Thursday, February 28, 2013

Behold The "Helmet Of Justice," Wearable Tech For Bicyclists

Helmet of Justice
It seems that wearable tech will be the next-big-thing, what with the buzz surrounding Google glasses and products like the Jawbone Up.  Tech studio Chaotic Moon is joining the march toward the future with the "Helmet of Justice," wearable technology for bicyclists.  The concept is quite brilliant really:  Take a skate style helmet and fit it with seven tiny cameras that activate in a crash.  The idea developed as a means to create a video record should the cyclist be involved in a crash.

Locating the means to corroborate a bicyclist's version of events following a crash is one of the biggest challenges I commonly face representing cyclists.  Sometimes witnesses are available.  Often they are not.  Riding with a video camera is a great way to protect your rights should you be the victim of a careless driver.  A video recording may demonstrate just how a crash occurred.  It may capture the license plate of a hit and run driver.  However, a camera, even a small one, is just one more piece of gear you need to schlep with you when riding your bike.  A helmet is something many urban cyclists ride with anyway.  Having one that can preserve valuable evidence following a crash would be fantastic.  I am not aware of anyone testing the "Helmet of Justice," so I do not know if it will live up to its promises.  For it to be a truly viable option for the urban cyclist it will need to be light, comfortable, durable and reliably function as advertised.  It would also need to be reasonably priced.  The company developing the helmet expects it to sell for about $300.  Not bad. . . if it truly delivers.

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

LOOK! Chicago, Taking It To The Streets To Prevent Dooring

LOOK! Chicago Flier for
Saturday's "Safety Blitz"
Dooring can be prevented and a group called LOOK! Chicago is working to do just that.  This Saturday, March 2nd, the group will hold its first "Safety Blitz" in Wicker Park to draw attention to this type of crash which seriously injures, and sometimes kills, numerous Chicago bicyclists every year. The group will gather at the intersection of North, Damen and Milwaukee at 11 a.m. and hand out informational flyers to drivers, cyclists and pedestrians about how to prevent dooring incidents and what cyclists can do if they are in a crash.  We will proceed south along Milwaukee near the site where Dustin Valenta was seriously injured in a dooring incident on February 8th.  1st Ward Alderman, Proco Joe Moreno, has expressed his full support of Saturday's Safety Blitz campaign.

LOOK! Chicago was started in the fall of 2012 by wife and husband cycling enthusiasts, Katie Paffhouse Bussey and Aaron Bussey, in the wake of Neill Townsend's death in September, 2012.  Neill was killed when a careless driver opened his door without seeing Neill in the bike lane beside his vehicle.  When he swerved to avoid the door he was killed by large truck traveling next to him in the same direction.  The group's mission and organization has been facilitated by The Chainlink, a popular online portal for Chicago's bicycling community.  The group is, "Dedicated to promoting awareness and educating the City of Chicago to the dangers of car doors," according to its profile on The Chainlink.  Its mission, "Is reaching out to everyone to prevent dooring crashes and fatalities."

My law firm has represented many Chicago bicyclists who have been the victims of carelessly opened car doors.  On a nearly daily basis I see the terrible consequences these incidents inflict.  I will be out in Wicker Park on Saturday, with the rest of LOOK! Chicago, handing out fliers and helping to educated drivers and cyclists about reducing these crashes.

Sunday, February 24, 2013

Doored Bicyclist Wins The Day Against Trucking Company That Demanded Payment For Broken Door

After a delivery truck driver doored a 27 year old bicyclist on North Milwaukee Avenue in August, 2012 the driver's company sent her a bill for the damage she caused to the heavy door, over two hundred dollar's worth.  Now, thanks to a resolution reached Friday, the delivery company will be paying the bicyclist a hefty sum for the injuries she sustained from the driver's carelessness.

The incident occurred just after 11 p.m. in front of a 7-Eleven store at 2403 North Milwaukee Avenue.  The woman was riding her vintage Schwinn home after a night working on her bike at West Town bike's Women and Trans' Night.  She was riding in the shared bike lane and wore a helmet.  Her bicycle was properly equipped with a light and reflectors.  As she passed the left side of the truck the driver suddenly threw his door open smacking the cyclist in the face.  The hard impact throw her into the street, and broke the door's metal hinges.  

The cyclist was rushed via ambulance to Resurrection St. Mary's Medical Center.  She would later hire my law firm to represent her against the driver and the delivery company that employed him.  She would undergo months of physical rehabilitation for her injured wrists and thigh, and endure an extended period of painful swelling and bruising to the right side of her face.  The delivery company asserted that its driver had looked before opening his door and that it had remained opened for several minutes when the bicyclist just rode into it for some reason.  After a diligent search we located another cyclist who was riding behind our client that night and who could corroborate that the door was thrown open suddenly just as she rode by.  With that witness's statement the company felt compelled to resolve the case in the cyclist's favor.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

A Look At Why Bicyclists Should Take The Lane

During last week's interview on WGN Radio one caller asked me why bicyclists sometimes ride in the middle of the lane, blocking passage by faster moving vehicles.  I explained that in order to make themselves more visible to drivers and discourage attempts to pass dangerously close, bicyclists can and should take the lane.  The idea is to encourage motorists to change lanes if they wish to pass reducing the likelihood of a dangerous miscalculation.  More and more states are passing laws which prohibit drivers from passing too closely to cyclists.  In Illinois, drivers must give them at least three feet of space when passing.

Recently, I came across an excellent graphic produced by iamtraffic.org which effectively demonstrates why is is so important for a cyclist to take the lane when riding on a road where the lane width is insufficient for sharing by bike and car together:
Courtesy iamtraffic.org

Thursday, February 14, 2013

WGN Radio | Just How Can Chicago Bicyclists & Motorists Co-Exist In Peace?

On Monday night I was invited onto the Turi Ryder Show on WGN Radio to talk about the Illinois Department of Transportation's recent decision to bar additional protected bicycle lanes in Chicago and to debate how cyclists and motorist may learn to get along.

Listen To The Interview

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Donation Fund Set Up For Doored Chicago Bicycle Messenger

A donation fund has been created to help defray the costs of the extensive medical treatment needed by Chicago bicyclist, Dustin Valenta, who was seriously injured on February 8th in Wicker Park. The fund was set up by Cut Cats, a bicycle messenger company for whom Mr. Valenta works.  Those wishing to contribute can do so here: http://www.gofundme.com/21raks.

Meanwhile, additional details have emerged regarding the crash itself which left Mr. Valenta with 23 broken ribs, a fractured shoulder and shattered the base of his skull.  According to a description of the crash posted on the GoFundMe website, the bicyclist was riding along the 1400 block of North Milwaukee Avenue when a motorist carelessly opened a vehicle door into his path.  Mr. Valenta crashed to the street where he was then run over by a truck.  He was wearing a helmet which, according to his doctors, may have saved his life.

Though details have been slow to emerge regarding this terrible event, those that have trickled out make the incident seem eerily familiar to another cycling tragedy which occurred in October in the Old Town neighborhood.  It involved a young attorney, Neill  Townsend, who was forced to swerve into the path of a truck in order to avoid a flung open door along North Wells Street.  Mr. Townsend was killed when the truck was unable to avoid him.

Saturday, February 9, 2013

Chicago Bicycle Courier In Intensive Care Following Collision In Wicker Park

A Chicago bicycle messenger is in intensive care at Northwestern Memorial Hospital after suffering serious injuries in Wicker Park yesterday afternoon.  Dustin Valenta, who rides for Cut Cats Courier, was struck by a motor vehicle at around 12:30 p.m. on Friday fracturing all of his ribs, his pelvis and shattering the bottom of his skull, according to a post on Cut Cats' Facebook page.  The incident reportedly took place "around the 1400 block of Milwaukee Avenue at Wood Street."  Hospital physicians have expressed that Mr. Valenta's bicycle helmet may have saved his life.  He was not working at the time of the crash.

Cut Cats wishes to put together a benefit for their fallen comrade.

Monday, February 4, 2013

It's Clear As Mud: IL Bicyclists May Ride To Right Of Slower Traffic

A controversy exists where none should for Illinois bicyclists.  Riding to the right of faster motor vehicle traffic is the law of the land.  But what is a cyclist legally to do when traffic to his or her left has slowed or stopped?  Must the bicyclist slow so as to maintain their position behind, or continue forward to pass on the right?  

On Friday, Chi.StreetsBlog.Org posted a story about a section of law that has confounded some regarding what the proper course is for Illinois cyclists.  Evidently some police officers in our state are confused as to what the law is.  As the story documents, after getting doored by a motorist parked along the curb, a pregnant female Chicago cyclist was recently ticketed by police for riding to the right of slower traffic.  StreetsBlog and the author of the piece, Keith Griffith, are to be applauded for shining a light on the erroneous interpretation of the law that has apparently brought about an injustice.  I was interviewed for the piece and expressed my surprise.  I would like to take this opportunity to explain how and when Illinois bicyclists may legally pass on the right.

In our state a bicyclist may pass on the right so long as it is reasonably safe to do so.  However, as the StreetsBlog story notes, some feel that cyclists may only pass on the right when there is no less than 8 feet of space available.  Rarely will there be 8 feet available between slowed and standing motor vehicle traffic and vehicles parallel parked along the right curb, at least in urban areas like Chicago.  Thus the law seems to bar passing on the right in many if not most circumstances available to the urban bicyclist; a prohibition that would likely make travel by bike nearly as much of a teeth grinding slog as is driving a car in the city.  The statute at issue is Section 11-704(b) of the Illinois Vehicle Code which states:
The driver of a 2 wheeled vehicle may not pass upon the right of any other vehicle proceeding in the same direction unless the unobstructed pavement to the right of the vehicle being passed is of a width of not less than 8 feet.  625 ILCS 5/11-704(b)
It may be reasonable to at first think of a bicycle as a "2 wheeled vehicle."  After all, in many instances the Vehicle Code treats the bicycle as just another vehicle.  Section 11-1502 states that, "Every person riding a bicycle upon a highway shall be granted all of the rights and shall be subject to all of the duties applicable to the driver of a vehicle by this Code..."  

Unfortunately, however, some end their analysis of the law here, creating the present confusion.  Our Vehicle Code may grant bicyclists many of the same rights as drivers, but it explicitly distinguishes what is a "vehicle" and what is not.  It is fundamental to first read and understand how words are defined in a statute when trying to make sense of it.  Most statutes have a definitions section and the Vehicle Code is no exception.  It defines the term "vehicle" in Section 1-217 as, "Every device, in, upon or by which any person or property is or may be transported or drawn upon a highway or requiring a certificate of title. . ., except devices moved by human power. . ." (emphasis added).  Further, Section 1-106 defines a "bicycle" as, "Every device propelled by human power upon which any person may ride, having two tandem wheels except scooters and similar devices."  A bicycle, therefore, is not a vehicle under the Code.  Hence, Section 11-704(b)'s "eight foot rule" can only apply to motorized two wheeled devices, motorcycles, scooters, mopeds and the like.

If the Illinois legislature had meant the eight foot rule to apply to bicycles it would have said so.  Instead, in enacting Section 11-704(b) it limited the requirement to "drivers" of "2 wheeled vehicle[s]."  No doubt, the possibility of confusion could have been avoided by explicitly stating that the Section was not to apply to human powered devices, but lawmakers are human and may not foresee every way in which their creations will be used or misused.  In any event, there are other helpful sources to which we may look to understand what the law is.  The Illinois Appellate Court took up a similar issue of statutory construction in People v. Schaefer, 654 N.E.2d 267, 274 Ill.App.3d 450 (2nd Dist. 1995).  In that case, the Court was asked to consider whether Illinois' drunk driving statute applied to bicyclists.  It found that it did not after considering many of the same issues in play regarding the eight foot rule.  Firstly, the Court found that the DUI statute only applied to "vehicles," and that bicycles are not defined as such under the Illinois Vehicle Code.  Secondly, it found that any vagueness regarding whether the DUI statute should or should not apply to bicyclists must in any event be construed to the benefit of the bicyclist.  Importantly, the Court stated that where a statute seeks to outlaw certain behavior any vagueness in the law must be construed narrowly to the benefit of the person to be charged.  It held:
It is not this court's function to judicially expand the scope of an ambiguous statute.  We determine that the language of the relevant statutes is not sufficiently definite to give the person of ordinary intelligence a reasonable opportunity to know what conduct is prohibited.  In other words, there is no clear and express legislative intent to apply [the DUI statute] to bicyclists.  We conclude that [it] does not apply to bicyclists. Schaefer, 654 N.E.2d at 269.
As I have explained above, reading the definition of vehicle in the Vehicle Code makes it pretty clear that the eight foot rule does not apply to bicyclists.  However, pursuant to the holding in Schaefer, even if clarity cannot be found, any perceived vagueness as to whether Section 11-704(b) applies to bicyclists must benefit the cyclist cited for passing on the right in the absence eight feet of space.  At best, Section 11-704(b) fails to put bicyclists on notice that they may pass on the right, denying a clear and express legislative intent to apply that Section to them.

In Chicago, the intent of the powers that be to permit cyclists to pass on the right seems a bit clearer.  Section 9-52-040(c) of the Municipal Code of Chicago states:
Every person operating a bicycle upon a roadway shall ride as near as practicable to the right-hand side of the roadway, exercising due care when passing a standing vehicle or one proceeding in the same direction in the same direction and at all times giving the right-of-way to other moving vehicles.
No eight foot rule there; just a very reasonable requirement that bicyclists exercise due care when "passing a standing vehicle or one proceeding in the same direction" at a slower speed.

Notwithstanding what the law is, there are two practical points that Illinois bicyclists should keep in mind.  Firstly, no matter what, when attempting to pass a slower vehicle on the right, a bicyclist must do so cautiously and only when conditions, including the amount of space available, allow safe passage.  Threading the needle through a tight space could get you hurt, killed or rightly ticketed.  Secondly, consider yourself on notice that many police officers will consider you in violation of the law and may give you a ticket for passing on the right.  You may eventually win the war, but you may face a battle.

As noted in the StreetsBlog piece, California cyclists recently dealt with the very same confusion.  It amended its motor vehicle code to explicitly allow cyclists to pass on the right, the new law taking effect on January 1, 2011.  Click here to read about the California law change.

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