With the football season approaching, sports fans wait to see how Pittsburgh Steeler quarterback Ben Roethlisberger will perform following his car-motorcycle accident, which broke his jaw and nose and necessitated seven hours of reconstructive facial surgery.
The accident highlighted a problem with society’s response to victims of these accidents. Instead of sympathy for Mr. Roethlisberger and outrage at the automobile driver who caused an easily avoidable accident, the public and media have vilified Mr. Roethlisberger for his “selfishness” for jeopardizing the Steelers’ ability to repeat as Super Bowl champions. This “blame the victim” response, unacceptable in many other contexts, is found not only in the public and media but is deeply rooted in our legal institutions nationwide.
Lost amidst the furor is the fact the automobile driver, not Mr. Roethlisberger, was at fault. The driver, who was approaching Mr. Roethlisberger from the opposite direction, turned left into his path and was cited for “failure to yield,” a minor offense meaning the driver did not have the right-of-way but proceeded nevertheless. Mr. Roethlisberger, who within the speed limit, faces fines of $388 for allowing his motorcycle permit to expire and not wearing a helmet (which would not have been an offense in Pennsylvania had he been fully licensed for two years). The driver faces a fine of $106.50.
Most accidents involving a car and motorcycle are the fault of the automobile driver. Most occur at an intersection and involve an illegal left turn into the path of an oncoming motorcyclist, just like Mr. Roethlisberger’s. But even when an automobile driver kills or maims a motorcyclist by disregarding the rules of the road, the penalties usually do not reflect the seriousness of the driver’s illegal conduct. In Iowa, an automobile driver was fined $70 for crossing the center line and killing three motorcyclists. In Oklahoma a driver was sentenced to 30 months probation and ordered to perform “acts of kindness and generosity” after killing a motorcyclist and pleading guilty to negligent homicide. An Ohio driver who backed out of a driveway and killed a motorcyclist received a 10-day suspended sentence and three-month suspension of driving privileges. And former U.S. Rep. and South Dakota Gov. Bill Janklow was sentenced to 100 days of incarceration and fined $11,000 for running a stop sign in excess of 70 miles an hour and killing a motorcyclist, a notoriously heinous case within the motorcycling community.
There is simply no excuse for “slap-on-the-wrist” penalties for such devastating violations of the law. The killing of a motorcyclist by an automobile driver is too often charged as a right-of-way violation instead of a more serious crime such as vehicular manslaughter. The latter typically requires gross negligence or recklessness on the part of the driver who caused the accident, a standard below mere careless driving, and prosecutors often believe that standard has not been met for car-motorcycle accidents. Even when a driver is convicted of vehicular manslaughter, judges do not impose a sentence commensurate with the crime.
Make no mistake; making a left turn while another vehicle is approaching goes well beyond the requisite legal standards. Before turning, drivers have the duty to determine if anyone else is using that lane. Not doing so justifies criminal penalties proportionate to the damages caused. Light penalties reveal nothing less than institutional indifference to the lives of motorcyclists.
State legislatures should dramatically increase failure to yield penalties so they proportionately reflect the damage to the victims, and our prosecutors and judges should make sure charges and sentences do the same.
Not everyone wants to live in the cocoon others would create for us. Motorcyclists are aware of the additional risks of riding, and we are prepared to accept those risks. But we cannot accept societal scorn and legal apathy in response to accidents caused by others.
I am heartened to hear Mr. Roethlisberger is recovering. Hopefully his accident will serve to correct the inadequate response by our country’s legal systems to these types of accidents.
JOHN I. BLANCK JR.
An attorney in Washington D.C. and a motorcyclist. He can be reached at email@example.com