In a city with rampant pedestrian and cycling crashes, cyclists are still blamed for their own deaths

In a city with rampant pedestrian and cycling crashes, cyclists are still blamed for their own deaths

A tragic, fatal accident occurred on April 14, 2022 in St. Louis, just south of Dogtown. A westbound box truck struck and killed a cyclist at the intersection of Tamm and Manchester.

The St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported the fatal incident and only had one question about what might have led up to the crash – did the cyclist stop at the stop sign?

Despite the deadly consequences, the writer had no questions for the driver. Such as, what speed were they going? (This being a particularly important question in the case where a man was thrown 130 feet, according to the article.) Were they driving in the bike lane? Were they safely operating the vehicle or were they distracted? Were they using a phone? Were they sober?

In fact, the way the article was written causes one to wonder if the truck was actually, in fact, parked or self-operating in this case? Did it somehow manifest itself in a way to make the cyclist have “collided with the box truck,” as the Post writes.

Graph from the Institute of Transportation Engineers (ITE)

Sadly this heartbreaking story, in which a human being with loved ones and dreams and shared experiences was taken from this earth, is not an anomaly. It’s far from it. Last year, a staggering 178 people were killed in St. Louis City and County and more than 14,000 were injured, according to the Trailnet 2021 St. Louis Crash Report. 80% of pedestrian fatalities occurred in North St. Louis, a predominantly Black area of the city. The trend of that inequity has been reported on for years and remains largely unaddressed by city leaders. 

Mounting evidence of the growing deadly issue has yet to result in the position of a bike/pedestrian coordinator, as many contemporary cities across the nation have, or in a Pedestrian/Cycling Safety Action Plan, a framework recommended by the U.S. Department of Transportation.

Despite all evidence that St. Louis and the entire state of Missouri are one of the most menacing places in the United States to walk or ride a bike, when crashes occur, the onus of the results seem to be firmly placed with the victim. The operator of the two-ton vehicle is rarely mentioned, only referred to in reference to the giant box they plowed over someone with.

The focus on the cyclist isn’t new. Most people who ride a bike on the streets of this city that I’ve encountered over the last ten years know they take their life into their own hands when they choose to do so. Despite this and the inhospitable infrastructure, many of us do it for the pure joy of the wind in your face, our passionate but small commitment to environmentalism and the hope that each time we pedal the streets a small push for a greater change might gain momentum with us in this persistently car-focused city culture.

Yet I rarely see people who tend to ask me, “are you sure it’s safe?” when I take a bike to the streets, then ask themselves the same when they get behind the wheel of a vehicle. I rarely hear people wonder aloud if you should be driving 40 miles per hour on a residential street, where a kid could run after a ball unprompted at any moment. Or where a dog might startle their owner and wrangle free from a leash and run into the street. And as a woman, this one-sided analysis feels familiar to me. It’s already on the tips of their tongues.

We ask only cyclists to be the careful ones, to steadfastly follow traffic laws that weren’t designed for them – the ones who don’t yield the same power to instantly end a life when they roll through an intersection. Ironically the focus on how cyclists respond to traffic safety laws can even be counterintuitive to their safety. Many places have adopted the “Idaho Stop,” a law allowing cyclists to treat stop signs as yield signs, since a person on a 30 pound bike traveling 10 miles per hour is physically able to stop much faster than a 2,000 pound vehicle (who also blow stop signs in overwhelming numbers in this city by the way), going 30 or more miles per hour. Similarly, bikes often don’t always trigger the aging St. Louis stoplight infrastructure, causing it to become sometimes necessary to run a light. Other times, it may be safer to go just a beat before the light turns and so car traffic behind them doesn’t have a chance to blow past or box them out of a narrow intersection.

It’s true, despite all the other questions we could ask, we don’t know if the cyclist stopped at that stop sign that day. We can’t ask him. And the only eye witness account has a pretty big incentive not to be found at fault.

We don’t know if the man riding a bike came to a full complete stop, something I rarely see a driver do in all my time in this city. We don’t know if he rolled the stop sign, thinking he could go directly into the bike lane, only to find a vehicle already illegally driving there. We don’t know if he couldn’t stop, if there was a mechanical error coming down the steep gradient hill or if he lost control of the bike. We don’t know if he simply didn’t see the stop sign or was unfamiliar with the area. And no, we don’t know if he was just negligent and blew through it because it was a nice day and he just didn’t feel like hitting the brakes as he gained momentum down the hill.

All we know is that whatever happened on a bike or behind a wheel that day, that man didn’t deserve to die. And writing an article or referring to his tragically shortened life in a way that implies he did is abhorrent. I can only imagine the compounded pain caused by the framing of this reporting to those who are grieving his loss. My sincerest condolences go to his family and loved ones.

Please, please remember, when you operate a vehicle, you take many lives into your hands, not just your own. I beg of you from the bottom of my heart to do so carefully.


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