is ill-advised at any time, but doing so while crossing a major intersection is tempting fate in a terrible way."

"I am frightened to death at having to share the streets with bicyclists," wrote a woman who said she drives every day on Chicago streets. She argued that it's unreasonable to expect drivers to check their rear-view mirrors for bicyclists before making a right because they have too many other things to look out for. Instead, she proposed that, contrary to the law, bicyclists should be required to "give right-turning cars the right of way."

A third letter from "an active cyclist" asserted that whenever a driver kills a person on a bike, we should ask a litany of questions about the rider's behavior: "Did the cyclist have visible clothing and a headlight and taillight? Was the cyclist riding safely and defensively? Why are the potential contributing factors of the cyclist never reported?" In reality, it's common for news outlets to state that a fallen cyclist wasn't wearing special clothing or a helmet, implying that this partially absolves the driver for striking them. "Why would any cyclist ride alongside a truck?" the letter writer added.

These ⁦@chicagotribune⁩ letters to the editor miss crucial legal points.

1) A cyclist has an EQUAL legal right to streets in Illinois;2) A bike lane is dedicated to cyclists ONLY; and3) In Chicago a vehicle turning right MUST yield to a cyclist.

— Mike Keating (@ILBicycleLaw) November 12, 2019

Local bike attorney Michael Keating (a Streetsblog sponsor) pointed out the fallacy of these arguments in a blog post. He noted that Section 9-16-020 of the Municipal Code of Chicago forbids right turns in front of bicycles. The ordinance states:

When a motor vehicle and a bicycle are traveling in the same direction on any highway, street, or road, the operator of the motor vehicle overtaking such bicycle traveling on the right side of the roadway shall not turn to the right in front of the bicycle at that intersection or at any alley or driveway until such vehicle has overtaken and is safely clear of the bicycle.

"It is crucially important to note that there is a specific duty placed upon the motorists to make sure that it is safe to turn right and not just assume there isn't a bicycle to their right," Keating wrote.

So, yes, as cyclists, we should ride defensively, try to stay out drivers' blind spots, and be prepared in case a motorist behaves negligently or recklessly, which is all-too-common in Chicago. But when a person operating a 10,000-pound-plus vehicle fails to take the responsibility for making sure they don't kill somebody when they make a right turn, as Gonzalez did that day, the fault lies squarely with them, not their victim.

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