J-Hooks Are No Accident

September 20th, 2007 by Harrumpher Leave a reply »

J-hook graphic
After being J-hooked (see pic at left), I have biked to the offender’s window and asked what the devil he was thinking. Usually they speed away to my trailing curses, but twice I caught up to the offender. Both times, the driver has looked dumbly with an open mouth. Once he said nothing and the other time he said he thought he had lots of time to make the turn.

Biking downtown and around, I am finding this more common than twits opening their doors into traffic without looking. That does happen and I literally always watch windows of parked cars before I get close (I hate heavily tinted windows).  Even claim-a-lane guys like me have to learn lots of techniques for cycling amidst inattentive and even hostile Boston-area motorized-weapon drivers.

J-hooking is a serious problem. It is plainly illegal and should, but rarely does, bring tickets or serious punishment, even when drivers maim or kill cyclists. Yes, it is reckless driving (and here the more serious driving to endanger when it involves injury), but we are left wondering what the drivers are thinking, if anything. We would very much like to get judges, prosecutors and cops on board to stop this madness.

Crossposting: This also appears at Marry in Massachusetts…just because.

You can meet and listen to some of the good guys next month at Moving Together 2007, the ped/bike/car conference. It’s for serious transportation geeks and includes policy and practice at the state and local level to encourage and maintain safety for walking and cycling. Plus, there are also very pleasant surprises from the new cycling advocate mayor in city hall.

With upwards of 800 American cyclists killed and over 40,000 injured annually by drivers, you’d think — inaccurately — that cops and judges would bring the hammer down on J-hookers and such. Instead we face such ingrained problems as:

  • Judges and prosecutors seem to suffer from the there-but-for-fortune-go-I syndrome.
  • Police don’t bother enforcing traffic laws or aiding in prosecution of motorists who injure or kill cyclists

    In a personal example, an unregistered, uninsured driver turned left suddenly across three lanes and broadsided me on a bike. The Hyde Park cop investigating gave her a pass and did not notify me of her court appearance as required and agreed to. She was an unwed mother working at a downtown department store. Apparently because she was irresponsible in bed, she was also allowed to be irresponsible behind the wheel. She paid something like a hundred dollar fine. The other cop who handles such wrecks sort of apologized and said that was SOP there and throughout Boston.

  • Most drivers look in front of their hoods instead of at the whole front and peripheral scene. That leads to tailgating, running into or in front of foot, bike and car traffic coming from the side. This may be the toughest because it requires a different way of thinking and a lot of brain power to process the flood of visual and aural data. Most of us just aren’t that bright and we can’t add more RAM to humans.

Of course in sheer numbers motor vehicle operators are more dangerous to their peers and themselves. They kill each other by the tens of thousands annually. So you’d think that cops, DAs and judges would try to shift attitudes by prosecuting and punishing the reckless and inattentive to change the culture. Enforcement does not prevent crimes of impulse or passion like most murders, but sure punishment for drivers likely would.

Instead, what we generally find is the attitude that it is too much trouble. Likewise the whole culture, particularly the mass media, terms inattentive and reckless driving that kills a cyclist as an accident rather than the irresponsible crime it is.

One example of how this works was clear from a 2003 study of the issues by the Silicon Valley Bicycle Coalition. They followed up on such crashes and reported:

(D)rivers are seldom charged in fatalities involving pedestrians and cyclists. Three out of four at-fault drivers were never even cited for hitting and killing pedestrians. The two-year study revealed that 22% of fatal pedestrian crashes involved hit and run drivers, yet, none of the run-away motorists were found or charged.According to Russ Westbrook, past president and co-founder of Walk San Jose, “The high percentage of hit-and-run crimes are just one symptom of an auto-centric culture we have created through five decades of cars-first public policy. These policies have relegated pedestrians to second-class citizenry, and turned our neighborhood streets into get-away freeways for traffic outlaws. Every year hundreds of pedestrians are left bleeding in the streets while the perpetrators just go home and wash their cars and pick up the kids.”

That rhetoric is not melodramatic either. Many of us recall Douglas K. Richardson, whose killer walked. In 2002, the Beth Israel physician was biking the eight miles from Newton when he suffered an ignominious death by BFI garbage truck. The driver raced by and J-hooked him, and crushed Richardson. The Brookline DA actively prosecuted but the case went no place in court.

In contrast, this week’s death of a 13-year-old girl cyclist in Walpole has brought charges. From the reports, this looks like another J-hooking. The NStar truck driver wasn’t wearing his corrective lenses as required. We know that seventh grader Justin Trainor was riding legally on the right side and place when he drove by her, turned and rode over her, dragging her and her bike.

My cynicism suggests that he may do a short prison sentence, pay a fine and lose his commercial license because of the circumstances. The victim was a young girl, not a 30-year-old tattooed messenger. This was suburban. They don’t cotton much to murdering their kids.

One such prosecution is the right thing to do. Particularly because the penalties remain light, less than other types of homicide and less than pot sales, consistency is key here. Drivers need to be aware that killing cyclists will surely mean loss of license, high fines, a huge jump in insurance premiums, and maybe jail time. Nothing else would make for the necessary alertness and attentiveness.


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4 Responses

  1. Ed W says:

    It looks like you were riding in a bike lane to the right of traffic as you approached the intersection. The easy solution – don’t ride in the bike lane. Move left into the through lane and stay there past the intersection. Motorists may not like it, but that’s just too bad. Safety always trumps convenience.

  2. Harrumpher says:

    I can’t agree. Your solution looks like begging to get run into, and Massachusetts law requires staying to the right and claiming a lane only as necessary. The problem with J-hooking is that cars rush by and turn suddenly usually without signals. A cyclist moving left when one of those bozos is pulling that is likely to get flattened. If there is a right-turn only lane, I do move to the through one though.

    And two by the bye extras — 1) The times I’ve been J-hooked, I was not in a bike lane as shown in the safety-booklet picture; I was on the Boston side, not Cambridge. 2) I make heavy use of hand and arm motions; when a car is coming behind or beside me, I point exactly where I’m headed. That seems to work better than anything else to get aggressive drivers to ease off on the gas.

  3. DS5000 says:

    The J-hook phenomenon and the general tunnel-vision recklessness makes taking the lane necessary at all times.

  4. Harrumpher says:

    Just so, DS5000. I tell my kids not only to assume drivers will not stop for lights, whether my guys are walking or cycling, but that most driver look only just in front of their hoods. When they aren’t taking in the whole vista, they run into bumpers in front of them and end up saying, “I just didn’t see (the car, bike, pedestrian).”

    It’s funny that just before I saw your comment, my middle son asked about claiming a lane and we had the big discussion again. I’ll take him on some of my downtown routes so he can get some more practice.

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