By Jeff Balch
This Monday People of the State of Illinois v. Carnell Fitzpatrick is scheduled to go to trial. Jurors will decide whether to convict Fitzpatrick of first-degree murder for running over bicyclist Thomas McBride with a Chevy SUV. Fitzpatrick’s lawyers have entered a plea of not guilty. But after two years of legal wrangling, the oft-postponed case will probably be postponed again.
The story’s infamous. On the clear, mild morning of April 26, 1999, at about 8:25, Fitzpatrick and McBride had a rush-hour altercation in the 5300 block of West Washington. McBride, a bicycle messenger on his way to work in the Loop, ended up dead.
Asked for specifics, Chicago Police Department spokesman Pat Camden reads straight from a police report:
“Three witnesses observed victim eastbound on Washington, passing Lorel.
“Offender, in green 1997 Chevy truck, cut him off, almost striking him. Witnesses relate that victim exchanged words with offender.
“Offender began to drive directly behind victim. Victim weaved in apparent attempt to get out of the way.
“Offender accelerated, striking victim. Vehicle then drove over victim, causing severe injury.
“Offender fled east on Washington, north on Lockwood, with victim’s bicycle still lodged under vehicle.
“Witnesses pursued offender to 5237 W. Lake, alley, where he was observed pulling bicycle from under vehicle.”
Arriving at the scene minutes later, detectives were approached by an unidentified person who told them “Corky was involved.” Corky, according to the arrest report, is Carnell Fitzpatrick’s nickname. The detectives noted “blood on the road, a bicycle’s front wheel on the parkway to the immediate southeast, and fresh scrapes and gouges on the roadway from the apparent point of contact to the Lake Street alley.”
In the alley they found “a Peugeot bike with a missing front wheel, and with handlebars and pedals ground down.”
Police discovered the Chevy’s license plate under McBride’s body.
Pat Camden calls what happened “a unique and isolated incident.” If McBride was the victim of road rage, he says, “it would be the first car-versus-bicycle murder here. We haven’t been seeing the California-type road rage.”
“Truth is, this kind of thing happens a lot,” responds the Chicagoland
Bicycle Federation’s T.C. O’Rourke. “Sure, it doesn’t usually end in injury or death, but it could, often.
“I see this kind of thing every day,” says O’Rourke. He’s currently working with the city’s Department of Transportation on new bike paths. “An enraged driver forgets how dangerous a car is. I’ve been in situations like Tommy’s dozens of times. They’re escapable sometimes, sure–but sometimes not. I’ve been threatened, I’ve smacked cars going by. Sometimes you’re dealing with aggressive driving, sometimes with sheer lack of concern.
“I was alongside a woman who pulled out of a driveway. I looked right at her, she looked right at me, and she ran me right into traffic. I remember the look on her face–it was like she was folding laundry, like in her mind I just shouldn’t be there. I’ve gotten some of that when I’ve called police too. I report being harassed, and they take the driver’s side: ‘You’re in traffic–ya gotta deal with it.'”
O’Rourke didn’t know McBride, but like a lot of local cyclists he was deeply affected by his death. He’s followed the court case closely, attending monthly hearings and keeping others informed. When he first heard about the incident, “it sounded so horrific that I thought it had been exaggerated,” he says. “I couldn’t really believe it. But at the same time it wasn’t exactly unexpected. It very easily could’ve been anyone I know.” He noticed he was the same age as McBride, 28. “I had a sense of identifying with this person.”
O’Rourke participated in a memorial ride for McBride on May 2, 1999, a week after the incident. “About 150 people came, most on bikes,” he says. “Tommy’s family came. The ride went west from Daley Plaza to the 5300 block of Washington, where he died. It wasn’t like Critical Mass rides I’ve been on. It was a quiet ride. People were talking about what happened, but in a subdued way.
“I didn’t expect to be moved by the site of the murder, but when we got there it was very disturbing. It didn’t match my image at all. It was a narrower residential street, pretty calm, with stop signs.
“I spoke to some neighborhood people, one woman in particular. She hadn’t seen the incident, but she’d seen the body right afterwards. She said she assumed he’d been shot, judging from all the blood.”
McBride’s parents, Robert and Mary Ellen, speak of their son guardedly–they’ve been told by prosecutors not to discuss the case.
They didn’t learn of his death until the following day. His IDs listed an old address. On the morning of April 27, Mary Ellen McBride recalls, WBBM Radio reported the death of an unidentified bicyclist the day before. “I didn’t make the connection,” she says. “It wasn’t till later that my husband got a call from the detectives. Then he called me at my office.
“We had just come back from vacation, and we talked to Tommy Sunday night. Usually he came out to Saint Charles for dinner with us on Sundays. That Sunday he called instead–he didn’t know just when we got back. He told me he was having car trouble and was going to ride his bike the next day. I said, ‘Can’t you take the el?’
“But I didn’t think much about it after we hung up,” she says. “It was only eight miles.”
The youngest of five children, McBride graduated from Saint Charles High School in 1989, but his roots were in Oak Park. “I grew up in Oak Park,” Mary Ellen McBride says, “and we had our family there till ’86, till Tommy was about 14.” In 1982 Robert McBride was named assistant principal at Saint Charles High. “After a few years of his commuting, we moved,” she says.
“Tommy was a pretty typical high school student, not really geared yet one way or another. An ordinary athlete, I think, on the basketball team for a little while.
“He was a big, big reader,” she says. “He read all the time. And he wrote and kept journals from about the age of 13. He wrote poetry too. He carried a spiral notebook everywhere–he was carrying it the day he died.
“I have a large collection of his writings, on Corner Bakery receipts, napkins, and in spiral binders.”
McBride attended the University of Kansas for one year, Columbia College for another. But college didn’t suit him. “He liked working,” says Mary Ellen McBride.
He started as a courier in 1991. Fellow bike messengers describe him glowingly. Jack Blackfelt rode with him at Cannonball and On the Fly. “I was new, and Tommy was a rookie too,” Blackfelt says, “but he was already recognized by everybody at Cannonball as a quiet superstar. He moved really fast. A shy guy, soft-spoken, but he had a way of making everybody feel better about the work. Plus, he was a clear communicator–it’s a transient business, and some riders blow off the company with no notice, but Tommy was always clear about how long he could work.”
Blackfelt moved to New York in 1998 and first heard about McBride’s death from George Olzanski, their old boss at On the Fly, who called with the news. “I just couldn’t believe it was Tommy,” says Blackfelt, “and then to find out it looked like murder? I could barely hold the phone.”
John Greenfield, who rides for Cannonball, remembers McBride as “the archetypal bike messenger–hip, skinny, tall, short-haired. A friendly guy, a funny guy, a fast rider. When I thought of what I would like to be as a bike messenger, I thought of him.”
McBride was also a musician. “For a while he was in a group called Disarray,” Greenfield says. “Kind of a white hip-hop band. And back when I used to book messenger night at Phyllis’s Musical Inn at Division and Wood, his project Blue Astro played there.”
“True to his character,” Blackfelt says, “he’d sometimes play with his back to the audience.”
McBride surprised his mother by touring with Disarray one summer. “I really didn’t realize that he was a musician,” she says. “No piano lessons or anything. He was self-taught.”
Rod Richardson, who now works with On the Fly, produced a CD collection of music by couriers, The Mysterious Hub Tour, in 1999. One track featured Disarray; another had McBride playing solo, his guitar and voice accompanied by a lakeside sound effect.
“Painful,” Richardson calls the song. “Just Tommy on a four-track, with a light vocal about escaping down to the beach after work, getting away from the city grind. We finished the CD three or four weeks before he was killed. He got to hear it, though the release party came after.”
In June 1998, after a short stint in Seattle, McBride moved back in with his parents in Saint Charles. “We both had a long commute to the city,” says Mary Ellen McBride, who works as a legal secretary. “In early ’99 he started hunting for an apartment. The city was too expensive and not really what he wanted.” His older brother Bob was in Oak Park, where he had just become head of the English department at Oak Park-River Forest High School. “Tommy wound up taking a little studio apartment in Oak Park,” says Mary Ellen McBride. “We helped him move in–the week before he died I took some plates and other household stuff over to his place.” The apartment was on Washington Street.
Richardson says McBride had lived in the city for “a long time, for a long stretch with other couriers in a beat-up group apartment. Parties every couple weeks, great sense of community, and he was a major part of that family. But not long before he was killed he decided to live out in Oak Park. Moved out for the mellow. I think about that when I think about his death.
“I know there’s been talk of a racial component,” says Richardson. Fitzpatrick is African-American; McBride was white. “But there was no shade of racial bias to Tommy. He would not have used any of those words. His job, his music, his life moved him in a multicolored circle. He had lived in ethnic diversity in the city; he moved into ethnic diversity in Oak Park. And think about the route he chose to take to work–through Austin.”
“I can’t know what was said by either party, but I see this as a road-rage case,” says Jacky Grimshaw of the Center for Neighborhood Technology. She’s dealt with a wide range of racial issues as an adviser to Harold Washington and as a onetime talk-show host on WBEZ. “If it had been a white driver and a black bicyclist, I’d expect there was a racial exchange–that’s just the real world. Here I see the problem as an SUV guy. A lot of these SUV drivers feel they own the roadway.”
“I came back from New York for the wake and the funeral,” Blackfelt says. “And the more I heard about what happened, the more it seemed like a landmark case, what with the growing number of SUVs and the unbelievable road-rage aspect. Almost a national news kind of tragedy–that just happened to happen to one of my friends.”
“I was kind of glad that early news reports didn’t mention he was a courier,” Richardson says. “I think that might’ve made some people less sympathetic. It seemed right to me to report the story as the death of a cyclist on his way to work.”
After the incident, Carnell Fitzpatrick used his cell phone to call his godmother, Sedonia Terry, a Chicago Police officer. He turned himself in to Terry at 9:15 that morning at an Amoco gas station in Oak Park, and they drove to the 15th District police station at Chicago and Lorel. He was then transported to Area Five at Grand and Central, where, about two hours later, he gave a statement to detectives. He was charged with first-degree murder and jailed. Bail was set at $200,000.
Fitzpatrick was also ticketed for four traffic offenses: failing to exercise due care toward a pedestrian in the roadway, leaving the scene of an accident, having obstructed windows and windshields, and lacking a city vehicle sticker. The four tickets list his year of birth as 1970, his height as 6’2″, his weight as 220 pounds.
In court almost two years later, he recounted what transpired at Area Five. Under questioning by his third lawyer, Sam Adam Sr., Fitzpatrick claimed he’d been denied legal counsel during the initial interrogation by police. Adam argued his client’s statement should therefore be suppressed.
Adam: On the day of April 26, 1999, did you know an attorney?
A: Had you had occasion to use an attorney on other matters other than–prior to the 26th of April, 1999?
A: Were those criminal matters?
A: What was the name of that attorney?
F: Irving Miller.
A: And on how many occasions had you used Mr. Miller as your attorney?
In 1991 Fitzpatrick was convicted for possessing heroin–an amount valued between $100 and $200–with intent to deliver. He received two years’ probation. Three years later he was once again convicted of heroin possession–this time for an amount valued between $600 and $700–with intent to deliver. And again he received two years’ probation, though his first year was now designated “intensive.”
Fitzpatrick testified that at Area Five he asked Sedonia Terry to help him call his attorney, “Irv Miller.”
Adam: What did she say?
Fitzpatrick: She said she couldn’t allow me to then but if I would give her the number she would call.
A: Did you give her the number?
A: Is that [a] number that you knew by heart?
Fitzpatrick was in handcuffs when he arrived at Area Five, where he was led to an interview room by Sergeant Henry Harris.
Adam: And you had a conversation with Officer–I mean with Sergeant Harris?
A: Was anybody else present that you recall?
A: What did you say to him and what did he say to you?
F: He started asking me questions about the accident.
A: And did you make answers?
F: I asked him could I use the phone to call an attorney so I could have an attorney present.
A: How many times would you say you said that to him?
A: And what did he say?
F: He said I couldn’t use the phone at that time.
A: Did you specifically tell him you wanted to call your attorney?
A: And when he said that to you that you couldn’t use the phone at that time, did he ask you further questions?
A: Do you recall–do you recall Sergeant Harris or anyone else in the police department advising you of certain rights?
Under cross-examination by assistant state’s attorney Colleen Hyland, Fitzpatrick filled in the details of his arrest.
Hyland: You recall what time it was that you surrendered yourself to Officer Terry?
Fitzpatrick: Maybe an hour after the accident.
H: When you spoke to Officer Terry on the phone, what exactly did you say to her?
F: I told her I had had an accident and fled the scene and I wanted to know how do I–how should I go about turning myself in.
H. And what did Officer Terry tell you?
F: She said–she stated that I couldn’t just go to the 15th District or back to the crime scene because if some–if a–if I was stopped before I made it there it would look like I was still fleeing as opposed to turning myself in.
H: OK. So what arrangements were then made?
F: She said I would have to meet her somewhere other than around the crime scene or the 15th District.
H: And what did you say?
Hyland noted that Fitzpatrick had earlier recited attorney Irving Miller’s phone number by heart.
Hyland: Did you try calling him?
H: You never tried calling him during that hour?
H: And you obviously stated that you had used him on prior occasions, correct?
H: And you related to your attorney you used him for another or other criminal matters, correct?
H: So in respect to those other criminal matters you had been advised of your Constitutional rights in relation to those criminal matters on other occasions, right?
H: So you knew what your Miranda rights, Constitutional rights were, didn’t you?
H: So you knew you didn’t have to talk to anybody, isn’t that correct?
Fitzpatrick has two young children with his girlfriend, Tanada Godsey, who came to Area Five that day.
Hyland: As far as you knew, the police did not threaten her in any way, correct?
H: And the police did not threaten you that they were going to harm Miss Godsey or your children in any way, did they?
F: Detective Harris did.
H: Oh, Detective Harris did.
H: What exactly did Detective Harris say?
F: He said that if I wasn’t cooperative that he could see to it that our kids could be taken.
Prosecutors had warned the McBrides it might take a year for the case to come to trial. No one suspected it would take more than twice that.
On May 6, 1999, ten days after the incident, Fitzpatrick was released after someone named Ena Carson came up with the $20,000 needed to make bond. (Attempts to contact Carson, whose address was listed as a P.O. box in River Forest, have been unsuccessful.) Conditions of Fitzpatrick’s release included prohibitions on the use of illegal drugs and dangerous weapons. Thirteen days later he was indicted for first-degree murder.
On June 9, 1999, Fitzpatrick, represented by attorney Irving Miller, appeared for the first time before Judge Kenneth Wadas. Initial discovery motions were filed by the defense and prosecution, and both sides agreed to meet again, first in ten days, then in two months.
On September 16, 1999, the court ordered Fitzpatrick to be fingerprinted, and prosecutors submitted their initial answer to discovery, listing 45 possible witnesses. Assistant state’s attorney Michael Rogers also filed a motion to determine the source of bail funds, arguing that “Ena Carson’s (lack of) occupation and (un) employment are inconsistent with the financial ability necessary to deposit the required sum.” Miller responded on September 21 that county authorities had already accepted the money four months earlier and that Fitzpatrick had been attending proceedings faithfully. The prosecution’s motion was denied the following month.
As fall gave way to winter over the next two court dates, the prosecution asked for Fitzpatrick’s cell-phone records for the day of the incident. On January 20, 2000, Miller explained in court that “the phone company, Primeco Communications, sent the wrong records” and said he needed more time. After the hearing, Michael Rogers told the McBride family the state was ready with its case but the defense was “just trying to drag it out.”
After yet another continuance, Miller told the court on March 15, 2000, that Primeco had sent the records to Judge Wadas, but Wadas said he had not received them. A status hearing was set for March 20.
On March 20, Miller told the court, “When I got back to Primeco Communications after the last court date, what they did was faxed them to me. I tendered a copy of those this morning to the state’s attorney’s office.” Miller also acknowledged “receipt for the first time today of a handwritten statement from the state’s eyewitness, dated November 12, 1999,” requested by the defense more than four months earlier.
On April 10, Miller withdrew from the case, and attorney Patrick O’Brien stepped in. O’Brien requested “a status date about a month hence.” Michael Rogers also bowed out, and assistant state’s attorney Lynda Peters told the judge she would continue, assisted by her colleague Colleen Hyland.
On May 16, O’Brien withdrew from the case, and attorney Sam Adam Sr. took over the defense. On June 19, the case was continued and a status hearing was set for July 20.
On July 20, Adam requested a continuance to August 24, citing a conflict created by another case at trial. Mary Ellen McBride told a group in the antechamber, “August 24 was Tommy’s birthday.”
On August 24, Adam announced he was submitting a motion to dismiss the indictment. Arguments were scheduled for September 28.
On September 28, Adam complained that “the state only today has given me a copy of their response to our motion to dismiss.” He requested and was granted a continuance to October 5.
On October 5, the court heard arguments on the defense’s motion. Adam spoke of an “unusual situation” in which Fitzpatrick was charged with “intentionally or knowingly” causing McBride’s death. While acknowledging that this phrase in the indictment paralleled the state’s murder statute, Adam asserted that “the problem is the word or. If we allow an indictment for merely knowingly causing a death, any traffic-related death would be indictable. A carpenter dropping a hammer, and knowingly causing a death, would be indictable for murder. You couldn’t present the defense that it’s an accident.”
Colleen Hyland responded that the state was obliged to follow the language of the statute. Judge Wadas agreed and denied the motion to dismiss.
On November 9, Adam requested “more time on the investigation” and was granted a continuance to December 19.
On December 19, Adam was at trial elsewhere; two of his colleagues requested and were granted a continuance to January 16, 2001.
On January 16, the court was informed that Adam would be late. An hour after the case was called, Adam’s colleague Charles Huff arrived and discussed with prosecutors and the judge the defense’s motion to suppress the statement given by Fitzpatrick to detectives on the day of the incident. Both sides agreed to a status hearing on February 23.
In the hallway Lynda Peters explained the situation to the McBrides: the defense would argue that Fitzpatrick’s statement was coerced, without benefit of legal counsel, and therefore should not be admissible at trial.
On February 23, Adam arrived early and told the court he expected Peters to be early too. He was surprised she wasn’t there and then requested and was granted a continuance to April 2. After Adam left, Hyland arrived and told the court April 2 would not work for the prosecution and requested and was granted the date of April 10.
On April 10, 2001, the court heard arguments on the defense’s motion to suppress Fitzpatrick’s statement of April 26, 1999. Detectives took the stand and asserted that the arrest and interrogation had been handled by the book. Fitzpatrick testified otherwise. Adam argued that “the state has not fulfilled its burden of showing a waiver of counsel and therefore the statements are inadmissible.” Peters responded that “it’s a credibility contest” and urged Wadas to deny the motion. Wadas said he believed that the detectives “testified credibly,” that “the defendant was given his Miranda rights even though he claims he was not,” and that he made a “voluntary statement.” The motion to suppress was denied.
On May 10, Adam asked the court to bar prosecutors from “introducing any gang evidence in this case” and from “using the defendant’s prior convictions should the defendant testify.” The date of June 8 was set to hear relevant arguments.
On June 8, Peters informed the McBrides and then the court that “Colleen Hyland made judge,” and that she was sorry, but more time was needed to bring another prosecutor up to speed. The case was continued to July 9.
On July 9, I sat for the twentieth time in the antechamber of Judge Wadas’s courtroom, and listened as Peters introduced her new assistant, Shauna Boliker, to the McBrides. Boliker has since been replaced by Patrick Kelly.
That morning I had bicycled the 13 miles from my home to the criminal court building. On a half dozen other occasions I drove instead. I found that driving made the trip’s time unpredictable. Hearings were scheduled for 9:30, at the tail end of the morning rush. Once, running late and stuck behind a truck, I caught myself cursing and banging on my steering wheel.
Carnell Fitzpatrick sat with a family member on the other side of the chamber. He looked self-conscious. The clerk announced his name and the trial date was set for September 24.
Judge Wadas quickly disposed of outstanding business. “It’s not a gang case,” he said, granting the defense’s request to bar gang evidence. Then he shrugged and allowed that the subject might come up, depending on who took the stand. As for the prior convictions, Wadas ruled for the state, saying that since they occurred within the preceding ten years “the potential prejudicial effect is outweighed” by their relevance to the question of Fitzpatrick’s credibility.
“I worry he might get off–convicted of a lesser charge, like some kind of involuntary vehicular homicide or something,” says T.C. O’Rourke. “I’m not certain the jury will get it. Remember the conditions attached to his bail? One of them was that he was forbidden to possess dangerous weapons. Well, in his hands an SUV was a lethal weapon. Would anybody think about forbidding him from driving?”
In fact, Fitzpatrick’s driver’s license was never revoked or suspended. He let it lapse last September 28.
“Some jurors might have a hard time seeing a car as a murder-one weapon,” worries O’Rourke. “Will the prosecution get that across?
“If he had stopped and pulled a gun and shot Tommy to death, I think people would see that as a clear case of murder. The gun would be off the street, the guy wouldn’t be out on bail, I don’t think the case would be dragging.
“It’s two years later now. Witnesses may have moved, memories have faded. It may come down to how people on the jury feel about cars and bikes. I see him as a murderer, but our culture is used to labeling car deaths as accidents.”
He cites a story in California: a driver threw another driver’s dog into traffic. “That showed how angry people allow themselves to get when they drive. It got a lot of attention. I wouldn’t want to compare it to killing a human being, but I wonder, does it make a difference to some people whether the weapon is a guy’s hands, or a gun, or a car?”
Under Illinois law, “a person commits the offense of first degree murder when he kills an individual [without lawful justification] if, in performing the acts which cause the death: 1) he intends to kill or do great bodily harm to that individual [or another]; or 2) he knows that such acts will cause death to that individual [or another]; or 3) he knows that such acts create a strong probability of death or great bodily harm to that individual [or another].” First-degree murder also includes murder while committing a felony.
For the jury to convict Fitzpatrick, they’d have to believe beyond a reasonable doubt that he intended to kill or badly injure McBride, or that he knew there was a strong chance McBride would die or be badly injured when the SUV hit him. A conviction could carry a prison sentence of 20 to 60 years.
To convict Fitzpatrick of a lesser charge, jurors would have to receive special instructions from the judge. Second-degree murder, for example, is defined by mitigating factors: intense passion reacting to serious provocation, or a false belief that the facts would justify or exonerate. By statutory definition, “serious provocation is conduct sufficient to excite an intense passion in a reasonable person.”
For the jury to convict Fitzpatrick of second-degree murder, they would have to believe that he was seriously provoked and his rage was legitimate, or that he thought his actions were justified. Given the eyewitness accounts describing an exchange of words between McBride and Fitzpatrick, the defense may argue that McBride provoked him verbally. But Illinois courts have held that “[n]either words nor gestures constitute adequate provocation for purposes of second-degree murder” (People v. Presley, 1992). A conviction of second-degree murder carries a sentence of 4 to 20 years.
Involuntary manslaughter is committed when a person “unintentionally causes the death of an individual by acts which are performed recklessly and are likely to cause death or great bodily harm.” A special driving-
related offense of “reckless homicide” is committed when a person “unintentionally causes the death of an individual by driving a motor vehicle recklessly and in a manner likely to cause death or great bodily harm.”
Did Fitzpatrick strike McBride by mistake? The defense could argue that he was simply trying to catch up to McBride. A conviction of involuntary manslaughter or reckless homicide leads to a sentence of only two to five years.
I’ve tried to contact Fitzpatrick and people near him. They don’t have listed telephone numbers. His attorneys have returned only two of my ten calls. Fred Acosta, a colleague of Sam Adam, referred only to the statement Fitzpatrick gave to detectives: “Police can make it out to be negative when it may not be so.” Sam Adam’s son and partner, Sam Jr., called back once and suggested a time to phone him again. I called at the appointed time and left a message that hasn’t been returned.
In August I went to Fitzpatrick’s address of record. I knocked and a young woman answered the door. I asked to speak to Fitzpatrick or anyone in his family, and she told me she was a neighbor, he wasn’t home, and other family members were out of town. She couldn’t give me any phone numbers. She added that Fitzpatrick’s sister was out grocery shopping. As I turned to leave, she pointed to a car pulling up to the curb. “That’s her there.”
The sister started shouting as she stepped out of the car: “I ain’t got nothin’ to say to you! I ain’t got nothin’ to say to you! I ain’t got nothin’ to say to you!”
“Wait, I’m just trying to write a fair–”
“I ain’t got nothin’ to say to you! I ain’t got nothin’ to say to you! Whatcha doin’ comin’ in my house?”
“I’m not trying to come in, I’m just trying to be fair to–”
“I ain’t got nothin’ to say to you!”
“I don’t know that I see it so much as a bicycling issue,” says Randy Neufeld, director of the Chicagoland Bicycle Federation. “What’s deeper is the issue of general civility of society on the roadways. The reality is that the design of our urban environment does not mesh with the number of motor vehicles we’re trying to use within it. Sometimes the problem is a pretty simple design flaw.
“Just to give you one little example: Harlem Avenue, out between Oak Park and River Forest. The state spent a lot of money to widen Harlem, right before a viaduct where it goes back to two lanes. So you’ve got more cars on that road, for a couple blocks. By design you’re creating a tension at that viaduct.
“With stuff like that, and the usual tensions of the road, people who might otherwise be kind behave differently. I guess it’s partially the anonymity too. Think how embarrassed some drivers would be if they were filmed. There’s so much anger–not just at bicyclists, but at other motorists too, just because they’re going a little bit slowly.”
“As a society, we tend to accept this,” says T.C. O’Rourke. “The level of anger that people allow themselves to reach in a car–I don’t think it’s found in any other facet of life.”
Aggressive driving is a deadly problem that’s often downplayed. New York City police claim that in 1999 “cyclist error” was the “primary contributing factor” in three-fourths of fatal bicycle crashes with motor vehicles. This claim was widely reported, unexamined. Charles Komanoff, director of the New York bicyclists’ advocacy group Right Of Way, analyzed data from 1995 through ’98 and determined that crashes are caused mostly by the traffic violations of motorists. “Driver misconduct,” Komanoff says, “was the principal cause in 57 percent of these crashes and a contributory cause in 78 percent.
“Driving is valorized, prioritized, and privileged in culture and in policy,” Komanoff says. “Cyclists are an easy target in every sense of the word.”
Moreover, the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration concludes that approximately 950 “excess” deaths have occurred each year in the U.S. due to the presence of SUVs. They crowd the road and inflict more damage in collisions than smaller vehicles.
“Maybe Tommy would’ve died no matter what vehicle Fitzpatrick had been driving, but I don’t know that’s true,” says O’Rourke. “One thing that’s clear is how SUVs change the nature of the road. There’s a Wild West mentality. These are the big guns. There’s a vigilante feeling, a feeling of everybody taking care of just themselves. A sense of ‘I’m gonna be safe, but screw you.’
“But it’s not just SUVs. All motor vehicles add to the problem to some extent, especially with so many vehicles carrying just one person, like using a wheelbarrow to carry a pea. The whole system is just too centered on the car.”
These subjective impressions jibe with the objective analysis of John Pucher, a professor of urban planning at Rutgers University. Pucher’s compared urban transportation policies in the U.S. and Europe. He finds European city dwellers tend to be healthier, and more mobile in old age, and he has determined that cyclists here are not as safe.
“In the Netherlands and Germany,” Pucher reports, “bicyclist fatality rates are only a fourth as high as in the United States. These countries have undertaken a wide range of measures to improve safety: urban design sensitive to the needs of non-motorists, traffic calming of residential neighborhoods, restrictions on motor vehicle use in cities, and rigorous traffic education of both motorists and non-motorists. The United States could adopt many of the same measures.”
According to Pucher, factors contributing to European road safety include higher gasoline prices (which discourage larger vehicles) and greater investment in public transit. U.S. cities continue to cater to the car. The Center for Neighborhood Technology found the average Chicago driver who commutes by car spends 44 extra hours per year at the wheel because of traffic tie-ups.
Thomas McBride just happened to cross paths with a motorist who may have lost his temper. If McBride had passed the 5300 block of West Washington a minute earlier, he might be alive, but he wouldn’t be safe. Both anecdotal evidence and objective data show that ordinary drivers squeezed onto limited road space can turn vicious.
“The most difficult aspect of the issues raised by this case is cultural,” says O’Rourke. “Design all you want, alter patterns of traffic flow–it’s still about individual drivers. Enforcement can affect behavior, but ultimately it comes down to purposeful personal action.”
This week the McBrides learned the trial would likely be postponed. According to assistant state’s attorney Patrick Kelly, a new date will be determined by Judge Wadas on Monday. Over the last two years Mary Ellen McBride has learned to wait. “I am far more patient now than I used to be,” she says. “Your patience grows–it’s part of the healing process.”
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Jim Newberry.