After a bicyclist is put in a coma, Baltimore debates traffic enforcement

Philip Langdon
New Urban Network

Bicyclists in Baltimore are up in arms. Late in the morning of Saturday, Feb. 26, 20-year-old Nathan Krasnopoler was riding his bike in a marked bike lane on University Parkway when an 83-year-old motorist turned right at a garage entrance and plowed into him. 

The cyclist was severely injured. Three days later, Krasnopoler remaned in a coma. By March 4, the second-year Johns Hopkins University engineering student was reported to have opened his eyes several times. His condition was improving, but slowly.

On March 1, in the on-line journal Baltimore Brew, Fern Shen published an extraordinarily thorough account of the crash, its aftermath, and the questions it raises about whether public safety agencies are adequately enforcing traffic laws — not only in Baltimore but throughout the US.

What was shocking to many people, not all of them cyclists, was that at no point in the first days after the running down of the cyclist was the driver cited or criminally charged. Indeed, the police indicated that it was unlikely the elderly driver would be charged.

“It’s absolutely startling to us that the police would say this,” Carol Silldorf, executive director of Bike Maryland. was quoted as saying in the Baltimore Brew article. “The person who did it, I’m sure, feels horrified, but if society goes along with no penalties in these situations it’s going to foster a continuing climate where drivers aren’t taking care to watch out for cyclists.”

“The law violation is clear-as-day, and as a cyclist — one who has been struck myself — police inaction is another slap to the face,” said Seth Lueck, one of the founders of Baltimore Velo.

Cyclists pointed out that a law appears clearly to have been violated:

§ 21-1209.(d) Yielding right-of-way.- Unless otherwise specified in this title, the driver of a vehicle shall yield the right-of-way to a person who is lawfully riding a bicycle, an EPAMD, or a motor scooter in a designated bike lane or shoulder if the driver of the vehicle is about to enter or cross the designated bike lane or shoulder.

Silldorf told the journal that the driver also “clearly violated “ the so-called “three-foot law,” enacted by the Maryland legislature last year, which requires drivers to maintain a three-foot distance from bicyclists.

“The cyclist was riding where he was supposed to, the car just didn’t look, a white line on the street isn’t going to protect you from that,” Mark Counselman, a cyclist who rides on University Parkway and all over the city, told Baltimore Brew. “I’m not sure bike lanes are safe,” Silldorf said, noting that they are typically sandwiched between the flow of traffic and parked cars, which can pull out suddenly or fling open their doors, causing crashes with cyclists.

“We all know we have a culture where cars come first and everyone else better look out,” Counselman lamented. 

That much became glaringly evident in Baltimore, where some motorists used the controversy as an excuse to complain about cyclist misbehavior — even though Krasnopoler had been riding safely, conforming to the laws.

Events like this are not rare across the US. Many communities are investing in designated on-street space for cyclists, but the conflict between cyclists and motorists is very far from being resolved. Police, it seems, have yet to recognize the need to consistently enforce laws that are supposed to make the roadways safe for biking. Until they do, conditions will remain hazardous for those who try to go places under their own power.