While a 20-year-old cyclist remains in a coma after being struck by a car on University Parkway Saturday, the city cycling community is in an uproar over the fact that the car’s 83-year-old driver has not been cited or criminally charged — and Baltimore police say she is not likely to be.
To cyclists, that outcome is unfathomable given the details of the incident police have released so far –Nathan Krasnopoler was riding west in one of the city’s premier marked bike lanes, when the car turned right at a garage entrance, crossing the bike lane and plowing into him.
“It’s absolutely startling to us that the police would say this,” said Carol Silldorf, executive director of Bike Maryland. “The person who did it, I’m sure, feels horrified, but if society goes along with no penalties in these situations it’s going to foster a continuing climate where drivers aren’t taking care to watch out for cyclists.”
“The law violation is clear-as-day, and as a cyclist — one who has been struck myself — police inaction is another slap to the face,” said Seth Lueck, one of the founders of Baltimore Velo, in an emailed comment.
Asked to discuss the case and their apparent decision not to charge, Maj. Tony Brown, of the Baltimore Police Department, declined yesterday to do so until the police report on the incident is released, which he said could happen as soon as this morning.
Earlier reports that the late Saturday morning crash occurred at the intersection with 39th St. are not correct. As eyewitnesses and Baltimore City Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke confirmed today, the driver of the car was turning into an entrance for the Broadview Apartments parking garage, just before the 39th Street intersection.
An eyewitness, who asked not to be named, told The Brew he watched as police and paramedics worked to lift the car off the cyclist who was pinned underneath.
Krasnopoler, a second-year Johns Hopkins University engineering student, remained in surgical intensive care at Johns Hopkins Hospital late yesterday, officials there said. Krasnopoler’s father, Mitchell Krasnopoler, has told the Baltimore Sun that Nathan remains in a coma.
Nathan Krasnopoler’s Facebook page is flooded with messages of concern from family, friends and concerned strangers and includes the family’s updates on his condition.
For people like Silldorf, one of a band of advocates working to improve safety for bike riders in Baltimore and across the state, the tragedy hits home.
“I was in a horrific (bicycle) accident. That’s what made me want to reach out to him,” said Silldorf, who spent hours yesterday trying to understand what happened and why the driver went unpunished.
Rules of the road
Commenters on the Sun’s story hotly debated whether the cyclist or driver was at fault, but according to Nate Evans, the city’s bicycle coordinator, there’s a clear legal obligation for drivers to yield to a cyclist in this situation.
“It’s not all that different from if it was a pedestrian in a crosswalk. Whether it’s a pedestrian in a crosswalk or a cyclist in the bike lane – the driver needs to yield,” Evans said, noting that the latest crash “does sound similar to that of Jack Yates.”
Yates was killed in Aug 2009 when a truck turning right off Maryland Avenue ran him over as it turned right onto Lafayette Avenue.
Police in that case were quick to say that Yates was at fault, but the family, which sued Potts & Callahan, said a video captured by a nearby security camera showed one of the company’s trucks turning right onto Lafayette Avenue and failing to signal, just before the collision. Potts & Callahan settled the $5 million complaint for an undisclosed sum, but cyclists remain bitter about the way the police handled it.
In the wake of that incident and others, the bicycling community and Councilwoman Clarke have been pushing police to be more aware of bicycle laws, an irony Evans noted yesterday.
“Within the past month we’ve had a good supportive dialogue with the Baltimore Police Department,” he said.
One law they want police to enforce is one cyclists say was violated Saturday:
§ 21-1209.(d) Yielding right-of-way.- Unless otherwise specified in this title, the driver of a vehicle shall yield the right-of-way to a person who is lawfully riding a bicycle, an EPAMD, or a motor scooter in a designated bike lane or shoulder if the driver of the vehicle is about to enter or cross the designated bike lane or shoulder.
Silldorf said the driver also “clearly violated “ the so-called “three-foot law,” enacted by the Maryland legislature last year, which requires drivers to maintain a three-foot distance from bicyclists.
As clear as the law might seem to some, the incident prompts emotional debate, as it did yesterday on the sidewalk near the accident scene. Approached by a reporter, a delivery truck driver, Jermaine Washington, said bicyclists make his job harder by zipping around him as he makes deliveries.
“It’s their own damn fault if they don’t watch out,” Washington said. “I’m sorry about the boy but these bikes need to let people do their work. Traffic is bad enough in this city without them.” Two students who said they ride their bikes on University happened along and joined in the conversation and it pretty soon became unprintable.
The message for cyclists?
The crash — the first serious accident to take place on a city bike lane, according to Evans — was a sobering reminder for cycling enthusiasts of the dangers that remain on city streets. To some it underlines the limitations of bike lanes, like the one where Krasnopoler was riding, marked with white lines and sharrows.
“We all know we have a culture where cars come first and everyone else better look out,” he said, in emailed comments,” said Mark Counselman , of Oakenshawe, who rides his bike on University and all over the city.
“The cyclist was riding where he was supposed to, the car just didn’t look, a white line on the street isn’t going to protect you from that,” Counselman wrote, in emailed comments to The Brew.
“I’m not sure bike lanes are safe,” Silldorf said, noting that they are typically sandwiched between the flow of traffic and parked cars, which can pull out suddenly or fling open their doors, causing crashes with cyclists.
“There’s not much more we can do,” to ensure safety on bike lanes, Evans said, aside from promoting awareness, making sure drivers and cyclists observe the rules of the road and police enforce the laws.
Evans said the city may put in some more “bike boxes,” marked areas on the road surface where cyclists can wait at intersections, in a spot more visible to motorists. (“There’s a spot at Guilford and Madison where it might make a lot of sense,” he said.)
But the Saturday crash occurred not at an intersection but at a driveway entrance for an apartment building — one of half-a-dozen like it for apartments and a church along that stretch of University.
Would more signage or other changes to the configuration of the bike lane help? Counselman doesn’t think so.
“Some suggest bike lanes should be on the curb side of parked cars, separated from traffic, but that would just make matters far worse at the intersections, and driveways, where most crashes, like this one, happen,” Counselman said. “It’s the same (as the) problem of biking on the sidewalk — drivers just can’t see you when you shoot out into an intersection from behind parked cars. Yes it works in Amsterdam… but we’re not even close to their ethic of driver responsibility.”
Some cyclists conclude that the solution is simple : ride more defensively and don’t use the bike lanes, but instead “take the road,” in other words, ride in the traffic lane where the cars are and count on them to give you space.
Others point out that there is a law that requires a cyclist to use lanes where they exist, leaving them no good options.
“Now personally, I no longer feel safe taking the designated bike lane after nearly being sideswiped on multiple occasions, however the law holds that a cyclist must occupy the bicycle lane when it is present,” Lueck said.
As Silldorf sees it, greater awareness and acceptance of cyclists and their rights to be on the road is the most meaningful long-term way to make streets safer for bike riders.
“One of the things we’ve been working on is bike-safety information that the MVA is going to include in the material they give applicants for Maryland drivers’ licenses,” she said.
“There needs to be much more awareness “of the rules governing how we share the roads with each other,” she said, arguing that police have an inherent “statistically-proven” tendency to hold motorists blameless in car-bike crashes and “this needs to stop.”
Whatever the solution, it’s clearly a problem that many cities with traditionally-laid-out streets and still-evolving bike cultures have not solved, with tragic results.
This video from a D.C committee hearing on bicycle and pedestrian safety earlier this month includes heartbreaking testimony from the mother of bike crash fatality Alice Swanson who like, Krasnopoler, was riding legally in the bike lane.
Two relevant posts from Baltimore Spokes, which is calling on readers to complain to Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake about the handling of the Krasnopoler case.
* Their guidance (based on Maryland law) submitted to MVA for inclusion in the next Drivers’ Handbook:
“Never make a right turn from a through lane immediately after passing a bike on a shoulder or bike lane. Doing so is as dangerous as turning right from the left lane after passing a car on your right, so stay behind the bicycle. Try to avoid any chance that a bicycle will be to your right or in your right blind spot when you turn right. Before starting a right turn, move as far to the right as practicable within the bike lane, shoulder, or right turn lane. ”
* A provision of Baltimore City’s “Cyclists Bill of Rights,” passed by the City Council:
“3. Cyclists have the right to the full support of educated law enforcement.”