DC Should Be Tougher on Drivers Who Hit Bikers

Two cases—one in the District and one in Loudoun County—show two very different approaches to dealing with the issue.

By: Harry Jaffe

John Diehl got off easy—way too easy.

Federal prosecutors announced Tuesday that Diehl pleaded guilty to knocking a cyclist off his bike in the fall of 2011. His penalty: community service, counseling for anger management, a driver’s safety course, and alcohol and drug treatment “if necessary.”

What’s necessary is sending drivers a message that deliberately hitting a bicyclist will be much more painful than this gentle tap. Deliberately ram into a biker and pay a fine, perhaps go to jail.

Check out the facts: US Attorney Ron Machen says the cyclist in question, Evan Wilder, was riding his bike west on the 3000 block of Rhode Island Avenue, Northeast, when Diehl pulled his truck up alongside him. Machen says Diehl, 57, cursed at Wilder for being in the middle lane. Then he switched lanes, hit the cycle, knocking Wilder off, and drove away. For the record, Wilder was not in the middle lane.

Machen didn’t lack evidence. The cyclist had a camera on his helmet, recorded the hit-and-run, and posted it on YouTube. Still, sources tell me, it took prodding from DC City Council member Phil Mendelson, then judiciary committee chair, to get the prosecutors to charge Diehl. He wound up pleading to leaving the scene after a collision and destruction of property.

Compare this lame law-enforcement response to a similar case in Loudoun County.

On Sunday, March 3, John Washington was riding his bicycle on Ashburn Village Boulevard. Washington, 56, is an experienced cyclist from Leesburg. According to Virginia state police, Shayne Miller-Westerfield struck Washington on his bike, then drove off. Police found Miller-Westerfield at his job. Washington was badly injured and taken to a hospital.

What happened next shows that Loudoun County doesn’t take these episodes lightly.

Police arrested the driver. Commonwealth Attorney Jim Plowman charged him with one count of felony hit-and-run and one count of misdemeanor reckless driving. Miller-Westerfield is out on $10,000 bond. He’s not permitted to leave Virginia. A preliminary hearing is set for May 3.

If Miller-Westerfield, 22, is found guilty, he could serve between one and ten years. He could also have to pay a $2,500 fine.

Perhaps the cases present different facts to prosecutors. The Loudoun County cyclist was badly injured. The DC rider suffered a shoulder injury and was able to get up and walk away. To make a strong case, prosecutors have to prove intent. Machen seems to have had that element. Still, Diehl skated.

“It was especially disheartening because we had video,” says Shane Farthing, executive director of the Washington Area Bicyclist Association.

Farthing and WABA have pushed an anti-assault bill that is about to become law. It would provide funding for lawyers so that downed cyclists could sue drivers for damages in civil court. The Access to Justice for Bicyclists Act of 2012 passed the council and is waiting for congressional review. It should become law on April 17.

“In most cases where a cyclist is assaulted,” Farthing says, “it comes down to ‘he said, she said.’ Generally, prosecutors don’t press those cases. We wanted to give cyclists another way into the legal system.”

Farthing says assaults are “extremely rare but so egregious we need to get those drivers off the roadway for the benefit of everyone—pedestrians, cyclists, other drivers.”

Meanwhile, statistics show that biking in DC has not gotten more dangerous, despite the proliferation of cyclists. To the contrary, Farthing says drivers accommodate the riders on two wheels. “It’s safer than in the past,” he says.

But when a driver deliberately runs into a biker, he or she needs to get more than community service. That sends too weak a message.