Driving as usual:

Familiar patterns in Andre Anderson's death

Andre Anderson, 14, riding his much-loved BMX bike in the early evening on a September Saturday near his home in Far Rockaway, Queens, was run down from behind and killed by an SUV -- more specifically, a huge black Lincoln Navigator -- driven by Jose Vicens, age 23, from nearby Rockaway Beach.

Vicens stayed at the scene and gave a rather confusing story to the police. According to the official report, Vicens was

...traveling in left lane eastbound [....] Bicyclist traveling in between left lane and right lane. Operator of vehicle states that he switched lanes from left to right. At that time bicyclist swerved into right lane. Operator of vehicle then changed lanes from right to left to avoid cyclist. Vehicle did strike cyclist....
Shore Front Parkway, the road where Andre was killed, has two extra-wide lanes on its eastbound side, where Andre was riding when he was killed. In spite of its name and width, this is a local street, not heavily traveled, in a rather quiet neighborhood of Queens.

A number of questions come up. Why would Andre have been riding "between" the left and right lane? Had he just turned onto Shore Front Parkway from a side street? Or is Vicens exaggerating -- was Andre somewhere out in the right lane, rather than riding in the gutter, which is what drivers generally prefer cyclists to do? In any case, Vicens' initial decision to pass him on the right is questionable.

But then, according to Vicens, Andre "swerved" into the right lane. Let's see if we can get this straight. Andre is riding along, inexplicably, along the stripe between two lanes. A car comes up behind him and moves right to pass. (Any cyclist will tell you that you can readily hear a car coming behind you, and tell quite accurately on which side it is approaching, and how fast.) Andre, again inexplicably, swerves into its path. The driver heads left, and again, apparently, Andre, seemingly determined to be run down, switches back to the left. All Vicens' evasive maneuvers, balked by the perversity of the victim, prove unavailing, and he hits Andre from the left. (The damage to Vicens' SUV, carefully noted on the police report, occurred on the right front bumper and fender.)

This narrative seems, to say the least, a bit incomplete. Absent the testimony of a neutral party, we will probably never know exactly what happened. But one thing is clear: on a nice wide street, with no indication of other traffic present, a driver was strangely unable to avoid a boy on a bicycle, though by his own account he saw the cyclist. The driver struck the cyclist at a speed sufficient to cause these injuries -- taken from the autopsy report:

As it happens, Right Of Way has had some experience in analyzing this kind of material. After NYC cycling fatalities doubled back in 1999, police claimed (without analysis or supporting data) that cyclists are to blame in 75% of cycling deaths. We took a closer look. In fact, the truth is just the reverse. (Our report, The Only Good Cyclist, is available for download.)

The picture of Andre's death is a sadly familiar one. Indeed, it is an instance of at least three -- perhaps four -- patterns in the death of cyclists that we documented in our report.

1. Aggressive and unsafe passing

It is impossible to believe that Vicens exercised anything like due care in his attempts to get past Andre. Rather, it seems highly likely that he was annoyed to find Andre in his path and chose to "teach him a lesson" by passing too fast and too close. Any New York cyclist will tell you that this happens every few minutes when you ride a bike on our streets. Right Of Way's report found that such unsafe passing is the single greatest cause of cyclist deaths in New York, accounting for 23 to 28 percent of them, depending on exactly how you define the categories.

2. Speeding?

By Vicens' own account, he saw Andre in time to take, not just one evasive maneuver, but two. Nevertheless, at the moment of impact, Vicens' SUV was clearly traveling fast, to do the kind of damage seen at autopsy. Either Vicens was traveling too fast to begin with, or he failed to slow down as he approached Andre. Our report found that driver speeding accounts for 14% of cyclist fatalities in New York.

3. A young male driver

Insurance companies' premium rates very clearly show what bad news young men are on the roads. Another Right Of Way report, this a combined study of pedestrian and cyclist fatalities, confirmed the soundness of the actuaries' results: in our sample, among drivers who kill cyclists, a staggering 97% were male, and younger drivers are far more likely to kill than older ones. Twenty-three-year-old Jose Vicens fits the profile.

4. Police and prosecutorial indifference

As nearly always occurs when cyclists are killed, the driver's account -- no matter how flimsy -- was taken at face value by the police, without skepticism or further investigation. There is no indication that a Breathalyzer test was even administered -- this on a Saturday evening. Given Vicen's extensively self-documented social life, such a test might have produced interesting results.

Policing and prosecution -- or rather, non-prosecution -- reflect and ratify the culture of driver privilege and entitlement. As we wrote in Killed By Automobile:

[The driver's story] is pretty much what might be expected, remarkable only for its flawed sense of probability: we are told, over and over, that a 70- or 80-year-old New Yorker has darted from concealment and hurled himself beneath a car. More surprising, and disturbing, is how frequently the... police officer is an accomplice to these fabrications. A pedestrian is flung 60 feet after impact, but there is no reason to suspect excessive speed. A driver is making a left turn when a pedestrian walks into her vehicle. A cyclist runs a red light and then he strikes a car (man bites dog?), killing himself.

More routine, but no less depressing, are the reports where there is no such whopper, but every grudging, minimal entry bespeaks an indifferent functionary wearily going through the motions, utterly unconcerned to find out what really happened.