Opinion: Welcome to blame the victim season

Opinion: Welcome to blame the victim season

“The bicyclist was wearing dark clothing and had no rear lighting on the bicycle.”
— Oregon State Police statement

For the past week I’ve been standing by, reading headline after headline about “distracted pedestrians.” And then I get this in my inbox (emphases mine):

The Oregon State Police is continuing it’s investigation into Thursday evening’s fatal crash involving a bicyclist.

At approximately 9:05PM a Lane County Deputy in a patrol vehicle was traveling northbound on SR99W near MP118 (just south of Beltline Highway in Eugene) when he struck a female bicyclist in the northbound slow lane. The female was pronounced deceased on scene.

The highway was blocked for approximately 1 hour. The highway was then partially open, reduced to one lane in each direction. The scene was cleared at 1:00AM.

Preliminary information indicates the bicyclist was traveling northbound in the travel lane at the time of the incident. The bicyclist was wearing dark clothing and had no rear lighting on the bicycle. It was full darkness with very little ambient lighting when the crash occurred.

Efforts are still ongoing to make next of kin of the deceased. The Oregon State Police is the lead investigating agency and is being assisted by Eugene Police Department and the Oregon Department of Transportation. This in an ongoing investigation and more information will be released when it becomes available.

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The following behaviors — mentioned in the statement above — are perfectly legal in the state of Oregon:

  • Riding without “rear lighting.” The law only requires a rear reflector.
  • Wearing “dark clothing.” Oregon residents are free to wear whatever they want while operating a vehicle on public right-of-way.
  • Traveling in the travel lane. Bicycle operators are allowed to leave a shoulder to avoid hazards.

Yet despite what appears to be completely legal behavior – and before her next of kin have even been notified — the Oregon State Police has already acted as judge and jury and essentially declared her at fault for her own death. Imagine how this woman’s family and friends would feel if they read the comments under the media’s coverage of this crash — especially since most local media outlets run these police statements verbatim.

This should not be an acceptable communications strategy from the Oregon State Police.

It is unecessary and unfair to mention the behavior of the victim prior to a traffic crash and not also mention the behavior of the survivor. Was the deputy speeding? Surely “very little ambient lighting” is good reason to slow down and use extreme caution right? Was the deputy distracted for any reason?

I ask those questions not to blame anyone, but to make a larger point.

I’m all for educating the public about safety. That is very important. But it’s also important to be fair and sensitive to everyone involved in these tragedies. This issue is particularly upsetting to me because when someone dies or is incapacitated to the point of memory loss, we never hear their side of the story.

As I’ve advocated for many years now, one solution to this problem would be for police agencies to only release the very basic facts of a crash. Because emotions run high after serious injury and fatal crashes, police statements should refrain from making unsubstantiated and irrelevant claims about the behavior of crash victims until a thorough investigation is completed.

— Jonathan Maus, (503) 706-8804 – jonathan@bikeportland.org

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