Cyclists lobby for motorist penalties

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Photo by Jacob Geiger.

In the wake of two recent vehicle accidents in which cyclists were injured, New Haven cyclists are pressuring the city to take a stronger stance against reckless drivers.

Local cyclists said drivers received only warnings after police found them to be at fault in recent accidents injuring cyclists and pedestrians. In response, the cycling community is protesting by directing their complaints to Mayor John DeStefano Jr. in hopes of seeing him issue a policy memorandum in the near future that would order more severe penalties.

“When these motorists can get off without anything more than a warning, it sends a message to the rest of the community that driving carelessly is okay, even when you end up crippling someone,” said David Streever, a member of the Elm City Cycling board of directors, an organization that advocates for cyclists’ interests in New Haven.

In one of the two recent accidents, according to the New Haven Register, a truck struck cyclist William O’Grady on Whitney Avenue on Aug. 23, leaving him with injuries that cost him his job. The driver was issued a verbal warning, the Register reported.

Streever said current city policy leaves penalties up to the discretion of the police in these kinds of accidents. Streever said he hopes the cyclists’ pressure will prompt DeStefano to order mandatory penalties for drivers found to be at fault in such accidents.

But New Haven Police Department public information officer David Hartman said warnings are more suitable in these situations than penalties such as infractions. Warnings are effective deterrents for drivers, he said, because drivers cannot contest them. “People think the only way to learn is to be hit in the pocket book,” Hartman said. “But we know that people who violate motor vehicle laws aren’t much more deterred by infractions than by warnings.”

The NHPD will meet with the bicyclist advocacy groups and will be open to their concerns, said Hartman, though he warned that most relevant traffic laws are governed by state law, and “it’s entirely up to the patrol division whether they wish to further the effort.”

Mark Abraham ’04, a coordinator of the New Haven Safe Streets Coalition and a member of the Elm City Cycling board of directors, said that although the state sets traffic laws, the city has jurisdiction over police tactics, and can do more to protect cyclists from reckless drivers.

Abraham said he hopes that his and other organizations can lobby state lawmakers in Hartford to pass a version of the Vulnerable Users Law already implemented in many other states, which mandates traffic infractions against “drivers who act in a manner that endangers or would be likely to endanger a pedestrian or cyclist, thereby causing physical injury or death.”

Streever said Elm City Cycling has been publicly criticizing the lack of a explicit traffic violation policy for the past five years.

When they first brought the issue to the DeStefano’s attention in 2006, Streever said, they were disappointed with what he called his minimal response. The police department assigned temporary officers to attend Elm City Cycling meetings, but the assignment of officers rotated every few months, preventing any meaningful progress.

The New Haven Safe Streets Coalition is meeting with the Board of Aldermen this evening to discuss pedestrian and cyclist safety.

The Community Development Committee of the Board of Aldermen is holding a public hearing tomorrow evening to discuss a resolution from the New Haven Safe Streets Coalition asking the city “to design the new Route 34 project to knit the city together and improve pedestrian and cyclist safety.”

CLARIFICATION: Oct. 18, 2011

An earlier version of this article paraphrased New Haven Police Department spokesman David Hartman as saying that he believes cyclists disobey traffic laws far more frequently than vehicles. He later clarified that he believes cyclists are generally more responsible than not.

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