Category Archives: Crime

A windshield perspective on vehicle theft

Imagine, if you will, public reaction to a law enforcement press release like this:

Police are encouraging car owners to lock their cars inside their garages. A secure car is OUT OF SIGHT!!! The Downtown Pct. is experiencing a rash of car thefts. On average 5 cars a week are stolen. In the past you could simply secure your car by locking it. Now reports show 90% of stolen cars were locked. We are attempting to encourage motorists/residents not to leave their cars outside. Remember a secure car is OUT OF SIGHT!!! Keep your car INSIDE!!!

How would citizens respond? Would they perceive that the police force had abdicated its role in fighting auto theft? What about those without access to locking garages? Would they feel abandoned by law enforcement? Probably so.

The  excerpt above was taken from portions of a press release issued by the Savannah Chatham Metropolitan Police Department on Tuesday. I substituted references to cars for references to bicycles in the original, which you can read here.

Obviously there are big differences between bicycles and cars and the difficulty in storing each. And recovering them, should they be stolen. Bicycles are easier to bring inside a building, but harder for police to track when stolen. Most of the time (but not always) bicycles are less expensive to replace than cars. Bicycle theft presents a difficult challenge for law enforcement agencies and the SCMPD has tried to inform and involve cyclists through educational events that stress theft prevention techniques and bicycle registration.

Nonetheless, the department’s latest suggestion that bikes should be kept inside and out of sight won’t be much use to those who are not permitted to bring their bicycles into their residences. Or into their workplaces. Or into stores. Or into any other destination at which a person may need to park his or her bike. Take my coworker, for example. His bike was stolen from where it was locked. To a bike rack. Adjacent to his office. On a busy street. On a sunny morning. Just hours before the SCMPD press release went out. But that doesn’t matter because he couldn’t have followed its recommendation anyway.

For the recreational cyclist, who takes a bike for a spin around the neighborhood and then returns it to the garage or storage room, the police department’s advice is viable. But for people who depend on their bicycles for daily transportation, it’s undoubtedly discouraging. For such a person, the experience of having a bike stolen is similar that of the motorist, who comes out of a store to find his or her car missing from the parking lot. It severely restricts personal mobility, disrupts daily life and can cause missed classes, appointments and work shifts.

Again, the press release is an earnest effort to alert the public and reduce bicycle theft, even if it fails to account for the ways many people use their bicycles. And its central premise is 100 percent correct: A bicycle stored inside will almost always be safer than one locked outside. For those whose circumstances make it impossible for them to follow to the police department’s recommendation, learning how to properly lock a bicycle to an immovable object is essential.

The wrong kind of walkability?

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Lesley Conn’s Dec. 7 Savannah Morning News story, “Package store request galvanizes Victorian District neighbors,” contains an interesting passage. Nearby residents, she writes, are worried the liquor store will create “more pedestrian traffic on an already well-trod corridor.”

What could happen if there are too many pedestrians? Would the sidewalks crumble? Too late! They already have in some parts of the neighborhood around the former Little Kings restaurant and beauty parlor site.

What the neighbors are truly concerned about is not the volume of pedestrians, but the type: Those who litter, loiter and worse. Certainly these are activities that can “undo years of hard-fought improvement” and they present an interesting problem. Pedestrians are often described as an “indicator species” for the health and well-being of a community. A study released the same day as Conn’s story suggests that living in neighborhoods, where many people walk, enhances an individual’s quality of life.

“The authors found that individuals in more walkable neighborhoods tended to have higher levels of trust and community involvement, whether that was working on a community project, attending a club meeting, volunteering, or simply entertaining friends at home. Residents in the more walkable neighborhoods also reported being in good health and happy more often than those in the less walkable neighborhoods.”

But what if more people are walking for the “wrong” reasons? Do pedestrians motivated by the desire to purchase lottery tickets or bottles of liquor cancel out the improved quality of life?

Another curious aspect of the story, at least as it’s been reported, is what the residents appear not to be worried about. Neighbors have spoken with city officials about Dumpster placement, video camera installation and hiring of off-duty police officers, but in Conn’s follow-up story and a Savannah Morning News editorial there is no mention of another negative impact. While some folks will walk to the proposed liquor store, others will drive. Increased motor vehicle traffic on an already busy street will make it less safe for people walking for the “right” reasons.

When is it socially acceptable to threaten the lives of innocent people? When they are riding bicycles

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Savannah has a well-deserved national reputation for being mannerly, a distinction local convention and tourism officials have used in marketing the Hostess City of the South. But it’s important to remember that not everyone in charming old Savannah is courteous, as a glimpse at the reader-supplied content on the Savannah Morning News’ Web site will reveal.

For instance, it appears at least one person in this “wonderfully hospitable and gracious city” feels comfortable boasting about his or her willingness to murder innocent people. From the Vox Populi section of the Savannah Morning News on Dec. 2:

“Please tell all these wannabe Lance Armstrongs to get on the streets with bike paths. One of these days they are going to pull out in front of someone, mainly me, and, ‘adios.'”

Well, at least this person said, “please.” It’s interesting that threatening the lives of cyclists, at least anonymously, is socially acceptable. Socially acceptable enough not only for a person to send this to the Savannah Morning News, but also socially acceptable enough to win the approval of the paper’s editors. Imagine if someone called in these comments:

“I hate it when people cut in front of me in the supermarket checkout line. One of these days I’ll bring my gun to the store and ‘adios.'”

“People who have loud conversations on cell phones annoy me. One of these days I’ll pull out my hunting knife and ‘adios.'”

Would the Savannah Morning News publish these threats? If not, why was the threat to kill “wannabe Lance Armstrongs” treated differently? Was it the intended victims’ mode of transportation or the murder weapon (a car) that made the threat more palatable?

Still, I’m glad the Savannah Morning News chose to publish this comment. It is a reminder that there are those in our community who wish to do cyclists harm. It’s worth noting this comment was published on the same day as this NPR story. It reports the conviction of a driver in Los Angeles, who made good on his threats against some wannabe Lance Armstrongs by assaulting them with a deadly weapon: his car.

As a cyclist, the main threat to my safety comes in the form of inattentive, impatient, impaired or inexperienced drivers. The vast majority of motorists I encounter are friendly and courteous, though increasingly distracted. However, it’s a fact that there are people in this most mannerly city who have used their cars as weapons against cyclists. Others — even if they are simply making idle threats — can easily have them published in the daily newspaper.

Making bikes work by taking them there

bicycle-commuterIt happens every now and then. I’ll be riding my bike to work and I’ll pass another person, dressed business attire, getting into his or her car. Later, as I’m nearing my office, I’ll see the same person exiting the car or cruising in search of a parking spot. It makes me wonder how many of my neighbors work downtown and could easily ride their bikes there.

According to the 2004 City of Savannah Neighborhood Demographic Profiles report, there are 1,236 households in my neighborhood. How many of these contain at least one adult who is physically capable of  a quick and comfortable bicycle commute to a workplace in the Historic District? Dozens? Hundreds?

What would happen if these folks — joined by residents from other neighborhoods — commuted by bike? What would this look like? How would this affect demand for parking? Traffic congestion? Air quality? Public health? Public safety? Wear and tear on streets? A significant increase in bicycle commuting could really go to work on these problems.

H.G. Wells said, “Every time I see an adult on a bicycle, I no longer despair for the future of the human race.” When I see adults riding their bikes to work, I feel a lot better about Savannah’s future. I hope to see plenty National Bike to Work Day.

Calling crashes “accidents,” even when they aren’t

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“Accidents Will Happen” is the first song off Elvis Costello’s 1979 LP “Armed Forces.” It’s also the attitude many journalists and law enforcement officers seem to take in regard to car vs. pedestrian or car vs. cyclist crashes. I first heard an objection to the word “accident” in describing these types of incidents several years ago. An epidemiologist was giving a summary of data on local crash car vs. pedestrian crashes. She used the word “accident” repeatedly until a physician stood up and objected. “Accident,” he said, “describes an event that could not have been prevented.”

His point: Many of the crashes described may have been an unintentional, but to call them “accidental” ignores their identifiable causes and dismisses the fact they they were preventable. After all, if a motorist crashes into something or someone while speeding, driving under the influence, driving recklessly or aggressively, while sending a text message, or in the midst adjusting the picture on the monitor of a dash-mounted car theater system, is it really an accident? When drivers engage in these behaviors in  pedestrian- and cyclist-rich environments, the needle tips from predictable into the realm of the probable.

In his excellent blog, “How We Drive,” Tom Vanderbilt describes the tendency to assign “accident” to events that really aren’t as “our cultural downgrading of personal responsibility when it comes to negligent driving.” Read the full post here, which references another excellent blog. Vanderbilt tries to understand why the term accident is so freely used even in cases in which it is clearly inaccurate:

I am frankly not sure why we are so afraid to assign responsibility in car crashes. Is it that we view traffic violations in general as “folk crimes,” not quite “real” crimes? Is it the “there for the grace of God” argument, that it may someday be us behind the wheel of “a car that strikes a pedestrian”? I sometimes hear the argument made, ‘well that driver will suffer the rest of his life for what he did’; maybe they will, maybe they won’t. But that’s not provable, not quantifiable.

Vanderbilt may be on to something, if comments on Savannah Morning News coverage of pedestrian deaths and injuries are any indicator. As dependable as morning delivery of the paper (at least for now), any news item describing a car vs. pedestrian “accident” will be greeted by comments from readers sympathizing with with driver and vilifying the pedestrian—no matter who is at fault. Many fret over the cost of the car’s bodywork.

This is indicative of a kind of thinking that imagines cars as being autonomous from the people who drive them. I’m guilty of this as well. When I was struck while riding my bicycle several years ago, I described it as being “hit by a car,” not “hit by a person driving a car.” And I’ve done it again in this post. Every reference to car vs. pedestrian or car vs. cyclist above should really read “motorist vs. …”

Clearly not every “accident” is the motorist’s fault. Pedestrians and cyclists sometimes engage in behaviors that elevate their chances of being hit, especially if they are in the presence of motorists who are equally reckless. Still, to call it a draw diminishes the fact that the person outside the car is almost certain to come out the loser in the event of a crash. To my way of thinking, the person in control of a machine easily capable of causing death or injury is obligated to exercise a commensurate level of care while operating it.

Photo by Brittany Randolph via Flickr.