You Can Kill Anyone with Your Car, As Long As You Don’t Really Mean
On May 29 of last year, Bobby Cann left the Groupon offices in Chicago, where he worked as an editorial tools specialist. Traveling north on his bicycle, he rode up wide, sunny Larrabee Street. As he entered the intersection at Clybourn Avenue, a Mercedes SUV traveling over 50 miles per hour slammed into him from behind. The impact threw Cann into the air. He landed unconscious, blood streaming out of his mouth and his left leg severed. Bystanders, including a registered nurse, rushed to help. Shortly after transport to a nearby hospital, he died.
What makes Cann’s story notable among the 700 or so bicyclists who are hit and killed in America each year is that San Hamel faces charges in Cann’s death. According to a recent report by the League of American Bicyclists, barely one in five drivers who end bicyclists’ lives are charged with a crime. The low prosecution rate isn’t a secret, and has inspired many towonder whether plowing into a cyclist with a car is a low-risk way to commit homicide.
The Cann case is an exception that proves the rule. “The criminal case is sort of about the outrageous nature of what happened,” Todd Smith, a civil attorney for Cann’s family, concedes. “[San Hamel was] driving under the influence on the city streets where things are congested, and [there was] the complete lack of braking of any sort, the enormous impact of a car of thousands of pounds going in excess of 50 miles per hour, hitting just the human body.” San Hamel’s blood alcohol level was 0.127 at the time of the crash.
Photo via Flickr user rick
Bicyclists who pushed for prosecution also helped the cause. Last summer, over 5,000 people signed a petition asking state’s attorney Anita Alvarez to refuse a plea bargain from San Hamel. Local activist Robert Kastigar, who started the petition, says he believes it encouraged the state to pursue the case. A representative of Chicago advocacy group Active Transportation Alliance says the involvement of activists is likely to influence stiffer sentencing.
Nationwide, incidents like Cann’s often result in misdemeanor charges, tickets, or nothing. Leah Shahum from the San Francisco Bike Coalition told the New York Times last year that her organization does “not know of a single case of a cyclist fatality in which the driver was prosecuted, except for D.U.I. or hit-and-run.” Kristin Smith, also of the SF Coalition, says that “Last year, four people were hit and killed in San Francisco and no charges were ever brought,” including for a collision captured on video that showed the driver was at fault. Last year in New York City, the bike advocacy organization Time’s Up pushed for changes in police investigations of bicyclist deaths by painting chalk body outlines on streets, marked with words familiar from NYPD reports: “No Criminality Suspected.”