What’s It Cost the City When a Cop Hits a Cyclist?
After two years of negotiations, injured cyclist receives settlement
The city didn't just settle with one Austin cop on Dec. 2 when it threw $35,000 to Geoffrey Freeman, the officer who shot and killed 17-year-old David Joseph back in February. The same day Freeman waived his right to arbitration and ended his effort to get his job back, the city agreed to settle a case that involved a second officer, who hit a bicyclist in the road and later admitted in a deposition that he didn't know the section of the city's transportation code that governs at-risk road users.
In Oct. 2014, Mark Collins was biking westbound to work on Sixth Street when an unmarked APD car operated by Brett Bailey – a homicide detective at the time – crossed multiple lanes of traffic in an effort to turn right onto Sabine Street and swerved right into Collins' path. A video shows Bailey's car cut off Collins, who had been pedaling along the right side of the road.
Collins remembers instinct taking over; he slammed his brakes, catapulting himself into the air. He said that the next moments remain a blur. He felt intense pain in his knee when he came to, and someone feeling his neck for a pulse. Two Downtown officers approached him in the time before Austin-Travis County medics arrived to transport him to a nearby emergency room. One cop, he said, requested he provide an on-scene statement. "Shortly after the car hit me a policeman came over and asked, 'Was that you that made the dent in the car?'" said Collins. As he sat in the ER awaiting medical care, Collins said he worried he would be arrested for damaging Bailey's car.
Initially, Collins said he tried to deal with the collision on his own. He requested that the city pay the medical bills he'd incurred dealing with his knee injury, and handle repair expenses for his bike. City legal refused, he said, and said the accident was Collins' fault. Collins contacted Cyclistlaw, Lenore Shefman's legal practice which specializes in vulnerable road users like cyclists or motorcycle riders ("When's a Crash Not a Crash? When It's a Bike," Sept. 26, 2014). It took more than two years of negotiations to secure Collins' settlement: just under $3,000.
Much of the reason for Collins' collection can be attributed to comments Bailey made during a deposition with city legal this May, in which the officer said he felt Collins was at fault for driving in the wrong part of the road, but struggled when asked to recount significant and relevant parts of the city's transportation code – which dictates in which part of the road bikes can cycle. When asked about the Vulnerable Road User Ordinance that mandates cars maintain a safe distance from cyclists and pedestrians, Bailey said, "All I can say is I'm not familiar with that rule."
APD has been predictably tight-lipped about Bailey's collision; its public information office merely confirmed generally that a settlement had been reached. Austin Police Association President Ken Casaday told the Chronicle that the department had room for improvement when it comes to officer driving training. "We have extensive training in the police academy, however once you graduate there is no requirement to go back to the police academy and qualify every year, or to take updated training like other big city police departments," Casaday said.
For Collins, who has since moved out of Austin, the incident took away his love for cycling. Before he left, just biking past the Sixth and Sabine intersection would give him a panic attack. Now, he said, cycling is a means to an end – if he must travel somewhere without a car.
Bailey has since been promoted: He's now a patrol sergeant in South Austin. By now he undoubtedly knows the transportation code and how it pertains to cyclists, or did so when he read the code's language during his deposition. But do other city employees operating vehicles? What about the civilians who make up the majority of this city's traffic?
"Texas drivers just feel the roads are for cars and not for cycling," charged Collins. "Fundamentally, that's what it is. There is very little consideration for cyclists, and I think anyone who rides in Austin is a brave soul."