A teen driver fatally struck Janice and Mark Wendling from behind while they were biking near southwest-suburban Morris. Credit: Courtesy of the Wendling family

On June 21 middle-school math teacher Janice Wendling and her husband, Mark, a power plant engineer, were training for an upcoming charity bike ride near the southwest suburb of Morris.

As they pedaled down the shoulder of Old Stage Road, a two-lane highway, around 7 PM, a 16-year-old boy—who happened to be a former student of Janice’s—struck the couple from behind with an SUV. Mark was killed instantly; Janice was pronounced dead at a hospital shortly afterward. Police concluded that the crash was unintentional, and the teen was cited for failure to reduce speed to avoid a crash.

Some commenters on an ABC report of the tragedy were quick to blame the Wendlings for their own deaths. One person implied that the couple should have been more visible and shouldn’t have been on the road. “Wear bright colors and a helmet,” the person wrote. “I no longer cycle on the two lane roads. . . It is not worth dying by riding out in rural areas.”

“That is a bad stretch of road, and the cyclists often ride three or four abreast, and block the whole lane,” wrote a commenter named Anton Bender. “They have no business on those two-lane country roads, and should ride on the bike paths. They are just a nuisance on the road!”

And yet, the Morris Herald-News reported that, earlier that month, the boy had been clocked by police doing 87 in a 55 mph zone on I-80 in Joliet. And earlier on the day of the crash, he’d been ticketed for driving 24 to 36 miles over the speed limit in nearby LaSalle County.

And according to the crash report, a witness at the scene told police that the teen threw an object into the woods. The police retrieved a baggie that was found to contain 15 grams of marijuana. The boy told the police that the last time he had smoked marijuana was two days earlier. He was taken to a nearby hospital for evaluation and provided urine and blood samples. Ken White, deputy chief of the Grundy County sheriff’s office, said Tuesday that the results of the tests have been forwarded to the Illinois state’s attorney’s office, but declined to provide the results of the tests. “We’re waiting for them to decide what they’re going to do,” he said.

This kind of horrendous victim blaming reminds me of what often happens to victims of sexual violence. When a woman is a victim of a sexual assault or rape, there’s a tendency for other people to blame her for the attack. They often callously argue that she should have conducted herself differently, that she shouldn’t have been in that place at that time, or that she was wearing the “wrong” clothing. In 2011, for example, Toronto police officer Michael Sanguinetti infamously remarked at a law school safety forum that “women should avoid dressing like sluts in order not to be victimized.” The ensuing backlash sparked the international SlutWalk movement of demonstrations calling for an end to rape culture.

Just as there’s been a growing movement to raise awareness that rape and assault are the fault of the perpetrator and not the victim—rape is caused by rapists, as the saying goes—we need to change the prevailing tendency to blame traffic violence victims for their own deaths.

When a motorist fatally strikes a person walking or biking, there’s often a focus on whether the victim was following the letter of the law, with relatively little attention paid to whether the motorist may have been speeding or distracted. Piloting a vehicle that can easily kill people should require an increased level of responsibility. In reality, unless drivers are intoxicated or flee the scene, it’s unusual for them to face serious consequences for killing pedestrians and, especially, bicyclists.

For example, in December 2013, Stroger Hospital administrator Robert Vais fatally struck Hector Avalos, a former marine and aspiring chef, as Avalos was biking in Douglas Park. Although Vais was found to have nearly twice the legal blood-alcohol level, he was sentenced to a mere 100 days in prison. Incredibly, Judge Nicholas Ford mentioned that Avalos was wearing dark clothing at the time Ford hit him as a reason for the light sentence.

Readers who post in the comments sections of Chicago media outlets will argue that fallen cyclists like Avalos were foolish to be riding on city streets or after dark, cruelly nominating them for the so-called Darwin Awards. It’s also common for local news reports about drivers killing cyclists to mention it if the victim wasn’t wearing bright-colored, reflective clothing or a helmet, although the law requires neither.

As if that’s an excuse for a motorist failing to notice a person in the road. The dead cyclist “was asking for it,” their logic goes.

But this is obviously faulty reasoning. If you’re driving a multiton vehicle, it’s your responsibility to pay sufficient attention and travel at such speeds that you can brake in time to avoid taking a life.

“Wearing dark clothing as a pedestrian is a completely reasonable thing to do. Running people over with a car is not.”

—D.C. resident Colin Brown in response to a pedestrian-shaming PSA

Victim blaming is also common with pedestrian fatality cases, such as the recent death of 23-year-old Phillip Levato Jr. On Sunday, November 20, at about 4 AM, Levato was in a crosswalk at the intersection of Chicago and LaSalle when SUV driver Kyle Hawkins, 26, struck him and fled the scene. Hawkins, who turned himself in a few days later, was charged with a felony for failing to report a crash resulting in a death.

One commenter on my write-up of the case in last week’s Reader wrote, “Some pedestrians are fully or partially responsible for their deaths. . . . Very few drivers intentionally hit another human being with their car. THE PEDESTRIANS ARE UNSEEN TO DRIVERS.” Instead of traffic calming or “road diets” to deter speeding on overly wide streets like LaSalle, the person advocated for using “barriers, footbridges, and tunnels” to keep pedestrians out of motorists’ way.

Sometimes the victim blaming comes from the media outlets themselves. For example, in early September, in response to the first four recent Chicago cycling deaths of the year, all allegedly caused by reckless drivers, the Tribune ran an editorial that put the onus on bike riders to be “particularly cautious” in order to prevent crashes. The piece even suggested that cyclists are usually to blame for such tragedies: “Some may think they shouldn’t have to obey the same rules of the road as motorists.”

A few days later the paper ran an antibicycling rant by DePaul adjunct lecturer John McCarron, arguing that motorists shouldn’t be expected to check for bicyclists before making right turns, although two of the crash victims had been killed by right-turning drivers.

It’s even fairly common for government-sponsored safety campaigns to include bike and pedestrian shaming. For example, a recent PSA from Montgomery County, Maryland, featured the image of a young woman dressed in black with tire marks across her face and the text, “Don’t get caught dead wearing black. When it’s dark, wear something bright or reflective.”

D.C. resident Colin Brown effectively called out the misguided ad on Twitter. “Wearing dark clothing as a pedestrian is a completely reasonable thing to do,” he tweeted. “Running people over with a car is not.” He then “fixed” the PSA by changing the text to “Pedestrians can wear whatever they want. If you can’t see a human being on the road in front of you, you’re driving too fast.”

Even the Chicago Department of Transportation, which has generally been on the right page about pedestrian and bike safety in recent years, hasn’t been completely immune to victim blaming. In 2012 the department launched a fairly effective, if grisly, ad campaign featuring graphic images, such as a body sprawled across a shattered windshield or an intubated crash victim in a hospital bed, to remind motorists of the consequences of reckless driving. But they also installed yellow diamond-shaped decals on sidewalks with a rather patronizing message for pedestrians: “Think before you cross.”

So how can we get the public to stop automatically blaming vulnerable road users when drivers run them over?

Changing the way we talk about crashes could go a long way toward addressing this issue. News outlets generally refer to collisions as “accidents,” implying that they’re simply unfortunate incidents that were unavoidable, even in cases where the driver was clearly at fault. Recognizing this, the New York City Police Department recently changed its policy and stopped referring to crashes as accidents.

Media reports also often use passive language that leaves the driver out of the equation, stating that the victim “was hit by a car” or that “the car jumped the curb” and killed someone. In advocacy circles, we refer to this as “robot car language,” because it suggests that the vehicle acted of its own volition, so the person who was supposed to be controlling it shouldn’t be held responsible.

There’s also the issue of “survivor’s bias.” Since a pedestrian or cyclist killed in a crash isn’t alive to tell his or her side of the story, we often only get the driver’s account of what happened. Thus it’s common for police and news reports to state that the victim “darted” or “veered” into traffic, often based solely on testimony from the driver, even though it’s obviously not in that person’s interest to admit that he or she made a fatal mistake.

The good news is that as more and more communities recognize the importance of lowering the pedestrian and bike death toll, there’s a growing understanding that when people are struck, the problem is often due to driver error and/or unsafe street design.

And then there are activists, like the participants in the Critical Mass bike ride, who take over the streets each month to make the statement that people should be able to bike safely on any surface road, at any time of day, while wearing whatever they wish. That’s already the situation in bike-friendly cities like Amsterdam and Copenhagen. In that sense, Critical Mass functions like the SlutWalk of cycling advocacy.

So, in summary, we need to hold drivers accountable when they kill vulnerable road users by giving them appropriately stiff sentences. And we need to change our thinking about who’s at fault in these cases. The victim blaming has got to stop.   v

John Greenfield edits the transportation news website Streetsblog Chicago.

This story was updated Tuesday, December 6, to include new information about the Wendling investigation.