Bicycling is Dangerous–When Drunk Or Negligent Drivers are About
On June 28 2016, a year after causing the death of 18-year-old bicyclist Fritz Philogene (pictured below) in Dorchester, Mass., Gregory McCoy plead guilty and was sentenced to 8 to 12 years in prison. This is a significant punishment given the many cases where motorists receive little or no jail time for causing a traffic fatality. McCoy, who never received a driver’s license, was speeding and slammed into a car waiting at a light, sending both cars across the intersection, where Philogene was “at the corner with his bicycle and apparently waiting to cross the street.” McCoy then fled the scene of the crash and was found, thanks to his blood trail, four hours later asleep in his mother’s house.
Whenever a bicyclist dies, we often hear it repeated that bicycling is dangerous — sometimes even to the point of blaming the bicyclist for putting themselves at risk by being on the roads. Early reports of this tragedy suggested that the bicyclist was “struck and killed while riding his bicycle along Talbot Avenue.” It’s not clear that the teen was on the road. The D.A. reported that he was “on or with his bicycle” and the description that he was “at the corner with his bicycle and apparently waiting to cross the street” sounds like he was using the sidewalk (instead of “stopped at a red light,” which was how they described the car that was struck). One of the cars went on to the sidewalk and knocked over a light pole. Being off the road does not protect bicyclists (or pedestrians). Shouldn’t we be working on getting the dangerous drivers off the roads, not the bicyclists?
Prosecutors had a blood sample suggesting McCoy was above the legal alcohol limit at the time of the crash. This detail is crucial because under Massachusetts law, the penalty for homicide by a motor vehicle while under the influence of an intoxicating substance is 2.5 to 15 years in prison, whereas the penalty for homicide by a motor vehicle is 30 days to 2.5 years in state prison. In other words, without the crucial evidence of alcohol use, McCoy’s minimum sentence of 2.5 years would have been the maximum. In other words, with the same facts–a speeding, reckless, unlicensed driver causing a fatality–the potential punishment is grossly unequal.
Most states have a similar disparity in punishments. In fact, the Massachusetts maximum of 2.5 years in prison for vehicular homicide by and unimpaired driver is on the high side compared to other states, and also many state laws specify that a driver must be grossly negligent, not merely negligent, to obtain a criminal conviction.
Why do we punish drunk drivers more than bad drivers? No one argues that drunk drivers intend to do harm. But, thanks to the efforts of Mothers Against Drunk Driving in the 1980s, the state laws reflect the notion that someone who is drinking and driving ought to know that they can cause serious injuries and is therefore criminally responsible if they occur. Similarly a sober driver who drives a car without a license and who greatly exceeds the speed limit does those things intentionally, even if there is no intent to cause harm. Shouldn’t the same logic apply?
Worse yet, given the sharp disparity in penalties, a drunk driver has an incentive to flee, hoping that by the time he is caught (or turns himself in) it will no longer be possible to prove impairment. Tragically, and disgustingly, this gives drunks an incentive to let their victims die on the road rather than seeking assistance that could be life-saving if provided right away. Two years ago, Florida fixed this gap in its state laws by increasing the minimum prison term for fleeing the scene after causing a road fatality to four years–matching the penalty for drunk driving and causing a fatality. In Massachusetts, causing a traffic death and fleeing the scene is punishable by 2.5 to 10 years in prison — similar to the 2.5 to 15 year possible sentence for causing a death while drunk driving. However, I would bet that many states have a gap similar to Florida’s before the recent change.