In a tragic episode last Wednesday, a bicyclist was killed by a “distracted” 20-year-old driver as he rode along a gravel shoulder in Sterling Heights. His death is a sad illustration of Michigan’s crying need for complete streets, and a reminder that law enforcement officials too often remain ignorant of bicycle safety. Horrifying as all traffic deaths are, this one was made especially so by the callous and ill-informed response of the Macomb County suburb’s police, who suggested the victim should have been riding on the sidewalk.
James Anthony Sawicki, age fifty-four, was hit shortly after noon along 18 Mile Road, between Mound and Ryan. The driver, a twenty-year-old Rochester Hills woman, said she hit Sawicki when she took her eyes off the road and veered onto the shoulder while trying to retrieve an object in her car. He died one hour later. Locals indicate Sawicki may have been homeless, in one more example of the way our current transportation system leaves the most vulnerable people immobilized and endangered.
Some reports state that the motorist has a history of alcohol violations and other traffic violations. However, she was not arrested or charged at the scene.
Sterling Heights Police Lieutenant Dale Dwojakowski, to his credit, told a Free Pressreporter that bicyclists are permitted to ride on the roadway. Sadly, he didn’t stop there.
These are distressing comments in a case where the motorist appears to have been clearly at fault. With the driver distracted, it appears Sawicki may have been struck regardless of whether he was riding on the shoulder or the roadway itself. The “unfortunate” thing is not that Sawicki was riding on the shoulder. It’s that the driver of a motor vehicle showed criminal neglect of her responsibility on the road.
Moreover, Dwojakowski is clearly ignorant of basic bicycle safety best practices. As national highway design guidelines and numerous studies make clear, sidewalk bicycle riding is typically much more dangerous than riding in the road, because drivers “commonly don’t ‘see’ [bicyclists] there, especially at driveways and intersections,” as described in What Every Michigan Bicyclist Must Know. (In fact, it’s not even clear from Google Maps whether continuous sidewalks even exist at the location of the crash; certainly they didn’t in the very recent past. A new sidewalk is useless if it isn’t part of a larger system.)
No one signs away his or her life when they ride a bike. To make our state safe for bicyclists, that fact has to be well established in every Michigan community.