UPDATE 4/29/15: According to the Lansing State Journal, Mitzi Nelson today pleaded “no contest” to the misdemeanor charge of reckless driving resulting in the death of bicyclist Jill Byelich in September 2014. Her sentence could include up to one year of jail time.
This one hits close to home – fifteen miles from home, to be exact. From the Lansing State Journal:
Jill Byelich, 35, was struck by a car and killed Tuesday night while riding her bike on West Howe Road, between Francis and South Forest Hill roads. Jill Byelich was riding east when she was struck by an eastbound car driven by a 23-year-old woman who lives nearby, Kangas said. Byelich was taken to Sparrow Hospital in Lansing, where she was pronounced dead.
Byelich leaves behind her husband, Jordan, and two small children. It’s a senseless tragedy, rendered more senseless by the fact that Byelich seemed to be doing everything right: she was wearing a helmet and reflective vest and typically used front and back lights. She was on a flat, straight, low-volume road with good daylight visibility at the time the vehicle hit her.
When a fellow bicyclist dies in such a senseless manner, it raises a whole range of emotions for me. First, grief for her and her family. The loss of a vibrant woman in the prime of her life with two small children is just too grim to contemplate. Second, there’s a jolt of irrational fear. I’ve never biked on West Howe Rd., but it’s just like countless other rural roads I do ride on and write about. I can usually calm this fear with statistics that show that bicycling is a relatively safe activity, yet this has become harder since I’ve started writing posts encouraging others to bicycle on Michigan’s roads.* And finally, I feel anger at the slim likelihood that the driver will be held accountable in any way for this death.
Out of such a mix of emotions, it’s normal to look for some sort of solution that would prevent or reduce the likelihood of such an “accident” from happening again. And people are always ready with their solutions, whether it’s claiming that cyclists should abandon their right to ride on the roads and stick to bike paths; suggesting that cyclists should always use rear-view mirrors; or calling for stricter anti-texting laws. But none of these are useful in Byelich’s case. The first is just victim-blaming. According to Michigan law, and the laws of every other state, bicyclists have an absolute right to ride on the roads. Even if she had wanted to stay off the roads, West Howe Rd. lacks sidewalks (as do most rural roads) and no bike paths are available nearby. Using a mirror is certainly helpful, but few cyclists will be able to leap into the ditch in the split second after they realize a speeding car is not going to move over. As for anti-texting laws, police are still investigating whether that or other distracted behavior played a role in this crash. They’ve already ruled out alcohol.
And what if no such distracted behavior is found? There are countless cases of drivers claiming that “the bicyclist came from out of nowhere.” With the cyclist dead and no other witnesses, such a driver faces no penalty at all. Why is it alright to kill a fellow human being for no reason other than random carelessness, but having a “reason” such as texting or inebriation makes it a crime?
Fortunately, the League of Michigan Bicyclists (LMB) is working on a solution that would make drivers take their responsibilities more seriously. It’s called the Vulnerable Roadway User Protection Act, and it’s similar to Andy’s law, which offers stiff penalties for motorists who kill anyone in a construction zone. LMB’s proposal would:
Adopt standards that create enhanced penalties, including community service and driver-improvement education, substantial fines and jail time, in addition to a mandatory one-year license suspension for drivers who injure or kill vulnerable roadway users.
Unfortunately, according to LMB policy director John Lindenmayer, “The vulnerable user bills passed out of committee unanimously with bipartisan support on October 16th, 2013, but have never been scheduled for a floor vote despite continued pressure on Majority Floor Leader Jim Stamas and House Speaker Jase Bolger.” If you’d like to see something actually done to prevent future tragic events such as this one, contacting these two politicians would be a good place to start. Stamas’ phone number is (800) 626-8887. Bolger’s phone number is (517) 373-1787. You can also sign LMB’s petition in support of the bill at www.lmb.org/vru.
Another LMB initiative is having better success. Nathan’s Law, which would enhance driver’s education in Michigan to include more “information concerning the laws pertaining to bicycles and motorcycles and…emphasize awareness of their operation on the streets, roads, and highways of this state,” passed the House unanimously in June and is now up for consideration by the state Senate. LMB has an action alert about this proposal here.
Better driver education and increased penalties for drivers may not be panaceas, but they can’t help but make things safer for conscientious cyclists like Jill Byelich, along with pedestrians and other vulnerable roadway users. Please act now.
UPDATE: A ride of silence for Jill Byelich will be held Sunday, October 5th, at 2:00 p.m., starting in Wacousta, with stops at the crash site, Dewitt, and the state capitol. At 4:00 p.m. there will be a rally on the steps of the capitol in support of the two bicycling bills currently in the legislature. More details here.
UPDATE 2: The driver of the vehicle has been charged with a “misdemeanor moving violation resulting in death” due to being distracted by a cell phone. The maximum penalty is up to a year in jail and a fine of up to $1,000. In contrast, under the proposed Vulnerable Roadway User Act, the driver would face maximums of 15 years in jail and $7,500. More from the Lansing State Journal.
*We can debate forever what the statistics say about the safety of cycling versus other activities. The League of Michigan Bicyclists and ShareMiRoads.org say that bicycling is safer per hour spent than other activities such as driving or snowmobiling. Ken Kifer has a web page analyzing nationwide crash statistics from a cyclist’s point of view. According to state of Michigan crash statistics, 627 drivers or passengers were killed in car accidents in the state in 2013, yet people still drive. 149 pedestrians were killed, yet people still cross the street. Twenty people were killed in snowmobile/ORV accidents, yet people still engage in these activities. Yet something about the 27 deaths of cyclists in the same year just feels more dangerous. It’s also difficult to keep these statistics in mind when a car or pickup is passing two feet away at 55 mph. It just doesn’t feel safe.