UPDATE June 27, 2008: Aaron Fine was sentenced to two years, but only two months in prison, followed by a suspended sentence for six years with supervised probation, including these special conditions: mental health counseling, abstaining from driving for four months, 600 hours of community service, and no contact with the Shatz family.
UPDATE: David Traub, Press Officer for the Norfolk District Attorney’s office, has explained that the basic facts initially reported were incorrect. The bicyclist was not riding against traffic. She was turning into her driveway. Her bicycle hit the truck between a 45 and 90 degree angle. There were no surviving witnesses to the collision other than the truck driver, who did not testify. The judge convicted Fine of Negligent Operation because he was operating without the proper license; the truck had safety defects; and the truck was overloaded. He wrote, “The statute is violated whether or not the negligent operation actually causes harm.” The judge also added, in a footnote, “The Court might subject vehicle speed and manner of approaching and passing a child on a bicycle to criticism, but only in hindsight and hence these are not part of the litany of faults.” The judge acquitted on the charge of negligent homicide, saying that he found it “more probable than not that the negligent conduct described above was the legal cause of the egregious harm suffered in the accident” — but not “beyond a reasonable doubt.”
The investigation apparently did not look into violations of traffic law committed by the bicyclist, nor did the judge comment on any possible violations. We are interested not in who is to blame for this crash, but how such events can be prevented. The case was not one of “fast motorist runs into slow bicyclists from behind” — the scenario that generally comes to mind when the average person reads about a car hitting a bike. The bicyclist was making a left turn. Any person operating a motor vehicle or bicycle is required to give a signal before “making any turning movement which would affect the operation of any other vehicle” (MGL Ch. 90 Sec. 14B). We don’t know if the bicyclist made such a signal, or looked behind to see if faster traffic was approaching. We do know, however, that the truck driver acted as if the bicyclist was not intending to turn. To be safe all bicyclists must look behind before changing positions on the road, and then must either wait until it is safe to move.
This is the original post:
The trial of Aaron Fine starts tomorrow. Fine is a 34 year old police officer who drove a landscaping truck into a 10-year-old girl riding a bicycle in Foxboro, Mass, USA. He faces charges of motor vehicle homicide, operating a motor vehicle without a license, failure to safely pass a bicyclist and operating at an unsafe speed, and could be sent to prison for 2 and 1/2 years. He has been on unpaid leave from the Mansfield Police Department, pending the outcome of the trial, probably since the crash occurred on December 2, 2006.
That day 10-year-old Rosie Shatz rode her bike from her house to a nearby barn to get hay for her class’s pet guinea pig. A follow-up story after the initial press reports mentioned that the Foxboro Chief of Police “indicated that Rose was riding her bike against the flow of traffic.” Update: this statement turns out to be incorrect.
If these facts are correct, wrong-way riding was the direct cause of this crash. Fine did not have the proper license for the truck he was driving. But I don’t see how this is relevant, given that he did what a reasonable person might well do when confronted with a wrong-way cyclist on a narrow road: move left to let her pass. So why was he charged with “failure to safely pass a bicyclist”? Why was he charged with speeding, given that the Foxboro Police Chief told the press that “He was going less than the speed limit”?
If convicted, Fine could be sent to prison, and probably would never be able to work as a police officer again. This seems to me a gross miscarriage of justice (again, unless there are other relevant facts that have not been reported in the press).
Yes, Rosie Shatz’s death was tragic, and yes, she is a victim. But it was tragic because it was avoidable–by simply sticking to the right side of the road. And she is a victim, because in all likelihood she had ridden on the wrong side before, and probably no police officer (or anyone else) told her to do otherwise. I would not be surprised if there are parents and teachers who even today tell children to ride on the wrong (left) side of the road. The best way we can honor this tragic loss of someone so young is to prevent future tragedies, and the way we can do that is to get police officers to enforce the rules of the road, even for bicyclists, and, yes, even for children.