“Criminalizing Negligence?” Why Not?

In Tampa, FL, another rider was killed last week.  In 2010, Tampa went through a stretch where nine cyclists were killed in four months!  We had 10 cyclists killed throughout Ohio in 12 months in 2010.  While Florida may have better weather, there are millions of cyclists in Ohio who ride from March or April through October-November.  We have many large cycling clubs and several large, well-attended regional and national rides – so it’s not like Florida has 10 times the cycling traffic – but Florida has 10 times the number of cycling deaths as Ohio.  So what’s going on down there?

Florida, Texas and California continue to be the Big Three, leading the US year after year in cycling deaths. In 2009, there were 630 fatalities in the US. FL, CA & TX had 107, 99 and 48, or 40%.
http://www-nrd.nhtsa.dot.gov/Pubs/811386.pdf Florida alone had 17% of all cycling deaths.

I would like to hear from Floridian cyclists and bike safety folks as to what they think is going on down there… up here in OH, we tend to stereotypically picture FL drivers as old, retired folks driving big cars – or tourists – driving on relatively flat roads. Are drivers just that bad – too easy to get distracted? Are cyclists not cycling safely? Are the roads just too long and straight and boring and fast and motorists “zone out?” Is drunk driving a bigger problem in FL than elsewhere? Is distracted driving a bigger issue? Are there simply a limited number of roads with a much higher traffic density and higher level of drivers whose best driving days are, perhaps, in the rear view mirror?  Where’s RAY LAHOOD on this one then?

No answers here. But, to respond to those who feel that courts are “too clogged” for more “criminal negligence” crimes, the LEO’s and Courts are NOT overburdened by car crashes at all. Adding to the penalty choices available to judges for people who kill or maim with their cars simply adds options to cases already in the system.

The reason nothing happens to these drivers is that the Legislatures have failed, almost uniformly in this country, to recognize that driving a car carelessly is the equivalent of waving a loaded gun around carelessly. The results are just as predictable, and just as deadly – moreso with cars, actually, since they are bigger than bullets and more likely to be in close proximity to MANY living, breathing humans than a guy with a gun, who tends to be around 1 or 2.

Legislatures treat driving a car like a god-given, inalienable right found in the 2nd Amendment – thou shalt be entitled to bear arms and drive a car – often at the same time. Legislatures have laws in place for those rare instances when someone INTENTIONALLY kills, but very few laws with any teeth when someone CARELESSLY kills or maims with a car.

In Kentucky, Russel Swigart is serving TEN YEARS in prison for intentionally killing two cats during a burglary.  In Ohio, a judge gave Erv Blackston  SIX DAYS of COMMUNITY SERVICE for killing Michelle Kazlauski in a deathtrap of a pick-up truck with jeri-rigged brakes!  I’m not saying killing cats isn’t horrible… it’s just that the sentences are askew.  Legislatures treat careless killings of innocent people, killings that cause a lifetime of pain and, often, financial loss for grieving families,  as “slap on the wrist” crimes while treating intentional crimes against animals as deserving of severe punishment – crimes in which the “victim” loses a pet, not a parent.  If Mr. Swigart had run down the cat’s OWNER instead of killing the cat, his sentence, in Ohio anyway, could have been far less than 10 years!

In Ohio, when I testified in favor of a law upping the potential penalty to include stiffer fines and longer license suspensions [but NO jail time] when a “minor” right of way violation resulted in death I was told by an old friend on the Ohio Senate’s Law Committee that “We Don’t Want To CRIMINALIZE NEGLIGENCE.” That law is still percolating in committee and we’ll try again this year facing the same uphill battle for passage.

I say it’s HIGH TIME we DO criminalize negligence, at least when the negligence relates to activities where there is a very high risk that someone will be killed or maimed due to negligence. If someone carelessly drives a lawn mower or mishandles a power tool, the odds of death to others are small. If someone carelessly drives a 2 ton vehicle through a red light because they are fiddling with the radio dial, are “zoned out” due to a pending divorce or are texting or putting on make-up or reading the paper or downloading a fax, or adding a “Contact,” on their smartphone, the odds are HIGH that someone will be killed or maimed…

Stiff criminal penalties DO have an impact on behavior… these are not “accidents” caused by a act of God, they are preventable crashes caused by the careless lack of attention of someone engaged in a potentially dangerous behavior.

More on this theme to follow…

Printed from: https://ohiobikelawyer.com/uncategorized/2011/02/criminalizing-negligence-why-not/ .
© 2024.


  • george says:

    We need to realize that 40,000 people are killed on roads every year due to negligence of other drivers. Its not the winter weather, nor the Toyota that results in accidents, its just the stupidity are carelessness of people. Accidents have killed more people than terrorism has.

    And as you say word “accident” is a misnomer giving false sense of belief to people that these deaths are beyond our control. Worst part is that mostly accidents kill innocent people unlike other things (like obesity, smoking, drinking, criminal activities, unhealthy lifestyle etc.). So the “darwin award” theory does not work here.

  • Geof Gee says:

    @George … we should keep up with the times, it was more like 30K last year! 😉

    Although the general point, that highway collisions and crashes are far more dangerous than people generally believe is an excellent one. Even the number of fatalities is an understatement given the enormous number of injuries we experience.

    Personally, I have made a sincere effort to remove the word “accident” from describing collisions and crashes. Despite the vast majority of collisions and crashes lacking intent, I think that a minimal amount of foresight would recognize that many are the result of a combination of small things that add up to a big distraction and that small changes — say slowing a down a bit and multitasking less — can result in big changes in outcomes.

  • Steve Magas says:

    Numbers are getting better. According to NHTSA [http://www-nrd.nhtsa.dot.gov/pubs/811156.pdf] there were 716 deaths in 2008. IIHS [http://www.iihs.org/research/fatality_facts_2009/bicycles.html] reports 630 in 2009. Both are way down from 1003 in 1975. 33,208 total traffic deaths in 2009, again way down from 51,000 in 1980. So maybe people are being less careless today than 30 yrs ago? Higher traffic density today, I suspect, with more cars on the same roads. Maybe this has the effect of slowing folks down? I read an article… need to find it … indicating that cycling fatalities could be cut significantly by getting folks to driver 30mph instead of 40+mph because cyclists tend to find 30 mph crashes more “survivable.”

  • Geof Gee says:

    There is a section on this post of mine where I have some statistics regarding slower being safer and by how much.


    There was another paper from U. Michigan — unfortunately one would have to pay for a copy — that decomposed the drop in highway fatalities. I recall that the economy and more limited licenses for minors were two significant factors. Although I clearly can’t comment on the veracity of the research.

  • Ed says:

    hi steve,

    FYI: the NHSTA bicyclist crash facts lists out the per-capita cyclitst fatality rates each year — i have the most recent 4 years linked here:

    Florida is almost always the highest; though sometimes a very small state will pop up with an anomolous number.
    So, yeah, it really makes you wonder.

    Regarding the accident/crash terminology — right on!


  • John says:

    I live in south Florida and commute and basically live on my bike. I have only been hit by one car, and it was due to him not looking where he was going and running a stop sign during a stop sign. The number of deaths down here are due to a number of things, which is mainly the incompetence of drivers and many of the cyclists here. Drivers here are the worst, hands down. You may all have your stories of where you live and how bad the drivers there are, but they are worse here, I promise. People are ALWAYS in a hurry, and they are ALWAYS mad, so people are always driving fast and if there is not adequate space to pull around are cyclists (the only bike lanes here are on painfully busy roads with so many people turning without looking I prefer side roads), they will happily side-swipe them and hurry along. I have been to many places in South America and the disorganization and ridiculousness of cars can be described as nothing but madness, which explains the traffic here. No one is from here, so everyone acts like they still live in their native countries. The issue with cyclists is that they have no idea that they are considered vehicles and need to obey the same laws as cars, particularly NOT riding on sidewalks. I would like to know a break-up of how cycling deaths occur here, as I am sure a huge number are due to uneducated cyclists pulling into crosswalks off the sidewalk too quickly.
    Negligence should be criminalized.

  • Steve Magas says:

    @John – THANKS for the note. The Florida issues are fascinating to me. The numbers are SO out of whack compared to other states. I read somewhere that traffic density rate is among the worst in the country. Something like 4 of the top 5 spots in the US for traffic density were in Florida – the same areas where the bulk of the bicycle fatalities occur. That brought the picture into a much clearer focus to me. Thanks again!


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