How a “Safe” Cyclist can Still End Up Dead



Memorial site for Marcus Nalls. Franklin Ave and Garfield St.         Photo by author.


Last night, I quickly blogged about media coverage regarding the death of Marcus Nalls, hit and killed on his bicycle by a drunk driver. John Iverson killed Nalls on Franklin Ave.–one of the busiest and most dangerous roads that bicyclists utilize in the Cities. Although my argument remains the same today, I want to take a bit more time here to talk about how news media frames bicycle-related deaths.

Compared to other news stories about bicyclists’ deaths, the news coverage about Nalls stands out because journalists are making it abundantly clear that he was a safe bicyclist. We need to ask why this framework is necessary. At its most basic, framing the story as “safe bicyclist still dies” rather than “drunk driver kills bicyclist” continues to highlight the necessity for bicyclists to prove that they do not deserve their injuries or death.

One headline reads: Bicyclist killed on Franklin Ave. Wore Helmet, Lights, Just Moved to Mpls.

Another: Bicyclist fatally run over was new to Minneapolis, careful about bike safety

From this Star Tribune article, Paul Walsh reports Nalls was “an experienced bicyclist” and “despite…using the proper safety equipment…[he] was run over.”

And you do not have to take the journalist’s word. A police spokesman confirmed that Nalls “was wearing a helmet. He had an illuminated front lamp and a rear lamp. This was a bicyclist who was doing what he was supposed to be doing.”

These headlines diverge immensely from the typical framework journalists use to discuss the deaths of bicyclists.

The lawless cyclist and victimized driver

In his research about news media framing of bicycle-vehicle crashes, bicycle scholar Zack Furness (2010) highlights examples of the “car driver as victim” framework. This framework shows how “demonizing cyclists” threaten drivers’ “safety, freedom, mobility, and the general way of life” (p. 129). This framework is especially prevalent during winter biking months. Here in Minnesota drivers often express to bicyclists that they are endangering themselves because drivers could easily hit them. A police officer told my friend, who was rear-ended by a driver, that she is putting herself at risk by bicycling in the winter. The logical conclusion is that drivers will then be victims of hurting bicyclists. This may be one of the most common yet illogical forms of reverse victim blaming.

The “aggressive, lawless cyclist” framework is also part of the victimized driver rhetoric. Normalizing the rhetoric of the careless bicyclist is problematic because as Furness (2010) argues, “drivers often attribute fault and/or blame to cyclists in situations where they are either doing nothing wrong or acting in accordance with other road users” (p. 131). ­

So in some ways, the news media immediately stopped the “lawless cyclist” rhetoric from being hurled at Nalls. And it saved bicycle advocates the immense headache of both grieving a death and defending our rights to the road. But, to back up a bit, we should never have to deflect false blame from drivers; blame that is rooted in nothing but visual interpretation of the bicyclist. Drivers’ critique of bicyclists’ behavior tends to have “little to do with the actual circumstances of a given traffic situation, seeing as how drivers partly interpret cyclists’ level of skill and safety based on a visual assessment of their outfits.”  (Furness, 2010, p. 131)

Rebuttals for safety rhetoric 

Over the last day, some people have commented that they do not see the harm in journalists conveying the fact that Nalls was following the rules of the road and wearing protective equipment. Because Nalls is framed as a “safe” bicyclist then the injustice of his death was underlined and the driver’s blatant irresponsibility is thus undeniable. I agree. It appears that Nalls did nothing “wrong” within the mobility practices that killed him.

But, the problem with seeing this framework as laudable then reaffirms that bicyclists who are not “safe” or “careful about bike safety” are somehow responsible for their own death. Bicyclists cringe when journalists report that dead bicyclists were not wearing a helmet or lights. We get into our defensive stance, ready to fight people who dare to say that when drivers hit a helmet-less bicyclist with their cars the bicyclist is to blame. But if the bicyclist wears a helmet, they are “careful” and “safe” and therefore not responsible for their death. There is something troubling about basing the responsibility of death on the bicyclist and their safety accessories.

Another person commented on my blog post that because drivers do not like bicyclists we have to do everything possible to protect ourselves. That way, in the case a driver kills us we do not have to be worried about being blamed—all blame goes to the driver. Lest we forget that we are waging a 30 lbs vs. 4,000 lbs battle. Moreover, drivers routinely break traffic laws without pause but when a bicyclist dares to coast through a stop sign “it is construed as nothing less than the deterioration of the rule of law and the social contract of democracy.” (Furness, 2010, p. 132).

None of this actually matters

But let us not forget that a helmet and lights will not save you when a van comes barreling at you from behind without warning. A bicycle lane, something bicycle advocates have been begging for on Franklin Ave., will not save you. No amount of bicycle infrastructure and blinding, blinking lights would have kept John Iverson from killing Marcus Nalls. But again, it doesn’t matter. I do not care if you are a 10-year veteran of bicycle commuting or a sidewalk-riding novice out to get some smokes from the corner store. All bicycle-related deaths are equal. They are awful.

For those interested in justice for Nalls, John Iverson has now been released without charges pending toxicology reports.

Melody Lynn Hoffmann is a transportation equity advocate and professor of Communication Studies. Her dissertation looks at how racism and gentrification is embedded in mainstream bicycle advocacy. You can find more of her work here.




Melody Hoffmann

About Melody Hoffmann

Bicyclist, Northside resident, in the company of two cats, mass communications instructor, volunteer at the Minneapolis Bicycle Coalition

20 thoughts on “How a “Safe” Cyclist can Still End Up Dead

    1. James

      Yes, I agree. Although good infrastructure doesn’t solve every single potential accident, it greatly reduces them.

      In general, I also like this piece because it highlights something about the cycling advocacy that I also don’t like: the narrative that we should avoid talking about unsafe conditions because it will scare people from biking. I don’t think this is a totally false argument, and I do try to contextualize the dangers when I write or talk about them, but I am very doubtful that the “encouragement” E in the “five Es” is ever going to get more than a small percentage of people to bike. We really need good infrastructure, both to prevent things like this from happening, and also to get the numbers of people we desperately need to start biking if we’ll ever make a dent in problems like climate change or bad land use patterns.

      Thanks for writing this!

  1. Edward

    Interesting piece. Thank you for writing this. In the closing paragraph it states, “Her dissertation looks at how racism and gentrification is embedded in mainstream bicycle advocacy. You can find more of her work here” yet there is no link. Would like to read more on your work.

  2. bw

    “No amount of bicycle infrastructure and blinding, blinking lights would have kept John Iverson from killing Marcus Nalls.”

    This statement is fortunately untrue. There actually are measures that could be taken, such as a road diet that would slow speeds of cars or a protected cycle track. The point is that both reduced speeds could’ve led to an injury but not death and that a cycle track would have actually placed the cyclist farther away and with more buffer to protect from and detect a veering driver.

    1. Morgan

      I agree. I do not bike on arterials at night in the winter specifically because the auto speeds are faster than on neighborhood streets. If Franklin were narrower, vehicles would drive slower.

    2. EG

      would a cycle track have saved him? or narrower streets that would slow traffic? My speculative response is not necessarily, not if the motorist is intoxicated enough. Part of what brings me to this conclusion is a conversation I had just this morning; while discussing this with a friend and fellow cyclist, he noted that a friend of his was killed off the West Side highway in New York, an off-street bicycle path parallel to a busy street, i.e. a cycle track, by a drunk driver who thought the cycle track was in fact the highway.

      (Let’s also remember that in this case, a van ended up on a sidewalk, aka an off-street pedestrian path.)

      Does that mean we should not pursue road diets or other infrastructure changes that can help make cycling safer? Of course not, just that they are not foolproof, nor will they disprove the existing (flawed) safety narrative that places the burden of proof on the cyclist.

  3. Brian

    bw – Perhaps the perfect combination of culture and infrastructure changes would have saved this man’s life, but not likely.

    I think the greater point is, if a drunkard passes out behind the wheel of a moving car, and goes on a blind path of destruction…even the best infrastructure isn’t likely going to help. He drove the van up onto the sidewalk (where a cycletrack likely would be if one was placed on Franklin). Reduced speed limits don’t mean much to a passed out drunk motorist.

    Yes, lets continue to make headway as a leading city in bike friendly infrastructure development! But lets not fool ourselves into thinking this tragedy was an infrastructure problem. It was a problem of a man who never should have been behind the wheel of a car.

    1. Rosa

      A cultural shift that looked at driving as a very dangerous, high-responsibility activity instead of something everyone can and should do, might have spurred some of the people in Iverson’s life to keep him off the road.

      1. Brian

        Indeed it may have. I was just replying to bw’s assertion that this is was a street design problem.

        I agree that the cultural shift towards a real understanding that automobiles can be very dangerous (and that danger increases exponentially when the operator is impaired) is paramount to reducing these kinds of tragedies.

  4. Walker AngellWalker Angell

    Melody, great post and viewpoint. Here’s a related discussion (Mark has several others over the past couple of months on this same general theme that are worth reading).

    I agree with the posts above that a cycletrack or similar physically segregated infrastructure would have prevented this death. We will never be able to prevent drivers from making mistakes or doing something stupid (though we should continue to try) and physical protection, not paint, is what will save the most lives as well as allow the largest number of people to ride.

    1. jeffk

      I don’t want to trivialize the danger and I don’t contest that certain varieties of separated infrastructure could have prevented this death. But I sure won’t stop riding. People get in cars every day and cruise along at 75 mph next to twenty ton semis without even considering their safety so it’s frustrating for their to be a different standard for bikes, and idea that it’s unreasonable to ever expect a significant number of people to do it unless it’s 100% safe.

  5. minneapolisite

    I have to disagree too, except for the context of what our streets currently look like and very sadly this incident simply proves we’re not nearly safe enough for cyclists as a city. If Franklin had chicanes* at, say, approaches to major intersections they would likely have stopped this criminal since he would have crashed into them instead of a human being.

    Narrow lanes accompanied by -raised- medians (regular ones do virtually nothing to slow traffic) make drivers more paranoid about how fast they’re going and this would certainly be the case with a drunk driver wary about sliding into them.

    Sure, firetrucks and ambulances won’t get through as fast, but the number of people spared their lives would outnumber any number deaths caused by having to slow down here and there. And really, such infrastructure should be already in place because drivers need to be expected to be alert if they want enjoy the privilege to drive and not be on auto-pilot whether drunk or sober (texting, etc).

    Such infrastructure improvements would guarantee safer drivers. Not 100% of the time of course, but much closer to that ideal than we are now.

    You’re right for sure that a every innocent person killed while riding their bike is a tragedy and that’s no different here no matter what steps were taken or could be.

    *google images of chicanes –

  6. Andy Thornley

    “Again, it is as if the protection of offender and victim is deserving of like consideration. This is unjustified: even on the questionable assumption that in collisions between a car and a pedestrian, both driver and pedestrian are equally to blame, vehicle drivers are far more often associated with the serious injury or death of pedestrians and cyclists than the reverse. Indeed, 97% of pedestrians and cyclists are killed or seriously injured as a result of a collision with a motor vehicle — mainly cars. From this perspective, far from it being not safe to walk or cycle, it is clearly highly dangerous to drive.”

    — Meyer Hillman, Destroying Travel Myths: “It’s not safe to walk and cycle”, Policy Studies Institute, June 20, 2000

  7. Jon

    “But, the problem with seeing this framework as laudable then reaffirms that bicyclists who are not ‘safe’ or ‘careful about bike safety’ are somehow responsible for their own death.”

    The statement above is clearly true. Bicyclists who disregard safety – running reds, not wearing lights, weaving through traffic – endanger themselves and everyone else. Helmets are a personal choice, but there are plenty of things included in bicycle safety that are required by law and have a definite effect on culpability. Not riding with lights comes quickly to mind.

  8. Justin FoellJustin Foell

    The media portrayal of this is very disappointing, but almost expected. My wife reminded me that in the age of google, they want the headlines to match “long tail” searches so they can easily be #1. Remember the cannibal rat story? Turned out that one guy said there “may be” rats onboard – that’s it. Result: totally unconfirmed internet sensation about ship lost at sea.

    So they assume that simply “Drunk driver kills bicyclist” won’t optimize well for search – when in fact it’s still #1.

    To them it’s easier to point out what’s different. Hey, this bicyclist was wearing a helmet! Never mind that what amounts to a foam hat is not going to help when a van lands on top of you.

    Frustrating? Yes. Expected? Sadly also yes. That’s why I rarely watch network news.

  9. Jeremy MendelsonJeremy Mendelson

    I really cannot see stories like this as anything other that a clear reminder that cars need to be removed from all of our public spaces. We have been asking people not to drive drunk for decades, yet we design our cities in ways that basically require car travel and have no way to prevent dangerous people from operating dangerous machines.

    Minneapolis is not really a bike friendly city if we have to keep dealing with this madness.

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