I didn’t know it until just days ago, but Nebraska-native, elite racer and “Maximum Enthusiasm” podcaster Megan Hottman (aka, the Cyclist Lawyer) was struck and injured by a careless driver back in May. She was riding in an Arvada, Colo., bike lane when she was hit by a 19-year-old woman.
Hottman’s Golden, Colo., law office exclusively serves injured cyclists. I wish that market were too small to sustain a law practice, but it isn’t. Hottman said that this year alone, seven cyclists have been killed riding in and around Denver.
Colorado’s Vulnerable Road User Bill, signed into law on the day Hottman was injured, was designed to address that problem. The law gives judges authority to apply stiffer sentences to negligent drivers who injure others—including suspending their licenses.
Ciera Spaulding, the young woman who struck Hottman, pled guilty to careless driving. This month, the judge chose not to apply the new law in Spaulding’s case, sentencing her instead to 50 hours of community service and nine months of unsupervised probation.
Hottman, who suffered a brain injury and lacerations, was disheartened by the light sentence. She told her local NBC news affiliate, “I’m certainly frustrated because I feel like if I can’t get this law charged in my own case, how am I going to do this for the cyclists that we represent?”
I share Hottman’s frustration. I can also fathom why a judge would show mercy to a young woman pleading guilty in her second year of legal adulthood.
It’s in these overlapping hungers—for more justice, for more empathy—that my thinking on these issues rolls into a royal twist.
We’re being routinely maimed, and too often killed, by an American public that can’t bother to put their phones down as they drive. I’m not talking directly about Spaulding here, as I don’t know whether her carelessness involved her cellphone. But I stop at Lincoln curbs and count the drivers gazing at their laps. And I rage. I’ve also watched a growing trend of drivers accelerating through flashing crosswalks to “beat” the need to yield. And I rage more.
My rage hits them (if it hits them at all) only abstractly.
You see how pissed that guy was? LOL.
I’m not a person in this instance so much as a noise. And who has time for that noise?
Then I read the Lincoln paper and cringe at the way drivers sometimes describe cyclists. We’re not biking to work; we’re “running rampant.” We’re seen as something a little wicked, and a lot in-the-way.
Can a lack of empathy change the time it takes to press a brake pedal? Can it affect the discipline with which we check our blind spots or look both ways?
I can’t test it. But I suspect it does.
I suspect that, as our empathy for one another shrinks, our dangerousness to one another grows.
I also suspect we’ll never shout this dynamic away.
So whatever angry energy we pour into seeking justice, I hope cyclists match it in the ways we also foster a more forgiving empathy for each other. For a lot of the non-riders in my life, I register as their “biker friend.” I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve been told something along the lines of, “When I see a cyclist on the street, I always check to see if it’s you.”
It usually isn’t. But it is, every single time, a human being headed somewhere. And when drivers look at a cyclist and think of someone they know, they probably give that person more space. And they drive with greater care.
I believe that kneejerk care—that humanity at a glance—can be as powerful and as protective as any law.
Hottman has good advice for cyclists before a ride and after an accident.