Summit Avenue Fatality: No Charges, No Change?

(most of this post previously appeared on Ride Boldly)

On Friday, the Ramsey County attorney’s office announced that no charges will be filed against the school bus driver involved in May’s fatal Summit Avenue crash.

Initial gut response: WTF, with a side helping of “you announced this on the Friday before a holiday weekend for reasons, didn’t you.”

Reading further into the reports, it becomes abundantly clear that the attorney’s office is not filing charges because they see this as an unwinnable case, and thus a poor use of prosecution resource. From a government point of view, this is a responsible choice.

The quote from the attorney’s office states:

“Based on the facts presented to us by the St. Paul Police Department, we have determined that we cannot prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the driver operated the bus in a grossly negligent manner which is the legal standard required to bring a felony level criminal charge.”

Which gets us into the findings of the St. Paul Police Department. Based on eyewitness interviews, they concluded that Alan Grahn went through a red light, striking the bus.

Oy.

Let’s unpack that a little. For Alan Grahn to “strike a bus,” in the middle of the Summit/Snelling intersection, by entering in a red light, the bus was left turning through that red light. In addition, the bus would have been in the intersection — or at least moving into it — at the point the cyclist was apparently blowing the red signal.

What?!

I said previously:

If the cyclist ran the red, so did the bus. There is no left turn signal. Instead of asking “Did the cyclist run the red light?” someone might as well ask “Do you believe the cyclist was actively suicidal?”

We have the answer, as it were. A spokesman for the SPPD said:

“At some point, the light turned red and the westbound traffic cleared the intersection,” Linders said. “That’s when the bus driver began to turn north onto Snelling Avenue. At this point, the bicyclist rode into the intersection, through a red light and into the bus. Witnesses say the bicyclist never stopped at the red light.”

The mechanics of this statement simply don’t pass a logic test. What they do suggest is eyewitness bias: Cyclists are bad. They run red lights, even if wearing helmets. Meanwhile, per this same narrative, the bus was left-turning on red, which doesn’t seem to be in compliance with Minnesota Statute 169.19, Subd. 1, Section g:

(g) Whenever it is necessary for the driver of a motor vehicle to cross a bicycle lane adjacent to the driver’s lane of travel to make a turn, the driver shall first signal the movement, then drive the motor vehicle into the bicycle lane prior to making the turn, but only after it is safe to do so. The driver shall then make the turn consistent with any traffic markers, buttons, or signs, yielding the right-of-way to any vehicles or bicycles approaching so close thereto as to constitute an immediate hazard.

Photos of the crash scene place the downed bike in line with the front of the bus.

Nonetheless, the SPPD narrative leaves the attorney unable to make a solid felony case, and lower level charges are problematic relative to the resources required to prosecute. The eyewitnesses say the cyclist blew the light. While they could do diagrams and provide science facts (like how fast a bus should be moving from a stop at that point, or how fast an average cyclist might go at that point on Summit), they just won’t secure a conviction with those eyewitnesses and their “cyclist blew red” story in play. And prosecuting the driver won’t bring the cyclist back.

Unfortunately, you cannot charge a street design with felony.

The statement of the SPPD, based on eyewitness interview, amounts to “cyclist’s fault.” This makes it easy for state and local agencies to minimize the need to redesign the intersection, especially in the face of neighbor opposition. This is not the first fatality there, and there have been other, life-changing injuries in that intersection. But they’ll point to cyclists blowing red lights, and shrug.

This is the world we’re cycling in, friends. It’s not a safe one. There are things you can do, although they may not feel powerful in the face of these kinds of non-actions:

Summit Avenue is known throughout the Twin Cities, and is a frequent ride of both locals, and those who may not hail from St. Paul. It needs to be better. Stay noisy.

Streets.mn is a non-profit and is volunteer run. We rely on your support to keep the servers running. If you value what you read, please consider becoming a member.

43 Responses to Summit Avenue Fatality: No Charges, No Change?

  1. Steve Kotvis May 28, 2018 at 11:01 am #

    I am a daily biker. But I also operate a moron vehicle. I am trying to sort through the argument being made that suggests that it is the bus driver’s fault and not the biker. If I read the description of this incident correctly, a biker riding through an intersection and a bus driver approaching and making a left turn across the intersection, making the bus’ path perpendicular to the bike’s path.

    There are occasions when a vehicle is in an intersection waiting to make a left turn. Depending upon the circumstances, when the vehicle waiting in the intersection to turn left has the right of way to clear the intersection, even if the light has turned red. Tat does not give that driver the right to drive into an oncoming vehicle if that vehicle is blowing a red light. But that does not preclude the fact that drivers making a left turn may be in the right to go through a red light to clear the intersection.

    I haven’t read more about this accident, so I apologize if I am incorrect with my assumptions of what happened. But my point is, making an argument simply based on whether or not a left turning vehicle may cross an intersection while the light is red is not a valid argument.

    That being said, I am very sorry this happened. We all need to be aware and respectful of the rules of the road to avoid accidents.

    • Steve Kotvis May 28, 2018 at 11:02 am #

      (“motor” not “maroon) oy.

      • Julie Kosbab May 28, 2018 at 11:47 am #

        I kinda liked “moron vehicle.”

        Even if the bus had entered the intersection prior to red, it is hard to give credit to a cyclist blowing that red, versus entering the intersection before the signal change. This was a rider known to be familiar with the corridor, and no one who rides Summit with even mild regularity is going to think that particular intersection is a good one to screw around with signal compliance in.

        • joe June 7, 2018 at 1:04 am #

          do dumb things enough, you start to feel invincible, and take more risks.

          you can’t really make the assumption that someone “knows better”. it’s like saying drivers should “know better” than to speed around the airport, because the airport police are nearly always running laser. but yet drivers do so anyhow, under the logic that “i know where the cop is” (or something along those lines. not really important), but eventually, you get complacent, and just speed all the time. and that’s when you get caught, and get a ticker.

          same goes for running the reds at the intersection, potentially.

  2. Monte Castleman May 28, 2018 at 11:46 am #

    It is not “running a red light” if a motorist enters green and the light turns red while you are waiting to make a left turn. There is nothing in the vehicle code that says you need too be able to completely clear the intersection before entering it. If there were it would be practically impossible to make a left turn in many locations like this where there is no protected phase. That is why we have the all red phase that the bicyclist appears to have illegally entered on- to allow such traffic to safely complete their turn and clear the intersection.

    It is running a red light if a bicyclist crosses the stop line and enters the intersection on red. That we have legitimate concerns about the intersection designs or feel sorry for the bicyclist doesn’t change who witnesses say broke what laws.

    • Julie Kosbab May 28, 2018 at 12:34 pm #

      But that’s not what the SPPD report says. It says the bus entered the intersection on red. So that’s the real “what” part of it all.

      The only proof that the cyclist blew the red are “eyewitness interviews,” which can be prone to bias. Any cyclist who rides that corridor regularly knows much, much better than to play games at the intersections at Snelling, Lex, Cleveland, Cretin or Dale.

      • Mike May 28, 2018 at 1:08 pm #

        No the above comment is correct. From the news article linked in the story: “On May 9 at 2:10 p.m., the bus was in the intersection at Snelling and Summit avenues waiting for westbound traffic to clear so Jacobs could complete a left turn to go north on Snelling, Linders said of the witnesses’ reports.”

        So it sounds like the bus was in the intersection, waiting to turn, light turns red, starts the turn, bike crosses intersection, crash.

        • Adam Miller
          Adam Miller May 28, 2018 at 2:36 pm #

          I don’t at all like the underlying assumption that the bus driver doesn’t need to be on the lookout for oncoming traffic (even if non-complaint) once the light turns red.

          It could not be more obvious that the intersection had not cleared and the bus should not have been turning.

          • Mike May 28, 2018 at 4:05 pm #

            “it could not be more obvious?” Well if vehicular traffic had not cleared, the bus would have hit another vehicle, and we’d have evidence that it hadn’t cleared.

            In the absence of that we have the eyewitnesses saying the bike entered the intersection after the light was red. So actually it’s not obvious at all that the intersection had not cleared, no matter how much you or anyone want to believe the cyclist was in the clear and it was completely the fault of the driver.

            If the cyclist had been a car instead, entering the intersection after it turned red, and the same thing would have happened it too would have impacted the front of the bus as it made its turn – would you be so adamant to pin the blame on the bus driver for not anticipating someone would keep coming at them?

            It doesn’t help to advance the dialog about how to make cycling safer if people are going to ignore facts because the don’t fit the way they think things may have happened.

            • Adam Miller
              Adam Miller May 28, 2018 at 4:38 pm #

              The bus driver hit a vehicle in oncoming traffic, resulting in a man’s death. The crash itself is definitive proof that that the intersection was not clear. Because the intersection was not clear, the driver should not have been turning.

              That’s obviously not the end of the analysis in determining whether the driver is liable, but it is the start. The bus driver was negligent.

              And no, it does not matter that the vehicle he hit was a bike.

              American standards of driver conduct are just shockingly low.

              • Mike May 28, 2018 at 5:05 pm #

                You have to ignore both eyewitness reports to believe this. the cyclist was not in the intersection when the turn began, he entered when the light had turned red. So the intersection was clear when the bus driver began turning. The fact that another vehicle ran a red light and caused a crash does not put the blame back on the driver who had started turning, it does not “unclear” the intersection.

                If you want to make an argument that the eyewitnesses were wrong or there is some evidence the St. Paul Police overlooked that would show the cyclist was in fact in the intersection already before the light turned, fine, but the facts as reported do not support that version.

                And again reverse the situation, if a cyclist was turning left as the light had turned red and a automobile driver ran the red light as they turned, caused the collision would you be trying to heap all the blame on the cyclist and absolve the automobile driver who ran the red light in the first place?

                • Adam Miller
                  Adam Miller May 28, 2018 at 5:17 pm #

                  We don’t need witnesses. There was a collision. We do not need any further evidence of whether the intersection was clear. If it was, there would have been no collision. Or, maybe you think Mr. Grahn teleported into the intersection?

                  You seem determined to make this a binary “fault or no fault” but not even the county attorney is saying that. If the facts are as reported by the police, both parties were at fault.

                  In America, that means no one faces any legal consequences. It should mean everyone at fault does.

                  • Mike May 28, 2018 at 5:38 pm #

                    So to be clear then, if a cyclist was turning left in that same intersection, north onto Snelling, and a driver in a car westbound Summit ran the red light (two witnesses) and hit the cyclist, by your judgement it would be (primarily?) the fault of the cyclist because they were turning and the intersection wasn’t clear. Because clearly there was a collision and the westbound vehicle short of teleportation was obviously there so the cyclist should not have turned.

                    Your earlier comments made it clear you feel the bus driver should have been attentive during the turn even to vehicles entering the intersection after the light turned red while the bus was turning. So the question is if you would hold a non motorized vehicle to the same standard.

                    The reason it’s important to understand who is primarily at fault is because you then have something to try and fix. The insistence that the intersection wasn’t clear iso the bus driver shouldn’t have turned isn’t a useful fixation because it doesn’t match the facts and if you take steps to improve cyclist safety based on that assumption you may miss something more important.

                    • Adam Miller
                      Adam Miller May 28, 2018 at 5:53 pm #

                      Mike, how many times do I have to say they were both at fault? Why are you fighting so hard against that?

                      They’d both be at fault were the situation reversed.

                      “Primarily” is exactly the problem, because we use it to exanorate the partially at fault, as you keep insisting on here. Behavior – like failing to watch for oncoming traffic while turning – doesn’t become acceptable because someone else’s wrongdoing was a bigger contributor to the bad outcome. In other words, bad driving – here mere negligence – shouldn’t be exonerated because it wasn’t the primary cause of death. It should be sanctioned on its own.

                      And it does match the facts. How was there a collision if the intersection was clear? It’s literally not possible.

              • joe June 7, 2018 at 10:10 am #

                sorry, but that argument doesn’t hold water. when driving, sometimes you have to assume that the other drivers/cyclists/pedestrians… are going to obey traffic laws. you can’t be held at fault for the consequences of someone else not following the rules.

    • Joseph Totten
      Joseph Totten June 5, 2018 at 2:57 pm #

      A few points…

      1 – That is not the function of an all red phase. They are to clear an intersection for vehicles who entered during the last moments of a yellow phase, and are (usually) timed based on through movements, not to facilitate left turns.

      2 – 169.15 does say that one shall not enter an intersection if unable to immediately clear it.

      2a – The MN Driver’s Manual recommends using the yellow phase to turn left by placing the driver’s body even with the near curbline of the intersection. So this seems to be conflicting guidance.

      • joe June 7, 2018 at 1:14 am #

        on #2:
        (b) Paragraph (a) does not apply to movement of a vehicle made:
        (3) to make a turn, as permitted under section 169.19, that allows the vehicle to safely leave the intersection.

        169.19 TURNING, STARTING, AND SIGNALING.
        Subdivision 1.Turning at intersection.

        The driver of a vehicle intending to turn at an intersection shall do so as follows:
        (b) Approach for a left turn on other than one-way roadways shall be made in that portion of the right half of the roadway nearest the centerline thereof, and after entering the intersection the left turn shall be made so as to leave the intersection to the right of the centerline of the roadway being entered. Whenever practicable the left turn shall be made in that portion of the intersection to the left of the center of the intersection.

        tl;dr, you can enter the intersection and wait to make a left.

        http://kfgo.com/blogs/ask-a-trooper/1777/ask-a-trooper-turning-left-on-a-green-light/

        there are many time where i would legit be waiting for over an hour for a break in traffic to make a left, if this were not a thing. hell, at that point, im going to force a break in traffic, traffic laws be damned! i can’t be waiting forever just because the intersection is too poorly designed to allow for left turns to be safely made.

        • Monte Castleman June 7, 2018 at 7:42 am #

          I believe the intent of this statute is “Don’t Block the Box”, that is, don’t enter to go straight if there’s stopped traffic on the other side that might not move before the light turns red thus blocking cross traffic when their light turns green.

          Whatever the case, on a permissive only turn such as here (which are much more common in the cities than the suburbs due to their relatively archaic traffic signal design and ideology) it’s a practical impossibility to make a left turn without using this maneuver at times. When I was learning how drive I didn’t know to do it and sat behind the light on 50th street, which was then a four-lane death road, through several cycles and a good five minutes. Finally a driver behind me honked and then got into a yelling match with my father (why my father didn’t tell me just to enter the intersection I don’t know)

          Based on the link it seems to be at the very least tolerated by law enforcement.

  3. David Markle
    David Markle May 28, 2018 at 11:50 am #

    Would a protected bike lane have helped prevent this accident?

    • Monte Castleman May 28, 2018 at 12:00 pm #

      I can’t see how it would have so I question why it was brought up. This wasn’t a motorist that drove into a bicycle lane in the middle of the block. That is would be a nice thing to have in general doesn’t really make it relevant to the causation of this crash.

      The only thing that would have prevented it would have been protected only, or protected / permissive phasing with lag lefts. Protected / permissive phasing with lead lefts might have or might not have.

      • Julie Kosbab May 28, 2018 at 12:35 pm #

        This intersection not having phased turns is an issue not just for cyclists, but even in the sense of “let’s move cars efficiently.”

        Summit is all about inefficiency, and not in a positive way.

      • Mike May 28, 2018 at 1:11 pm #

        There was an immediate visceral and off target clamber for protected bike lanes on Summit despite the initial facts as known. Even if it bus driver had been 100% in the wrong a protected lane doesn’t protect in the middle of the intersection.

        • Adam Miller
          Adam Miller May 28, 2018 at 2:37 pm #

          And even if this tragedy wouldn’t have been prevented, a protected bike lane on Summit would enhance safety and doesn’t even require any reduction in driving or parking capacity.

          • Mike May 28, 2018 at 5:13 pm #

            I totally agree. I don’t get any sense of security from plastic bollards. But after this fatality there was an implication that protected bike lanes could have made a difference at this intersection for this event. No where in the article – which was largely advocating for adding protected lanes anywhere we can – did anyone quoted acknowledge that protected bike lanes don’t offer additional protection when you are crossing the street.

            The 2008 fatality also happened in the intersection.

            https://www.twincities.com/2018/05/13/st-paul-bicycling-advocates-call-for-protected-lanes-along-summit-avenue/

            “Bill Lindeke said he was shaken but not surprised by the tragic death of a cyclist at the intersection of Summit and Snelling avenues last week.
            It’s happened before — in 2008 — as have other serious crashes involving pedestrians or cyclists in the years between.

            Lindeke, an avid cyclist who holds a doctorate in urban geography, wrote his dissertation about bicycle planning. He sits on St. Paul’s Planning Commission and blogs about ways to make city streets more pedestrian- and bike-friendly.

            For Lindeke and his cycling peers, the answer at Summit and Snelling is protected bike lanes.

            “Brian Martinson, a bike commuter who lives a few blocks from the Snelling-Summit intersection, thinks the lanes are overdue………Martinson said he spent part of last Wednesday wondering if it was a friend or family member who had been killed. This has been really hard. I hope we don’t have to wait for another fatality at this intersection.”

            • Bill Lindeke
              Bill Lindeke May 29, 2018 at 9:33 am #

              They offer higher visibility and a clear signal to drivers that they should look for bicyclists through intersections.

    • Walker Angell
      Walker Angell May 29, 2018 at 9:25 am #

      Would a protected bike lane have helped prevent this accident?

      If designed properly to CROW standards, very likely.

      https://bicycledutch.wordpress.com/2014/02/23/junction-design-in-the-netherlands/

      There is a reason that Dutch cyclists are 1/9 as likely to be killed as cyclists in the U.S. (or U.S. cyclists 9 times as likely to be killed) – road design/engineering combined with supporters of vehicular cycling (or cycling savvy or bicycle driving) who discourage the building of protected bikeways and in effect give cover to engineers and politicians who don’t want to build them.

      However, if the cyclist ran a red light, as appears possible here, then they could still be killed regardless of road design. Dutch (and EU) road engineering lessens this possibility though as light cycles are much shorter than those in the U.S. so there is less likelihood of having to wait a very long time if you miss it and so less encouragement to run a yellow/pink/red.

      • Bill Lindeke
        Bill Lindeke May 29, 2018 at 9:32 am #

        Thanks Walker. A protected lane would absolutely improve things.

  4. Monte Castleman May 28, 2018 at 11:53 am #

    As far as 169.19, that seems to be meant for * right turns * where the right turn lane is to the right of the bicycle lane. Note that it specifies “adjacent”. In the intersection normal rules would apply, where any traffic may enter on green but must not enter on red; and even if you have a green light you have to wait for traffic that is legally into the intersection to clear first if the all red phase isn’t enough to do it.

  5. Kate Lockhart May 28, 2018 at 12:50 pm #

    I’m also having a hard time believing the cyclist ran a red light. Mostly because – as you said, Julie – I can’t imagine any cyclist who rides through this intersection regularly would ever intentionally run a red here. Maybe he wasn’t paying attention, or his mind was elsewhere and he did run the light. I don’t know. But here’s what I think may have happened.

    I rode through this same intersection yesterday. I was headed eastbound on Summit, going up the hill, but I was on an e-bike so I was going a little faster than normal at that section, likely 12-13mph. The light was green when I first entered the intersection, but turned yellow right after I entered it. By the time I was 2/3 of the way through, the light turned red. Would a witness to this crossing say I ran the red light? If I had entered the intersection a second later, when the light was yellow, and then the light turned red in the middle of my crossing, would they think I ran a red light?

    I don’t think protected bike lanes would have prevented this particular accident, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t worth pursuing for the safety of all road users. However, what may have prevented this accident, and what is definitely worth pursuing, is better signaling at that intersection. The signals just aren’t setup for traffic moving slower than 30mph. And being that this is the major intersection along the crown jewel of Saint Paul bike routes, there is plenty of traffic that moves through this intersection at speeds below 30mph. The intersections should also be striped and painted, to give drivers a visual reminder that there is slower moving traffic (peds and bikes) they need to look out for.

    Honestly the whole intersection should be reworked – the side/frontage lanes are weird and confusing, there should probably be left turn lanes – but until then, improving the signaling seems a good place to start.

    • Bill Lindeke
      Bill Lindeke May 29, 2018 at 9:32 am #

      These are my thoughts as well. Nobody “runs the red” through Snelling. Especially not Alan. It would be suicide. I am guessing he was moving through at the end of the light cycle and the bus driver (and apparently the other witnesses, presumably also drivers) were not looking for him.

  6. Simon May 28, 2018 at 1:11 pm #

    Sad news.

    (I’m not sure that’s the right statute, due to the word adjacent, if I understand the accident correctly. Eastbound bus was turning left to go north, bike was going west, so the westbound car lane would be between them. The bus driver should still yield to oncoming traffic of course…)

  7. Chris Moseng
    Chris Moseng May 28, 2018 at 6:35 pm #

    The problem is that the best witness to testify to the cyclist’s right of way is dead.

    • Monte Castleman May 29, 2018 at 8:47 am #

      I’m not sure that the cyclist would be the “best witness” to testify if he had the right of way. It’s possible he would be honest, but if the light was red, admitting to breaking the law could result in a citation and affect future legal proceedings.

      By contrast the two eyewitness seem to agree with each other and have zero incentive to say the light was green or yellow if it really was red.

      • Adam Miller
        Adam Miller May 29, 2018 at 9:07 am #

        Eye witnesses are highly unreliable, however.

        • Julie Kosbab May 29, 2018 at 9:23 am #

          And have bias.

          This has also been shown repeatedly with things like police line-ups.

  8. Eric Saathoff
    Eric Saathoff May 29, 2018 at 8:13 am #

    According to the official report it seems very strange that all photos show the body and bike in front of the bus rather than beside it.

    • Eric Saathoff
      Eric Saathoff May 29, 2018 at 8:14 am #

      In fact, there’s this tidbit from a news report: “She said authorities put a sheet up to block the windshield and a little while later helped the children out the emergency exit door at the back of the bus. They were taken to a building at Macalester to wait for their parents or a replacement bus. The approximately 30 students on the bus were not hurt and have been transported home safely, the school district said.”

      https://www.mprnews.org/story/2018/05/09/bicyclist-dead-witnesses-say-school-bus-involved-in-collision-snelling-summit-avenues

      Why cover the windshield if the guy hit the side of the bus?

      • Julie Kosbab May 29, 2018 at 9:25 am #

        Yep. Why not cover that side of the bus, to keep the kids from looking out that way, and the kids on the other side coming over to lean over their friends to have a look?

        Kids do that.

  9. Walker Angell
    Walker Angell May 29, 2018 at 9:45 am #

    “Unfortunately, you cannot charge a street design with felony.”

    An engineer who designs a building or bridge that collapses due to poor engineering (vs poor implementation) can be charged. There is a case building in Florida right now over a pedestrian bridge that collapsed before it was even finished.

    At what point do we start holding U.S. traffic engineers responsible for their dangerous road designs? Who was the engineer who signed off on the design of this junction? Should they be charged? What about bad designs being built this year or next such as the 694/Rice St junction?

    Let’s keep in mind that we have the highest road fatality rates of ALL developed countries and have had for many years. We know what better and safer design is (CROW, etc.) and is not. Why are we not designing safer roads?

    • Julie Kosbab May 29, 2018 at 10:01 am #

      In this case, this street was designed so long ago everyone is dead, and there are now legacy design issues. It is possible to sue responsible government authorities for certain kinds of negligence with roadways, but I suspect that Snelling being a state road and Summit being a city street also complicates that.

      • Matty Lang
        Matty Lang May 29, 2018 at 11:10 am #

        Can we put a pox on their houses instead? (Heh.)

  10. Frank Phalen May 29, 2018 at 8:31 pm #

    Eyewitness testimony? That is about the most unreliable types of evidence. Further, I would like to know EXACTLY where the eyewitnesses was standing, what direction they were looking, and were they watching the biker AS HE APPROACHED the intersection.

    For my money, they would need to be on Summit, near but not right at Snelling, looking directly at the biker and the light. For reliable testimony, I would want for them to have seen and anticipated the crash. Horrify to see develop for sure, but otherwise they are trying to remember facts after they knew they would be relevant. It’s a lot of data to process in a very short aount of time.

Note on Comments

streets.mn welcomes opinions from many perspectives. Please refrain from attacking or disparaging others in your comments. streets.mn sees debate as a learning opportunity. Please share your perspective in a respectful manner. View our full comment policy to learn more.

Thanks for commenting on streets.mn!