Archive for the ‘Law’ Category

Detroit Patrolman Charles Stewart’s “Horrible Death”

Sunday, November 2nd, 2014

detroit-police-at-elmwood-station-1895The Detroit Police Department (originally called the Metropolitan Police) were among the first to put officers on bicycles.

In 1893, Officer Charles J. Stewart was appointed to the department and began his assignment on the Elmwood Precinct bicycle patrol. The Elmwood station was on Elmwood Avenue between Lafayette and E. Fort Street. The station and those segments of Elmwood and Fort no longer exist, but it would have been a block east and just south of the current Lafayette/McDougall intersection where the MLK High School is now

The Detroit News has an 1895 photo of Officers Joe Whitty (left) and Stewart taken at the Elmwood Station. Both are wearing their bicycle police uniforms, which included knickers to prevent their pant legs from getting caught in their front sprocket. Their bikes were fixed gears with dropped bars and designed to go fast. It doesn’t appear they had brakes.

There were very few automobiles on the roads, but Whitty and Stewart had to be able to catch the fast cyclists of the day who might be scorching (i.e. speeding) on Detroit’s streets. The speed limit was 8 MPH in the downtown area and 12 MPH outside of it.

Baulch-cycle-ad-1897On September 16th 1899, Whitty and Stewart made plans to meet at the corner of E. Jefferson and Orleans. This is where E. Jefferson crosses over the Dequindre Cut today. F. Baulch Cycle Manufacturing and store was in the southwest corner where they’d planned to meet. Baulch made a number of different bikes, including the Defender, Fairy, Junior, Matchless, Queen, and Scorcher. It’s possible that Whitty and Stewart rode Baulch’s, perhaps even the Defender model.

On this evening at 8:25pm, the Detroit Free Press reported:

Very few persons took particular notice of the figure in blue as it sped across Jefferson Avenue at Orleans Street astride a wheel. Cycles were passing to and fro in droves and the usual crowd of wheelmen stood in front of the F. Baulch Manufacturing Company’s store…

Suddenly there was a despairing shriek and all heads turned in the direction of an east-bound Jefferson [street] car, Number 704, that had barely reached the corner. A form was seen to disappear beneath the wheels, the car made a few convulsive movements, and there was a sudden rush to the spot. Witnesses state that the car went at least seventy-five yards after the collision

When the crowd struggled to get closer to the car beneath which was the twisted and bleeding form of a man, some person asked who had been killed.

“Why, it’s Joe Whitty, the bike cop,” remarked one man. Iron jacks were soon employed in lifting the heavy car. Slowly it parted from the human form beneath and finally, after fully half an hour, the body was free and was carried to the side of the road.

“Life was then extinct” according to the Free Press. An ambulance then took the body to the Elmwood police station.

A moment after [the] ambulance had rolled away from the station with what everybody supposed was the dead body of Joseph Whitty, the door of the Elmwood station was thrown open and a man as pale as death entered. He look about as if in a dream.

“My God,” cried an officer, “here’s Joe Whitty. He ain’t dead.”

captain-william-nolan“No, I ain’t dead,” remarked Whitty like a man stupefied, “as I was coming up lots of people said I was dead.”

“Where’s Stewart?” cried Captain [William] Nolan.

“I don’t know,” said Whitty, “he must be dead.”

Tears were falling from Whitty’s eyes and he was trembling. Captain Nolan rushed to the telephone and, in husky tones, notified the undertaker of the error in identifying the dead man. It was a scene of confusion, but the heart of every man in the station was touched and many wept. Whitty could hardly realize the condition of affairs.

There was speculation that Stewart had been pursuing a speeding cyclist, but Whitty concluded his partner was “simply endeavoring to pass in front of a swiftly moving [street] car.” In 1899, the Jefferson Avenue streetcars were electric. The 704 was a big 50-seat model with a weight over 10 tons — no match for a bicycle.

Officer Charles Stewart (Free Press)Stewart was 30 years old, married with a 2-year old daughter Leona. Detroit City Council provided a pension to his widow of $25 per month for the rest of her life or until she was remarried. Every month, Lillian Stewart had to provide the City Clerk with certificates from two reputable people stating that she had not remarried. It appears she never did. We found a gravesite for a Lillian Thomas Stewart at Holy Cross Catholic Cemetery in Southwest Detroit. However we did not find one for Officer Stewart.

Leona also received a pension of $5 a month until she turned 16.

So why wasn’t Whitty riding with Stewart to the bike shop? Whitty had a tire puncture and had to fix it, wrote Isaiah “Ike” McKinnon in his book In the Line of Duty.

According to the International Police Mountain Bike Association, Officer Stewart was the second public safety cyclist killed in the U.S. The first was Patrolman Frederick H. Lincoln of the New York City Police Department who crashed after hitting pedestrian and striking his head against a curb.

Detroit bicycling in 1898: No other city compares

Monday, March 4th, 2013

1898 Detroit Official GuideWe recently purchased the Detroit Official Guide from 1898.

The city was growing then and it appears this guide was intended for newcomers. Most of the pages list “reliable merchants”, including sixteen bike shops around the downtown area, nine of them on Woodward Avenue.

Beyond the retailersr, bicycling has a prominent place in the guide. The appendix lists city officials first then bicycling information.

And it speaks very highly of Detroit’s cycling opportunities. Detroit and Brooklyn were America’s best cycling cities in 1898? We’d like to think so, but it could just be visitor’s guide boosterism.

From the Guide:

With perhaps the exception of Brooklyn, noted for its cycle paths, no other city in the country can compare with Detroit in the facilities which it offers for pleasant bicycle runs. The suburban runs are especially fine. Elsewhere mention has been made of the streets and avenues of the city, and they need only be referred to here in passing. Miles of excellent macadam extend in all directions leading to scenes of beauty and interest. The course around Belle Isle is famous but that is only one. In reaching the Island you ride past some of the finest homes in the country beneath a canopy of foliage of trees planted more that a century ago, on a perfect asphalt pavement. To write of the attractions of the various cycle paths would be to write a long story. Suffice it to merely point them out:

Going out Fort St. West, rides may visit Ecorse, 9 miles; Wyandotte, 12 miles, Trenton, 17 miles; Flat Rock, 25 miles.

Michigan Ave. — Dearborn, 10 miles; Inkster, 15 miles; Wayne, 18 miles; Canton, 23 miles; Denton’s, 26 miles; Ypsilanti, 30 miles; Ann Arbor, 38 miles.

Jefferson Ave. — Grosse Pointe, 10 miles; McSweeney’s Club, 24 miles.

Woodward Ave. — Highland Park, 5 miles; Whitewood, 7 miles; Royal Oak, 12 miles; Birmingham, 18 miles; Bloomfield Center, 21 miles; Pontiac, 28 miles; Drayton Plains, 31 miles; Waterford, 33 miles; Clarkston, 35 miles; Orchard Lake, 32 miles. The road out Woodward Avenue is always good.

Grand River Ave. — Greenfield, 8 miles; Farmington, 10 miles.

And the bicycling ordinances? There weren’t many. Remember there were no stop signs, traffic lights, one way streets, or expressways. To the 1898 cyclist, the condition of the road surface was the most important information needed for a productive ride.

Of course the ordinances were important as well — and they were quite simple. We especially like the ordinance permitting businesses to have bicycle racks.

From the Official Guide:

(more…)

Another helmet law to bite the dust?

Monday, January 14th, 2013

Kensington Metropark

We wrote about this in 2009: Milford Township has an ordinance requiring bicyclists to wear a helmet on the paved trails at the Kensingon Metropark.

And to be more specific, bicyclists must only wear a helmet when the paved trail is 10 feet wide.

Biking on the roads at Kensington or unpaved trails? No bicycle helmet is required.

This ordinance came about in 1996 after an inline skater had a fatal crash going down a long downhill section of trail. That segment of trail was changed and made less steep to reduce speeds, but the ordinance remained.

It may not remain for much longer according to this Observer & Eccentric article.

Huron-Clinton Metroparks has asked the township to drop the regulation, in effect since 1997, because of “inconsistencies” between the Kensington trail and adjoining trails that don’t have the rule — as well as enforcement issues, said Denise Semion, metroparks chief of communications.

“When the trail was built, it wasn’t connected to all the other trails (like it is today). It was a different time back then. Now we got people enjoying a bike ride, not required to have a helmet anywhere else, and they ride into Kensington and suddenly they have to have a helmet. It’s inconsistent for cyclists, it’s difficult to enforce. And we haven’t really been enforcing it that much (anyway),” she said, likening it to having a seat belt law in some communities, but not others.

One other issue with this ordinance is people in wheelchairs have to wear bicycle helmets.

Motorists and Actor-observer bias

Tuesday, December 11th, 2012

Certainly you’ve read the public comments whenever the media write about making this area a better place to bike.

It’s quite common to read stereotypes of cyclist as law breakers — and that’s an excuse for cyclists not to have safe facilities.

You may also read cycling organizations stress that bicyclists should follow the rules of the road, to be ambassadors, to not play into this stereotype.

Both responses are malarkey with perhaps the latter being more disappointing since it’s coming from the same team.

Does AAA tell motorists to be ambassadors while driving to reduce scorn from non-motorists and to ensure safe facilities get built? Of course not.

The hypocrisy of motorists stereotyping cyclists as law breakers is clear. Which road user is causing the majority of road fatalities, personal injuries, and crashes? Aggressive driving, distracting driving, drunk driving — notice the common word?

Police believe it is optimal setting speed limits at the point where only 15% of motorists are speeding. Top safety experts have admitted to us that speed limits are fairly worthless because drivers ignore them.

Furthermore, since 2004 no cyclist has caused a crash in Michigan resulting in the serious injury of death of a motorist or pedestrian. We checked.

So why the cycling hate?

The best explanation we’ve found is Actor-observer bias. According to Wikipedia:

People are more likely to see their own behavior as affected by the situation they are in, or the sequence of occurrences that have happened to them throughout their day. But, they see other people’s actions as solely a product of their overall personality, and they do not afford them the chance to explain their behavior as exclusively a result of a situational effect.

In other words, a motorist can justify their speeding because the speed limit is too low, or 5 MPH over is socially acceptable, or because they’re in a hurry.

However, when a cyclist on rolls through a stop sign, it’s because they are lawbreakers. This latter judgement is also called a Fundamental attribution error.

A two-fold solution

First, bicycle advocacy organizations need to make the rules of the road work for bicyclists. Contrary to what you may read, the League of American Wheelmen nor any other bicycle advocacy organization were at the table when the automotive industry crafted the basis for today’s rules of the road during the 1920s. We need these rule templates changed at the national level. The Idaho stop law should be the U.S. bicycle stop law.

We don’t want the same laws for bicycling. We want better laws.

Second, we need to get more people on bicycles. Doing that should give more motorists a better understanding and perhaps empathy for cyclists. We need more motorists understanding why treating stop signs as yields or jumping red lights can be safer for us. Not every motorist will become a bicyclist, but their family members and co-workers could.

It’ll never be a complete harmonious relationship between motorists and cyclists, but the first step is to recognize the social psychology driving motorists’ perception and make real improvements for a safer future.

Courts reduce road agency liability

Thursday, May 3rd, 2012

It’s already difficult to sue road agencies under state law for the quality of the road beneath your tires.

MCL 691.1402 GOVERNMENTAL LIABILITY FOR NEGLIGENCE

Each governmental agency having jurisdiction over a highway shall maintain the highway in reasonable repair so that it is reasonably safe and convenient for public travel. A person who sustains bodily injury or damage to his or her property by reason of failure of a governmental agency to keep a highway under its jurisdiction in reasonable repair and in a condition reasonably safe and fit for travel may recover the damages suffered by him or her from the governmental agency. The liability, procedure, and remedy as to county roads under the jurisdiction of a county road commission shall be as provided in section 21 of chapter IV of 1909 PA 283, MCL 224.21. Except as provided in section 2a, the duty of a governmental agency to repair and maintain highways, and the liability for that duty, extends only to the improved portion of the highway designed for vehicular travel and does not include sidewalks, trailways, crosswalks, or any other installation outside of the improved portion of the highway designed for vehicular travel. A judgment against the state based on a claim arising under this section from acts or omissions of the state transportation department is payable only from restricted funds appropriated to the state transportation department or funds provided by its insurer.

Remember that in Michigan bicycles are not vehicles, therefore road agencies can’t be sued for defects in bike lanes or on paved shoulders.

That’s both good and bad. It’s good for countering road agencies arguments that bike lanes raise their liability. They don’t. In fact, they can reduce it. That’s not our opinion. That’s the opinion of the Michigan State Attorney General’s office.

The bad part is this lack of liability removes a motivating factor for keeping them well maintained. Then again, the roads aren’t in all that great a shape either.

Gravel doesn’t count

Last week the Michigan Supreme Court clarified the road liability a little more. They said the Road Commission for Oakland County (RCOC) could not be sued for gravel that accumulated on a road. That gravel allegedly caused a motorcycle crash.

From the Spinal Column:

“Basically the law states that a defect must be in the traveled portion of the road and the higher courts interpretation is that it must be in the road bed itself and the gravel was simply a dusting on the surface of the road that you would see anywhere on a daily basis,” [RCOC attorney Paula] Reeves explained.

Michigan law established that if snow and ice are on a roadway, the RCOC is not liable for any damages. Subsequently the Supreme Court last week issued an opinion stating under Michigan Law the agency is not culpable in this incident since RCOC is responsible for keeping the roadway in “reasonable repair,” and loose gravel on a roadway does not fall under this definition.

“The courts took this logic and extended the law to apply to gravel,” Reeves noted.

This ruling could likely be applied to a bicyclist crashing on gravel in a vehicle travel lane.

Again, this is good and bad for the same reasons mentioned earlier.

However, if reducing the liability means more bike lanes, we’ll take it.

We’ll deal with the occasional gravel.