The People v. The Setting Sun

August 23, 2011 § 10 Comments

Two weekends ago, Robert and I visited my parents in order to really dig in to the whole baby-preparation thing. (Now that I’m nearly four months pregnant, it seems appropriate that the Queen of Planning and Princess of Planning make the most out of their limited time together to, well, plan!) While we were visiting with them, my paternal grandparents came over for dinner. It was a really nice time to see them; we hadn’t visited them since I had announced my pregnancy over the phone to them on Father’s Day.

While we were having dinner, my grandfather regaled us with an interesting…and…slightly disturbing…tale of a friend of theirs (a neighbor) who had a rather unfortunate accident with a bicyclist, which resulted in the cyclist’s untimely death. Allow me to share the story with you, free of judgment, before I share my opinion.

Setting: 5:30 p.m., EST, late October. Her SUV crests the top of a hill to approach a stop light. This particular spot has always been a neighborhood bugaboo, particularly in the Fall. Neighbors have complained of feeling blinded as they traverse the intersection at this time of day, on this particular hill.

Situation: As she pulls up to the top of the hill, she notices that there is another car behind her. Unfortunately, she cannot see to her right, blinded by the sun. As she begins to pull through the intersection, she hears a gruesome thump and knows that she has hit something. Just a moment later, the car behind her likewise hits the something. She’s a nurse, on her way to pick up her child from an extracurricular activity, so she immediately pulls over to investigate. When she sees the man off his bicycle, dying, she begins emergency care. The police arrive and physically restrain the panicked off-duty nurse. The man is dead on the scene.

What happened: Driver A was blinded by the sun and therefore unable to see the bicyclist riding in the shoulder to her right. There is no bike lane. Her right side-view mirror clipped the cyclist, causing him to fall off his bike. Driver B killed the cyclist by driving over him. (I have limited information on Driver B because Driver A is my grandparents’ neighbor and friend, so the story is primarily from her perspective.)

The question: who is at fault and to what degree?

Think on that, ruminate a minute, and then, when you’re ready, return to this post for my take on it.

But first, my grandparents’ opinion:

Driver A, their friend, has been in and out of court for several months (nearly a year has gone by), but the official trial has not started. She has suffered a great deal of mental and physical anguish, leaving her depressed and incapable to do her job as a nurse. Her family has suffered, as well. They have taken to avoiding the scene of the accident in hopes of not reliving the horror of that fateful afternoon. (They may have even moved, but I’m a little spotty on that detail.) To my grandparents’ unified minds, this woman has served her due time through her suffering. They believe that the bicyclist is responsible for his death for two reasons: 1. he was traveling in a shoulder, not in an approved bike lane, and 2. everyone in the area knew that the sun was blinding at that time of the day in that particular spot. They could not comprehend why this man would choose to ride his bike amid afternoon traffic when visibility is so obviously compromised. I asked if they had heard about Driver B and what she was being held responsible for, but they hadn’t heard. They are disgusted by the surviving family of the cyclist for pursuing the case and for erecting a memorial to their family member. They are sure that the memorial is an attempt to further punish the drivers involved, specifically Driver A, through psychological torture.

My opinion:

It is always, beyond any reasonable doubt, the driver’s responsibility to drive in a manner that ensures the safety of all passengers as well as all other bodies on the road. I have been blinded by a setting sun before. I have had trouble seeing the lines painted on the road because of the sun. I have driven dangerously close to a bicyclist before because of traffic on my left or an inability to see the cyclist.


Should anything have happened to me, my passengers, other drivers, pedestrians, or cyclists on the road because I found myself temporarily impaired, then it is solely my responsibility. When I am impaired by the sun, then it is my responsibility to drive slower and more cautiously. I can’t assume that others around me are aware that I’m blinded and that they’ll accommodate my impairment. I believe that Driver A should take some responsibility for assisting an accidental vehicular homicide. Driver B should be charged with accidental vehicular homicide. The bicyclist should not have been traveling in a shoulder, true. But neither he nor the setting sun should be found culpable for the unfortunate accidental crime.

I was also surprised by my grandparents’ vehemence. I am positive that if I were the cyclist in this scenario, my parents would fight to the end to see the drivers responsible brought to justice.

So, readers, what says’t thou? In the case of the People v. the Setting Sun, who should win?

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§ 10 Responses to The People v. The Setting Sun

  • Great to hear from you, Amanda. I would have to agree with you–the driver is responisble.
    Hope you are doing well, my friend!

  • Tori Nelson says:

    First off, Holla at a baby mama!!! Woop! Woop! (Sorry, I’m just that excited that a mini Hab. is on his/her way!)
    To the topic at hand, what a shitty situation all around. I can sympathize with the guilt/anguish of Driver A after the accident, but imagining myself in the position of the cyclist’s mother/father/friends/children/etc. I’m sure I would crave something other than the sun to blame for his death. Something about that kind of grief makes people search for consolation in justice/punishment.

    • Mrs. H. says:

      Holla!! πŸ˜‰ (I’m excited, too.)

      It really is a shitty situation. I do feel for Driver A’s family and friends, and I can’t imagine how I would feel if I were in her shoes. She must be torturing herself with guilt and replaying that afternoon over and over. But at some point, accountability requires us to own up to our actions, face the consequences, while likewise dealing with our own guilt. I don’t know what her punishment would be, and I don’t want to try to guess it out or recommend one…but she should be held responsible. I feel for the cyclist’s family and friends, too.

  • Tim says:

    All things considered, and depending on the configuration of drivers before the accident, I think Driver A is responsible for, at best, a traffic violation, and the cyclist is, too, if the configuration I have in mind is, in fact, reality (as I’m picturing it, the cyclist rode up beside Driver B and Driver A, effectively passing them on the right at the stop – if the cyclist was, instead, ahead of Driver A all the time, the only Driver A is culpable). Driver B is the only one against whom charges should be leveled.

    In the configuration given above, both Driver A and the cyclist would be guilty of failure to yield, but I would say that the cyclist holds the greater culpability in that case. Any good cyclist knows better than to pass a car – choosing to pass a car on EITHER side is voluntarily taking your life into your hands and violating traffic laws. Passing a car on the left, however, is at least in keeping with traffic conventions, so it is somewhat safer. Passing on the right is suicide, plain and simple, and in those cases where it doesn’t cost you your life, it is extremely likely to provoke road rage – again, these are things that any good cyclist knows. I’m a very bad cyclist, and I still know them.

    If the cyclist DID ride up behind and past Drivers A and B, s/he is guilty of failure to yield, which does, I believe, lessen the culpability of Driver A from involuntary accessory to simple failure to yield.

    If the cyclist was stopped ahead of Drivers A and B, I agree entirely with your assessment.

    Regardless, what a terrible situation for all involved 😦

    • Mrs. H. says:

      Unfortunately, my grandparents weren’t very descriptive in that regard. I don’t imagine the cyclist actually had time to pass anyone, frankly. I had imagined a scenario where the three were approaching the light (or that Driver A was approaching where the cyclist was already preparing to go through the intersection, with the flow of traffic). It doesn’t seem like Driver A was even aware that the cyclist had been on the road in the first place, so I don’t believe the cyclist was in the right-hand lane, just in the shoulder. We’re talking about a two-lane road (there might be a left-turn lane, come to think of it), so there are really no options to pass traffic. From listening to the way my grandfather told it, I imagined the cyclist was already in the right shoulder when he had been clipped by the mirror and fell into the road.

      Surely Driver B is facing some form of prosecution or other. I would be stunned if she managed to walk away scot-free. But I agree. Driver A should be held responsible for clipping the cyclist.

      • Tim says:

        I was assuming the cyclist was in the shoulder, sorry if I said lane. If the cyclist was already in the shoulder and Driver A came upon and clipped him, then Driver A is definitely at some measure of fault beyond simple failure to yield.

        I can’t really pass a full judgment without that detail, because, unfortunately, a lot of cyclists will pass cars from the shoulder without giving it a second thought – the only time that’s safe is when there is a dedicated bike lane, and even then passing a car that has already passed you previously is one of the first things any cycling instructor will warn you against because of the road rage issue.

      • Mrs. H. says:

        You make a good point. But I think I must be a little relentless, lol. Potential for road rage doesn’t release either driver from a measure of culpability in my book. (Man…maybe it’s a good thing I never went the law school route. ;)) I guess I figure that if we go with the school of defensive driving, then we have to assume that other people on the road (whether or not their vehicle of choice has a motor) are morons who won’t think twice before making an action, which means that we (as responsible drivers) have to do that “for” them and for ourselves.

        Honestly, it really is too bad that this has happened to my grandparents’ neighbors, but I guess I’m pretty unforgiving in this regard. If I hit you on the road (and you didn’t have a big metal cage of death protecting you, like I do), then it doesn’t matter what you may or may not have done to create a scenario where I would be more likely to hit you. It would be my responsibility as the person driving the killing machine to be aware of you and watch out for you, even if you did try to pass me in the shoulder.

        Lol, like I said, I must be more relentless than you here. I used to be so forgiving…what happened to me? πŸ˜‰

      • Tim says:

        lol. You started teaching…that will take the mercy out of anyone ;-).

        To be clear, the whole “Bikers not passing drivers” rule is a common sense rule, not a law, but it is something that is reinforced repeatedly. to anyone who takes part in any kind of cycling event. “They made me mad” certainly isn’t an excuse for a driver mowing down a group of cyclists, but it’s something for cyclists to consider as they press for drivers to let them “share the road,” so to speak.

        Still, bicycles are technically subject to the same traffic laws as cars, so in a non-fatal collision, it would be the bicyclist who would be at fault if their passing on the shoulder led to a negligent driver hitting them, just like those idiots who speed down the shoulder to try to avoid a traffic jam are responsible if there is a collision when they merge back onto the real road.

  • Lisa (Woman Wielding Words) says:

    I don’t really have much to add to the discussion as all I can think about right now is, “you will be driving for hours and hours over the next few days, stay alert so you don’t become driver A or B.” But I just wanted to say I am glad your back. Oddly enough, my computer (which has a mind of its own) opened one of your e-mails from way back, reminding me that I needed to read this post today. The world works in mysterious ways.

    I hope you are feeling well as that baby grows inside of you.

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