Saturday, September 5, 2009

Car vs. bicycle: Bryant vs. Sheppard

There is a lot of talk in Toronto about a "traffic collision" gone very bad: a car driven by former Ontario Attorney General Michael Bryant killed a cyclist--a motorcycle courier--named Allan Sheppard. Some witnesses said the cyclist grabbed the driver's door because of a confrontation seconds earlier, and Bryant steered into oncoming traffic, and then deliberately made Sheppard hit a tree, before the ex-cyclist hit a mailbox, fell under the car, and was run over by the rear tires. Bryant has been charged with criminal negligence causing death, and dangerous driving causing death.

Bryant had a PR firm working for him almost as soon as he had a lawyer--yes, really; in fact, he may have retained the PR firm earlier for some reason. Yes, really. Thanks no doubt to the PR firm, a story favourable to Bryant circulated in the media in the day or two following the crash. Sheppard was drunk, and in fact was sitting in a police cruiser an hour before his confrontation with Bryant. At the time of the deadly crash, Bryant didn't have control of the wheel--a fact witnesses may not have been aware of. Sheppard had grabbed the wheel, and it was he at least as much as Bryant who steered the car in a way that turned out to be fatal. Bryant was afraid of being attacked on his own behalf, but also on behalf of his wife who was with him. Shepherd may have hit Bryant's car with a bike lock. Bryant: innocent victim?

I have two questions: how exactly did this all start? And was Bryant by any chance in the habit of being an aggressive and hence dangerous driver?

From one piece in the Star:

He said he had been approached to take on a weekly television gig as a political commentator. "I don't want to do that any more. I really want out of that." He talked about the freedom delivered by stepping out of government. "When you get out there's this liberation. You don't realize what it's going to feel like until you get out. You can say, `you guys have no idea what you're talking about.'" You can "give the bird to a neighbour who's cut you off," something he couldn't do before "because you might want to put a sign in their lawn."

His dreams of freedom are not of reading, taking courses, or spending time with his family, but of engaging in confrontations in which he is argumentative and aggressive.

As for how it all started: no one in the media has been very clear about this. Here's one account:

By 9:45 p.m., Sheppard was cycling west along the stretch of Bloor St. W. often called the Mink Mile. After passing the intersection of Bloor and Bay Sts., Sheppard collided with Bryant's black convertible Saab.
Police would later call the accident that brought the two men together a "minor collision." Sheppard appeared unhurt. He angrily slammed his bag down on the hood of Bryant's car.

Despite the evening chill, the Saab's top was down. Sheppard and Bryant began jawing at each other. Bryant's 42-year-old wife, lawyer Susan Abramovitch, was in the passenger seat. The couple, who met while working as clerks at the Supreme Court of Canada, were celebrating their 12th anniversary.

According to witnesses, Bryant cut the argument short by pulling away. As he headed westbound on Bloor St., Sheppard chased the car on foot. He grabbed hold of the vehicle on the driver's side. It's not clear if he was trying to get into the car, get at the driver or merely prevent him from leaving.

Hmmm. Cyclist collides with car, then uses bag to hit the hood of the car. Doesn't that mean the car was coming up behind the cyclist? So: maybe the car actually hit the bike, rather than the other way around?

I can't find this in the media, but here's a blogger with the Montreal Gazette who has read a bit more than me:

Witnesses say that Bryant in a black convertible began honking at Sheppard. Bryant [obviously Sheppard] probably yelled back. According to one witness Bryant may have hit the back wheel of Sheppard's bike with his car. At this point Sheppard left his bike and approached Bryant on the drivers side of the car. Some sort of yelling match ensued and it appears Sheppard was holding on to the open convertible perhaps to prevent Bryant from leaving the scene. Then Bryant chose to start the car while Bryant [Sheppard] was still holding on. Bryant [Sheppard] was dragged a considerable distance. Sheppard may have, before or while being dragged, attempted to grab the wheel of the Saab. Witnesses then, describe a horrific scene where the Saab crossed the street and ran against trees and a mailbox until Sheppard fell under the rear wheels and sustained injuries that resulted in his death.

If Sheppard on his bike was ahead of Bryant in his car, Bryant may have honked to get him to move to the right, so Bryant could squeeze by in the same lane. This is contrary to the law. The cyclist is entitled to use an entire lane--best practice is for the cyclist to move to the left to reinforce this point. The cyclist may have known the law on this subject better than the former Attorney General.

Obviously a trial will have to decide all the relevant matters here. If, hypothetically, a motorist displayed aggressive actions to a cyclist, including bumping into the bike from the rear, and this was the beginning of the interaction between motorist and cyclist, then the motorist has displayed aggressive and dangerous actions,resulting from deliberate decisions, that led to the death of a human being. By comparison I think it matters less whether Sheppard over-reacted, whether he should have simply taken down the licence plate number, etc. And by the way: even if Sheppard controlled the wheel, or prevented Bryant from doing so, what about the gas and the brake?

Highway Traffic Act (Ontario e-laws), s. 148
Vehicles meeting bicycles
(4) Every person in charge of a vehicle on a highway meeting a person travelling on a bicycle shall allow the cyclist sufficient room on the roadway to pass. R.S.O. 1990, c. H.8, s. 148 (4).
Vehicles or equestrians overtaking others
(5) Every person in charge of a vehicle or on horseback on a highway who is overtaking another vehicle or equestrian shall turn out to the left so far as may be necessary to avoid a collision with the vehicle or equestrian overtaken, and the person overtaken is not required to leave more than one-half of the roadway free. R.S.O. 1990, c. H.8, s. 148 (5).
Bicycles overtaken
(6) Every person on a bicycle or motor assisted bicycle who is overtaken by a vehicle or equestrian travelling at a greater speed shall turn out to the right and allow the vehicle or equestrian to pass and the vehicle or equestrian overtaking shall turn out to the left so far as may be necessary to avoid a collision. R.S.O. 1990, c. H.8, s. 148 (6).
Driver unable to turn out is to stop
(7) Where one vehicle is met or overtaken by another, if by reason of the weight of the load on either of the vehicles so meeting or on the vehicle so overtaken the driver finds it impracticable to turn out, he or she shall immediately stop, and, if necessary for the safety of the other vehicle and if required so to do, he or she shall assist the person in charge thereof to pass without damage. R.S.O. 1990, c. H.8, s. 148 (7).
Passing vehicle going in same direction
(8) No person in charge of a vehicle shall pass or attempt to pass another vehicle going in the same direction on a highway unless the roadway,
(a) in front of and to the left of the vehicle to be passed is safely free from approaching traffic; and
(b) to the left of the vehicle passing or attempting to pass is safely free from overtaking traffic. R.S.O. 1990, c. H.8, s. 148 (8).

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