Be careful out there!

This post is part update, part observation and part cautionary tale.

A makeshift memorial marked the Bloor Street location where Sheppard was mortally injured. Photo: Madchester via Wikipedia, CC some rights reserved.

Almost three years ago in Toronto, on August 31st 2009, cyclist Darcy Sheppard died of injuries suffered in a dramatic encounter with a car driven by Michael Bryant. (Though he was simply riding his bike at the time of the accident, Sheppard had also been a bicycle courier.)

The incident generated widespread news coverage and stirred strong feelings in cycling communities, where car-verses-bike encounters are a constant concern.

At the time of the accident, Michael Bryant was a Harvard-trained lawyer with political prominence – “a rising star” in journalistic shorthand. He was also a former attorney general for Ontario. In spite of that elevated status (because of that status?) Bryant was quickly – very quickly – arrested and charged with criminal negligence causing death and dangerous driving causing death.

Looking back, it does appear that assumptions were made. Assumptions about road rage, assumptions about guilt.

By May of 2010, Richard Peck, a prosecutor imported from British Columbia for that case, concluded there was “no reasonable prospect of conviction” and the charges were dropped.

That still allows for assumptions. Some might assume a powerful person got a break, or that guilt existed which simply couldn’t be proven. After all, the case never went to court and Darcy Sheppard is not around to present his side of the story. CBC quoted Misty Bailey, the dead cyclist’s girlfriend as having this reaction:

“The message I’m getting is we deserve to die for riding a bike,” she said. “There’s no repercussions.”

But this case doesn’t look that simple. According to CBC:

The cyclist’s blood-alcohol concentration at the time of his death was measured at 0.183, more than twice the legal limit, court was told.

“Mr. Sheppard struggled with alcohol, drug use and psychiatric issues,” said Peck, who added that he was trying to outline the facts in the case and not trying to “demonize” Sheppard.

Peck detailed six previous altercations — including one that happened the same day as the incident with Bryant — involving Sheppard and motorists who called police after seeing Sheppard’s photo, which Peck said indicated “a pattern of escalating behaviour with motorists leading to the fateful incident.”

In one case, Sheppard smashed a car mirror, and in another he reached into a BMW trying to snatch keys, Peck told the court.

Quoted by CBC outside the courtroom, here’s how Peck summarized the situation:

“Our conclusion is that Mr. Bryant had been attacked by a man who unfortunately was in a rage. In such circumstances, he was legally justified in attempting to get away. The case could not be proved.”

Michael Bryant has since written a book about the experience.

In a recent interview with CBC he reiterates his sense of being attacked by a belligerent Sheppard. Bryant says he really doesn’t know what he could have done differently in that sudden, frightening encounter. As someone very familiar with the usual pace of investigations, he also thinks his arrest came with remarkable haste. According to Bryant and witnesses found by his legal team, the official investigation initially concentrated on collecting evidence that supported the driver road rage theory, rather than dispassionately seeking all facts.

Speaking with CBC reporter Amanda Lang, Bryant says his over-sized ego was humbled by the experience, including the shock of being treated as the guilty party when he felt he’d been the victim from the outset. Bryant states he gave up alcohol in 2006 and that he’d been drinking tea on the night of the incident. But in some small measure Bryant thinks his own struggles with alcoholism allow for a degree of empathy with Sheppard, who was found to be legally intoxicated on the night in question.

I’m blogging on this because media coverage can often be better at damaging reputations than restoring them – a regrettable shortcoming I wish could be redressed. As you might expect, coverage about dropping the charges didn’t get the same publicity as the initial “road rage arrest” stories.

And speaking as a cyclist (and a driver) we all need to remember how dangerous car-bike encounters can be. Consuming alcohol to excess can lead to regrettable consequences too. You don’t want to discover all this in person – or end up dead – and hope investigators and prosecutors interpret the confusion correctly.

I’ll close with Michael’s Bryant’s comments about what he went through:

“It is not a morality play about bikes verse cars, couriers verses drivers, or one about class, privilege or politics. It’s just about how in 28 seconds everything can change.”

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9 Comments on “Be careful out there!”

  1. Larry says:

    News coverage is often influenced by the need to produce ratings, circulation, sales, revenue, etc., similar to that of entertainment programming. Consequently, there’s a preponderance of sensational, over-hyped and notorius “news” stories. Mix in the constant editorializing and it’s a wonder we get any real news at all. American media have a lot to answer for in the way they choose and report the news.

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  2. PNElba says:

    The American public has just as much to answer for. They want to be entertained and not informed.

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  3. Pete Klein says:

    First, one thing I have never understood when it comes to bikes on the road is the requirement they go with the traffic. Wouldn’t it be better if they clearly saw what was coming at them.
    Secondly, when recently driving I came upon two bicyclists riding in the middle of my lane. I tooted the horn but they didn’t move. Happily, there was no oncoming traffic so I pulled out and passed them as though I were passing a slow car in my lane.
    My point and my question is do some bicyclists just like to presume cars won’t hit them? I think it is very dangerous to presume a car won’t hit you just because you are walking or biking.

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  4. Walker says:

    Pete, I think the reason bikes are required to ride with traffic is that it’s not unusual to be riding at 20 or more mph. So if you’re hit by a car doing 30, it’s like being hit by a car doing 50, etc. That said, it gives me the creeps riding with traffic; that’s one reason I don’t much ride bikes.

    As to your second issue, yeah, I’ve had the same experience– some bikers feel that they have just as much right to occupy the roadway as anyone else. I’d be interested to ride in a car with them when they get behind a car doing 25 miles under the speed limit. Something tells me they would not take it all that well.

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  5. Walker says:

    Larry, I think PNE is right, much as I’d like to blame the broadcasters. They’re just chasing ratings– if viewers flocked to better coverage, there would be more of it. Instead, the consistent ratings winner is Fox News.

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  6. Lucy Martin says:

    Well, except where prohibited (I.e., freeways) bicycles actually do have the technical/legal right to use the roadway, just as cars do.

    That being said, there’s legally permitted, there’s being oblivious and sometimes there’s downright stupid.

    On any given day, you can find drivers being rude, aggressive and dangerous. And there are plenty of bike riders who display equal insensitivity.

    That popular slogan “share the road” doesn’t just mean “yield to bikes – no matter what”. Sharing has to cut both ways.

    Now, there are times and places where the cyclist simply can’t get from point A to point B without causing a slow down. Cars really do need to cut those riders some slack.

    But where there’s choice involved, by all means, cyclists should also do their best to not impede drivers.

    This issue requires empathy & courtesy,folks. On both sides!

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  7. Larry says:

    PNE is absolutely right in that the public allows their news to be presented to them as entertainment. Most can’t tell the difference.

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  8. Pete Klein: good questions.

    As someone who bikes everywhere and a bit of a bicycling advocate, I can tell you that even though bikes face more obstacles to getting places safely, there are indeed irresponsible bicyclists, just like there are irresponsible drivers.

    Bear in mind that in the absence of a sidewalk (ie: most of rural and suburban America), the shoulder of the road is for both pedestrians and bicyclists. Bikers and walkers must ride in opposite directions so they can see each other.

    One of those two has to ride with traffic and I think Walker’s explanation makes sense to me as to why.

    Most regular bikers I know are the opposite of what you describe. My experience is that far too many drivers don’t make themselves aware of bikers. One of the most common dangers I face is an impatient driver cutting in front of me into the shoulder to go around a car that’s stopped so it can turn left. I *assume* cars are going to ignore and be impolite to me. If I assumed otherwise, I’d be dead or paralyzed.

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  9. Ken Hall says:

    Back in the early 70’s, whilst in CA, I read an article about motorcycle versus automobile drivers which likely has similar implications to bicycle versus automobile drivers. It appears that our fight or flight/perceived danger reactions come into play when automobile drivers come upon motor/bi cycles. The study was an attempt to determine a riding methodology which would ensure that the auto drivers observed and provided the safest possible sharing of the road with motorcyclists.

    Various clothing schemes of brightness, color and pattern as well as headlight on, cycling between high and low, flashing and swinging to an fro similarly to the light on a train locomotive were tried. All methodologies were evaluated in CA traffic and all were nearly equal in effect, not much, with the exception of one combination which worked amazingly well. That combination was motorcycle painted to resemble a California Highway Patrol motorcycle and rider dressed to simulate CHP uniform.

    Conclusion of the study was that drivers react to perceived danger and act accordingly; thus, automobile drivers sense law enforcement and larger vehicles as imminent danger and smaller users of the roadway as not.

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