Sterling Heights Police Blame Shoulder-Riding Bicyclist For Own Death By Distracted Driver

sterling-heights-policeIn 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.

“Unfortunately, [Sawicki] wasn’t on the roadway, he was on a gravel shoulder,” Dwojakowski continued. “And even more unfortunate, there was a brand new sidewalk just installed about 15 feet from where he was riding.”

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.

James Sawicki's bicycle. WJBK/myFOXDetroit.com
James Sawicki’s bicycle. WJBK/myFOXDetroit.com

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.)

Michiganders shouldn’t accept this behavior from those charged with enforcing the law. Sawicki was trying to get from one place to another just as all of us do every day. He was not asking to die. He was the victim of a criminal act. To suggest otherwise is insulting and unconscionable.
I urge readers to contact the office of Sterling Heights Chief of Police Michael Reese (586-446-2810). Be civil – acting in uncontrolled anger can only harm our cause – but firm. Emphasize that his officer’s statement was improper and ultimately dangerous, insofar as it suggests sidewalk riding is the only way bicyclists can protect themselves. Ask that Sterling Heights police familiarize themselves with Michigan bicycle safety best practices; that his officers recognize the basic wrong in blaming the victim of a fatal crash when he was not at fault; and that the motorist be prosecuted to the full extent of the law.

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.