Austin PD Miss The Point By Blaming Reflectors Instead of Drunk Driver

Michael GrossmanMarch 27, 2017 5 minutes

For all their purported benefits to the environment and individual health, bicycles retain something of a bad rap as a means of transportation. Some of that may stem from their slightly-ambiguous status as a vehicle (should they stay on the sidewalk? Should they be in the road? In places without bike lanes, how much of either is the rider entitled to?), and some might come from the occasionally combative attitudes of their more zealous riders.

Regardless of where that antipathy may come from, though, bikes and their riders face bias from the people with whom they share the road. It's not just civilian motorists who exhibit these opinions, either--even police get in on a little bike-hate now and then, as was demonstrated after a recent auto-cyclist accident in South Texas.

Austin, TX: Tuesday, March 14

According to Austin police, 53-year-old cyclist Charlie Bunton Jr. was struck and killed by an intoxicated driver late Tuesday night.

The collision happened at approximately 11:40 p.m. in the westbound lanes of East Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, near Scottsdale Road. Bunton was riding alone at the time; the driver, 38-year-old Joshua Brosemer, remained at the scene after the crash.

Austin-Travis County EMS paramedics arrived at the scene and attempted to perform CPR on Bunton, but were unable to revive him. Joshua Brosemer was arrested by police on DWI charges.

Sadly, these events happen all too often across the State of Texas. But as common as fatal drunk driving accidents are, what happened next made Mr. Bunton's tragedy all the more shocking.

The Blame Game

Preliminary interviews with investigators seemed to place some of the blame for the crash on Bunton himself, alleging that he was riding in the dark without proper reflectors. Furthermore, MLK Road was described by officers as "never safe for cyclists," given that its posted speed limit is 50 miles per hour and drivers exceed that limit all the time. The road also does not have designated bike lanes as some others around Austin do. This information was delivered in an "everybody knows that" manner, suggesting that some police believe that riding a bicycle on MLK is something of a self-fulfilling prophecy.

There's a sort of cruel logic behind these thoughts: Pedestrians and bicyclists historically do not fare well in collisions with automobiles, and it behooves them to remain conscious of that history when putting feet or wheels to the pavement. State laws mandate certain behaviors to help assure cyclist safety; for instance, Section 551.104 of the Texas Transportation Code requires those who ride at night to have reflective equipment on their bicycles. Beyond that, common wisdom suggests that they should also wear light-colored clothes or additional reflectors on their person.

While that's all very important and makes perfect sense, it seems to me that the far greater sin here is that someone was driving a car while under the influence of alcohol. Just think about this in the simplest terms possible. Imagine you're walking down the street and and someone comes up to you and says, "Sir/Ma'am, what's worse: driving while drunk or riding a bike without proper reflectors?"

Is it possible that the alcohol was merely circumstantial and that the defendant driver's alleged intoxication played no role in Mr. Bunton's death? Of course. But by that same token, isn't also possible that Mr. Bunton's reflectors are merely circumstantial and the real cause of the accident was that someone allegedly chose to drive drunk, dull their senses, and then, presumably, haul tail down a road that the police themselves have deemed too dangerous because its apparently some sort of lawless no-man's land where speed limits are not enforced?

Revisiting their statement that it's unsafe to ride a bicycle down MLK due to drivers failing to follow the speed limit... I just don't know what to do with this facepalm-inducing statement. If a woman were raped in a bad neighborhood, would anyone find it to anything less than caustically insulting for an officer to suggest, "Well, that's just something everyone knows about this part of town; there's gonna be some raping. Better steer clear."

For what it's worth, I generally try to avoid virtue signaling or any semblance of moral outrage in my writing, because I find that when most writers do so it is most often cliched, unwarranted, and disingenuous. In other words, run-of-the-mill "won't someone PLEASE think of the children?" sentiment usually rings hollow. However, I just can't help myself as it relates to Mr. Bunton's wreck, because of the outlandishness of the statements made by the officers.

Every Accident Has Multiple Underlying Causes - But What's The MAIN Cause?

Everything that happens is to some degree a result of everything that came before it. In that sense, everything from Charlie Bunton's choice of breakfast cereal to Joshua Brosemer's footwear could be considered a factor in the fatal crash. Fortunately the law doesn't really accommodate this holistic, philosophical approach to liability, so General Mills and Skechers are probably safe from being named as defendants.

As such, when examining an accident to determine negligence, we identify its proximate cause--the most relevant causal factor in a chain of events leading to an injury. Dismissing my examples about cereal and shoes, we instead start to look at two main areas of concern: On one hand, there's a cyclist riding at night, possibly without proper reflectors. On the other, there's a person operating a vehicle while under the influence of alcohol. These are the two most likely elements to be weighed by a jury as the proximate cause, and out of the two, the drunk driver seems more likely to be the one to blame. While his specific BAC at the time of testing was not released, the fact that he was arrested on intoxication charges suggests it was over .08, which is enough to impair judgment, coordination, and reaction time.

Given the nature of drunk driving, it is unclear whether more reflective surfaces would even have given Charlie Bunton an increased chance of avoiding the crash. Those who operate vehicles while under the influence have hit everything from traffic signs to pedestrians to 18-wheelers in the dark of night and in blazing harsh daylight. Operational prudence on the part of a sober driver, pedestrian, or cyclist is no guarantee of safety when faced with a drunk driver. Because of this uncertainty, it doesn't seem reasonable for the police to judge Bunton harshly for simply taking his Schwinn on a night ride. I won't go so far as to say his reduced visibility was a non-factor, but compared to the other elements of the crash, it shouldn't really be the primary consideration.

The Driver is Only Part of the Problem

Texas dram shop law is designed to hold bars and restaurants accountable for over-serving individuals who then hurt themselves or others. Safe roads are a matter of public interest, and most establishments are on board with the promotion of public welfare. Those that continue to serve patrons who show signs of obvious intoxication, however, are partly liable for damages caused by those patrons. That can mean a range of things, from bar fights to car crashes, and in those instances, people hurt by the intoxicated person can seek compensation from the bar that liquored him or her up.

It is in everyone's best interests not to further enable a person who is in a state conducive to harm. You don't hand Jason Voorhees a shiny new machete and point him toward the nearest summer camp. In the same vein, it's unwise to provide a clearly-intoxicated individual further alcohol, given the chances that he or she will drive after paying the tab. The more a patron is over-served, the greater the likelihood that someone will be injured, be it the driver or an innocent third party. Drunk driving collisions aren't 100% guaranteed, of course, but their likelihood is drastically increased over that of non-alcohol-related accidents.

Again, most bars and restaurants that serve alcohol, even in a place with as rich a nightlife as Austin, are on board with TABC regulations. They recognize the validity of the requirements, and are aware that they are designed to protect public welfare. It only takes one bar to overlook the intoxicated state of a paying customer to set up a recipe for disaster, though.

In the end, it's up to a jury to decide where the responsibility lies in a case like Charlie Bunton's. No one is automatically guilty by virtue of the American justice system, and that protection from inherent guilt and/or liability serves us all. The facts would need to be laid out, evidence weighed, and responsibility assigned by the court. If the decision falls between a cyclist and a drunk driver, though, which really seems to be the more likely cause of the accident?