PART I: The Accident
On the morning of March 29, 2012, while riding my bicycle, I hit and killed a man who was crossing the street.
This is not a story of who was at fault, though at first it seemed that way.
We all share a critical responsibility when we go out into the world: the duty to keep one another safe. I failed in that responsibility and, as a result, we will never get back the life of Sutchi Hui. Words cannot adequately express how sorry I am for his death and for the loss to his family. I carry that sorrow with me every day.
This story is about what happened after the accident — and it’s a story that happens all too often: High-profile cases get tried not in courtrooms, but on TV and the internet. Media fans the flames, the public quickly passes judgment, and elected officials bend the system to secure political wins — at the expense of due process and fair outcomes.
The narrative is based on court transcripts, newspaper and online articles, television broadcasts, and extensive notes and journal entries I made in the months after the accident. To protect the privacy of others, I changed some names. All else is true to my memory of what happened.
I am sharing this not for redemption or personal profit, but because this side of the story rarely gets told. To make sure our justice system treats all defendants fairly, we need to speak up when it doesn’t.
I’m Chris Bucchere.
And this is Bikelash.
PART I: The Accident
29 March 2012, 8:20am — 18 minutes since the accident
Nothingness. I’d never experienced anything like the nothingness.
I had once read that near-death experiences involved being surrounded by darkness. Then, from amidst the darkness, a tunnel was supposed to lead to a beckoning white light. But this was different. No white light, no tunnel, no darkness even. No way to tell the darkness from the light. I simply did not exist.
Then, all of a sudden, I did. I could sense myself again. I could feel — and my first feeling was panic. I was choking! I could barely breathe.
At once, a pinprick of light appeared. My eyes began to focus, and my vision crept out in ripples until I could see my hands prying at a cervical collar.
“Get this thing off of me!” I shouted, my voice sounding raspy and hollow as I gasped for air.
“We can’t do that, sir. It’s for your own good.”
A male voice spoke to me, calmly, reassuringly. I had enough peripheral vision by now to see that I was being loaded into an ambulance.
“What’s happening to me?” I asked. “Whose blood is that?”
“It’s from an old man you hit,” said the reassuring voice.
“Oh my god! Is he okay?”
“We don’t know, sir. Let’s focus on you for a minute,” said another reassuring voice.
“What’s that they’re pouring on the blood on the street?”
“Hydrogen peroxide. Look here: I’m going to ask you some questions. What’s your name?”
I pondered the question for a long time, then finally told him. I struggled with other easy questions that anyone should have been able to answer. I can’t remember the rest of the ambulance ride — and certainly not for lack of trying. It’s as if it never happened.
Bright lights everywhere. People shuffling around, talking. What am I doing in the hospital? I didn’t feel any pain, other than the choking sensation from the neck brace.
I raised my hands so I could see them again, feeling thankful that they seemed to function properly. And the gloves — long-fingered, black PEARL iZUMi gloves. Why was I wearing my bike gloves? Fuck! It finally dawned upon me: I had been in a bike accident. A road bike accident. The blood. The pedestrians. Oh, fuck!
I felt compelled to take inventory of the damage. All my limbs were intact. I could move my hands and feet. My left side felt numb — like when a hand or foot “falls asleep,” but extending from my calf to my shoulder. I struggled to focus on my injuries. I could hardly breathe with the neck brace on me. Also, they were trying to put an IV in my arm while they continued to stump me with simple questions. I struggled to pay attention to my surroundings.
In the spaces between my fragmented perception, I began the slow process of piecing together the circumstances that had landed me in the ER.
Some time later — no telling how much — I found myself in a hospital gown sitting on a bed. In a hospital room I didn’t remember entering, in a hospital I didn’t remember being admitted to. First an ambulance, then the room — in a matter of seconds. What the hell is happening to me? Am I time-traveling?
Nearly everything in the room gleamed white, chrome, or hospital blue. There was a poster on the wall of a cartoon marching band crossing a four-way intersection.
My wife, Carroll, was sitting in a corner, looking stiff and pale. I had no memory of her entering the room, but I was happy she had.
All of a sudden, an unfamiliar voice startled me. Though unidentifiable at first, the echo of it inside my head made me realize I was hearing the sound of my own speech. I was talking — about the accident.
“The last thing I remember is seeing a crowd of people crossing the street in front of me,” I told her. “People were closing in from both sides, but there was a gap — a gap that was disappearing rapidly. I remember braking like crazy and then trying to crash my bike on my left side. The next thing I remember is the feeling of choking from the neck brace and being loaded into an ambulance.”
The moments before the crash were clear; the moments after were like a patchwork quilt missing most of its patches.
Carroll seemed to be in shock. I tried to comfort her with some lighter topics, like our six-year-old daughter. As I struggled to make conversation, I was distracted by my swirling thoughts, this time of my friend and cycling buddy Tobias. He and I had been riding together moments before the crash. He must have seen something. I made a mental note to call him, though it would be a small miracle if I remembered with my semi-functional brain. Oh, and where is my bike? Before long, we heard a knock on the door.
In walked a tallish woman, stylishly dressed in all black: black pants, black top, black leather bomber, black boots. Two splashes of color, both gold, shone from the badge affixed to her belt and the tiny crucifix that hung from a thin chain around her neck.
“Hi, my name is Lori Cadigan and I’m an Inspector with the Hit-and-Run Detail. We know it wasn’t a hit-and-run; that’s just what they call our unit.”
I don’t know if it was her street clothes, her disarming words, or her warm, motherly mannerisms, but somehow Inspector Cadigan immediately put me at ease. I told her everything I could remember: how I went through a yellow light and that I had no idea what those pedestrians were doing there. I told her they closed the gap on me and that I just wasn’t given a chance to leave the intersection in one piece. I pointed to the silly framed poster on the wall with the marching band crossing the street, and told her that it reminded me of Market and Castro earlier that morning. She snapped a photo of that poster, along with photos of my injuries, my shredded bike clothes, and my smashed helmet.
After I gave my statement and Lori took her notes, she stood up and said, with a deeply sympathetic affect, “I understand what happened, Chris. Pedestrians cross way too early all the time in this city. Plus, I’m sure he’ll be fine. This is no big deal.”
29 March 2012, 2:00pm — 6 hours since the accident
I found myself at home, reclining in a chair, without a clue as to how I had gotten there. On the table next to me was an open bottle of Percocet, a glass of water, and an ice pack that I was supposed to move from the table to my head and back every fifteen minutes, a task made unusually difficult because time was playing tricks on me. How did I get here? Carroll had to remind me that she had driven us home in her car.
My beat-up body — and the bells tolling in my head — left me in no shape to go to work; plus, the day was more than half over already. That gave me the afternoon off — but with a fist wedged in my left temple, an eggplant-colored bruise on my hip, at least forty-eight square inches of road rash, one humdinger of a headache, and some fierce painkillers. In other words: ideal conditions for binge-watching TV in the fetal position.
In spite of this, I fumbled around for my laptop and started composing an email to my family, a few friends, and my cycling teammates to let them know there had been a horrific accident but that, for the most part, I was okay.
This turned out to be more difficult than I had imagined. My thoughts arrived in short blasts interrupted by surges in the sting of my road rash. The few ideas I could produce swirled around in my head like water at the end of a toilet flush.
I had a flashback of the pedestrians closing the gap on me. At once, the gravity of this situation began to seep through the swelling and narcotics. I’m a mess right now, but thanks to my helmet, I’ll be fine. But what about the pedestrian? Is he going to make it?
Then, in the very next instant, I’d jump into a different thought vortex.
I told Lori what had happened; she said it was no big deal. Pedestrians cross early all the time, she said. I wondered how long they’d need to keep my bike.
This wasn’t complicated, but it was making my head spin. And throb — even more so than it did already.
It’s a small miracle that other people weren’t injured, too, I thought. It’s a small miracle that I wasn’t more seriously injured. Jesus. Both the man I hit and I could have died. Easily. Other pedestrians could have died, too. The only thing that saved me — in all likelihood — was wearing my helmet. Jesus!
The seriousness of the situation was beginning to hit me — how close a call it had really been. A second or two later and my daughter wouldn’t have a father; my wife wouldn’t have a husband; my parents would lose their son. My brother… My friends… The emotions came in waves — fear, nausea, relief — with each new realization.
A vision of Carroll getting that terrible phone call coursed through my poorly functioning brain: “Mrs. Bucchere, your husband has been killed in a bicycle accident.” Although I had been the one to conjure it up, I was unable make it stop. My head throbbed. I reached up and touched the lump on my forehead. I’m really fucking glad I was wearing my helmet.
I’m not a big crying person, but I started sobbing. Damn, what the hell do they put in Percocet?
My thoughts circled around and around, up and down, as I typed away, my brain playing table tennis with my emotions.
Suddenly, I remembered that I needed to call Lori to check on the pedestrian in the hospital. I hope he’s not hurt too badly. Wait, I just did that. He’s probably going to be fine, Inspector Cadigan had told me.
I squinted, as if trying to make my brain function better, and I read through the words. My thoughts continued to swirl. I felt extra-witty, almost giddy. After all, everyone lived!
Then I rapidly transitioned to a frightened little boy. I almost died. My life and the lives of everyone around me had almost changed irrevocably in an instant. These terrifying images were too much to handle, especially in my battered and drugged condition. So I did what I normally do in such situations: I tried to be funny. Humor seemed like a good shield to keep my true emotions from showing.
On Mar 29, 2012, at 2:16 PM, Chris Bucchere wrote:
Dear Missionistas / Raiders of the Morning, Famiglia and Amigos [translation: Wife, Mom, Dad, Brother, a couple riding buddies and my Mission Cycling teammates],
I wrecked on the way home today from the bi-weekly Headlands Raid today. Short story: I’m fine. The pedestrian I clobbered? Not so much. Long(er) story:
Around 8am I was descending Divisidero Street [misspelled, and actually Castro Street] southbound and about to cross Market Street. The light turned yellow as I was approaching the intersection, but I was already way too committed to stop. The light turned red as I was cruising through the middle of the intersection and then, almost instantly, the southern crosswalk on Market and Castro filled up with people coming from both directions. The intersection very long and the width of Castro Street at that point is very short, so, in a nutshell, blammo.
The quote/unquote “scene of the crime” was that intersection right by the landmark Castro Theatre — it leads from a really busy MUNI station to that little plaza where The Naked Guy always hangs out. It was commuter hour and it was crowded as all getup. I couldn’t see a line through the crowd and I couldn’t stop, so I laid it down and just plowed through the crowded crosswalk in the least-populated place I could find.
I don’t remember the next five minutes but when I came to, I was in a neck brace being loaded into an ambulance. I remember seeing a RIVER of blood on the asphalt, but it wasn’t mine. Apparently I hit a 71-year old male pedestrian and he ended up in the ICU with pretty serious head injuries. I really hope he ends up OK.
They asked me a bunch of stupid easy questions that I couldn’t answer, so they kept me for a few hours for observation, gave me a tetanus shot and sent me on my way.
Anyway, other than a stiff neck, a sore jaw/TMJ, a few bruises, and some raspberries, I’m totally fine. I got discharged from the hospital during the lunch hour. The guy I hit was not as fortunate. I really hope he makes it.
The cops took my bike. Hopefully they’ll give it back.
In closing, I want to dedicate this story to my late helmet. She died in heroic fashion today as my head slammed into the tarmac. Like the Secret Service would do for a president, she took some serious pavement today, cracking through-and-through in five places and getting completely mauled by the ragged asphalt. May she die knowing that because she committed the ultimate sacrifice, her rider can live on and ride on. Can I get an amen?
The moral of this little story is: WYFH
Hoping you’ll all keep the rubber side down,
My head was hurting too much to continue, so I pressed the button with the paper airplane on it. I heard that satisfying “swoosh” sound, and closed the lid on my laptop.
29 March 2012, 4:00pm — 8 hours since the accident
Before sending that email to my friends, family, and teammates, I had contemplated lying down and taking a nap. Now I really needed one.
Instead, I called Inspector Cadigan again to ask about the condition of the other person involved in the accident. I didn’t know his name; I only knew he was male and elderly. The more I regained my mental faculties, the more deeply I became concerned about the pedestrian, and the more I hoped desperately that he would be okay. Inspector Cadigan said that he was in stable condition, but that he hadn’t left the ICU. She didn’t seem too concerned.
Then, out of nowhere, I asked her when I could get my bike back. Soon, she told me. I immediately regretted asking.
Trying — and struggling — to stay focused, I flipped open my computer again, only to discover that earlier that day, over at the San Francisco Chronicle, Ellen Huet, a Stanford-educated journalist about ten years too young to have been my classmate, had done some writing of her own.
I tried to read it, but my mind wandered back to the scene of the accident. The gap. The pedestrians closing in on me. The blood. Scattered, broken memories of the hospital.
After struggling to regain my concentration, I read Ellen’s article.
Pedestrian, cyclist injured in crash in Castro
Published 1:12 p.m., Thursday, March 29, 2012
San Francisco — A man walking in a Market Street crosswalk was struck and injured by a bicyclist and taken to the hospital this morning, authorities said. The cyclist was also injured and taken to San Francisco General Hospital following the accident, which occurred just after 8 a.m. at the intersection of Castro and Market streets, said S.F. Fire Department spokeswoman Mindy Talmadge.
The pedestrian’s injuries were originally believed to be life threatening, but he is expected to survive, police said.
According to police, the male cyclist was traveling south on Castro and crossing Market when he struck the man, who was walking eastbound in the crosswalk. The bicyclist may have run a red light, according to witnesses, police said.
One witness said both people were unconscious after the collision, Talmadge said, but she couldn’t confirm that detail.
Two paramedic units and a fire engine responded to the scene. Police estimated the pedestrian’s age as at least 65. No age or extent of injuries was given for the bicyclist.
I read the article over and over. After a while, my deeply-drugged, post-concussive mind focused enough to draw a few conclusions.
“Carroll, we have a problem!” I shouted through the wall separating the guest room from the kitchen. “There’s an article in the Chronicle that makes it sound like this whole thing was my fault.”
“What? Why? How?”
“You know how everyone in this city feels about cyclists, right? They’re using some really slippery language to play into negative stereotypes. It says the guy I hit was walking in a crosswalk, which implies he had the right of way, but it doesn’t say what color his WALK indicator was. However, it does say — although third-hand — that I may have run a red light.”
Carroll leaned over my shoulder and read the article.
“It also says ‘struck and injured by a bicyclist’ instead of ‘by a bike,’” I said. “If he were hit by anything other than a bike, it would have said, ‘hit by a car’ or ‘a bus’ or ‘a train,’ not by a ‘driver.’
“Unless the driver was drunk,” I added. “Then it would have said ‘hit by a drunk driver.’”
This article seemed crafted to malign the unnamed cyclist as much as possible — without becoming verifiably false.
For proof that the Chronicle’s strategy was working, I needn’t do anything but scroll down. Against my better judgment, I read the comments — all 500+ of them. By the time I had reached the last page, I clicked back to the beginning and saw hundreds more pour in. Here is what San Francisco had to say in response to Ellen’s article:
“Most bicyclists represent the pinnacle of San Francisco narcissism and self-righteousness. Out of the thousands of bicyclists I have seen on the streets here, only one has stopped at a stop sign. It was a memorable sight!” — musclesister
“Bicycle riders VERY rarely obey the traffic laws. I avoid Market Street and the downtown area, but normal everyday cyclists ignore stop signs, lights, right of ways, etc. They think they own the road and always should have the right of way. They cut you off and then flip you off if you disagree with them. Some are curious, but not many!!!! Furthermore, I have NEVER seen a cyclists pulled over getting a ticket for anything! Do they ever get tickets for flying through stop signs, or red lights?” — gldretlvr
“Every single rush hour biker at Valencia and Market ignores the ‘No Right on Red’ sign. Every single one, as many as fifteen at a stop, for a solid forty minutes or whatever. So that’s probably several hundred scofflaws during that hour. They then will weave in between the cars stopped in the right lane during traffic, and many will pass cars ahead of them signaling/waiting to turn right onto Gough. ON THE RIGHT. They pass right-signaling motorists, ahead of them, on the right! I’m there four/five times week dropping my girflfriend off at school. They all do it. Idiocy. The freakin Bike Coalition website has ‘Do not pass a right-signaling motorist ahead of you on the right’ (or similar) on one of their ‘how to’ pages. But they’ll all do it, whip into the pedestrian crosswalk lane, cut you off, and then say ‘F you’ if you honk.” — Kennydojo
Perhaps one out of every three dozen comments would encourage people to remain patient: We don’t have all the facts. Everyone’s innocent until proven guilty. Right of way depends upon the color of the lights.
The moment these — and other similar ideas — were espoused, they got shouted down by trolls.
29 March 2012, 7:00pm — 11 hours since the accident
“Come eat with us,” Carroll said, her tone subtly — but noticeably — different from the first two times she had asked. Dinner was on the table, and she and our daughter, Ashley, were sitting down to eat. By waiting for me, they were doing the polite thing, and I already felt guilty.
“I can’t, honey. Everyone’s saying this is all my fault.” I sounded pathetic.
“But you said your light was yellow.”
“Witnesses say it was red — and I’m sure it was red at the time of the accident. But it was yellow when I first entered the intersection.” My mind, still not quite right, wandered mid-conversation. What were those pedestrians doing there?
“The pedestrians had to have started moving before the WALK symbol came on in order for the crosswalk to fill up as quickly as it did,” I continued. “But the article fails to mention that. And I can’t prove it! It just says they ‘were in the crosswalk,’ never once mentioning whether they were there lawfully or not. And besides, it’s my word against everyone else’s. All the commenters jumped on this ‘red light’ bandwagon. Now they want my head on a seat post.”
“Really? People are saying that?” Carroll asked in disbelief.
“That’s one of the tamer ones! Why are people so mean on the internet?”
Carroll shrugged. That was an impossible question.
I kept reading the comments, unsure of why I felt compelled to do so, yet unable to stop. My eyes moved from one to another and another until they all started to sound the same. Suddenly, a vision of Inspector Cadigan popped into my head. “Pedestrians cross early all the time in this city,” she said. “This is no big deal.”
With these thoughts lingering in my still-underperforming brain, I was able to make it through dinner, trying to find topics to distract me, Carroll, and Ashley from the 800-pound gorilla in the room. We didn’t want to frighten our girl.
Carroll offered to handle the bedtime routine so I could watch, in near real time, as hundreds upon hundreds of people cursed and scorned me — this nameless, faceless bicycle villain. Commenters employed creative tactics to avoid the website’s abuse protocols in order to get their jabs in, and there was nothing I could do about it.
Even though they didn’t know who they were attacking, I did. Watching these people defile me — in what felt like a digital lynching — was absolutely maddening. But as awful as it was, and as awful as it was to know I couldn’t fight back, at least I was anonymous. They hated this cyclist, but they didn’t know who he was.
Then something terrifying popped up in the comments. I thought my eyes — still bleary from shock, the concussion, and the drugs — were playing tricks on me. I refreshed the page but there I saw, unmistakable, even in my fog-ridden condition — my email address and my phone number. Right there in the comments. What the fucking fuck?
“Carroll, you need to come up here, quickly.” She came running up from the downstairs bedroom.
“Somehow people are posting my name, email, and phone number on the Chronicle website. Commenters are connecting me to Ellen’s article, even though she didn’t mention my name. How is this happening?”
A few Google searches later, I found my answer. One of my Mission Cycling “teammates” — someone with whom I had never ridden — had copied the text of my doped-up email into a new thread on the online message board for SF2G, a group of cyclists who congregate to commute from San Francisco to the Peninsula and South Bay. From there, my email ended up on MTBR, a forum for Bay Area mountain bikers. Like it or not, my email had now been posted — without my consent — on the open internet in a very public way. As people dissected it — stripping away its context — that oh-so-clever note of mine started to take on a life of its own.
Dealing with Mission Cycling’s leak would have to wait because I needed to focus on a bigger problem: How was I was going to get my email address and phone number off of sfgate.com, where a mob had been fomenting all afternoon and into the evening? I quickly scanned the Terms & Conditions of the Chronicle’s site and found that they prohibited the posting of someone’s personal information online without his or her consent. That was all I needed. Every time my contact info turned up in a comment, I filed an abuse report, asking for the comment to be removed.
At first, I was able to keep up with the postings. But before long, this effort of mine turned into a seemingly-endless game of Whack-a-Mole. I needed help. I called a buddy on the east coast, who, despite the late hour, lent me a hand in reporting the abuse of my personal information. Even with two people hammering on the “Report Abuse” button full time for more than an hour, we were falling behind. I knew we couldn’t keep this up for much longer. Then I had an idea. It wasn’t a very good one, but it seemed worth a shot.
I pointed my browser to the members-only Stanford Alumni Directory and typed in “Ellen Huet,” the Chronicle reporter who — by including the red light comment in her article — had started this media uproar. The alumni directory listed The Mercury News in San Jose as her employer. I dialed the number. After a few rings, a voicemail greeting played, confirming that it was in fact Ellen and that she could be reached on her mobile phone if it was urgent. I took down her number and called it. She didn’t pick up; I left a voicemail, and she called me back about ten minutes later.
“Hi, Ellen,” I said, measuring every word.
“Hi, Chris. I’m sorry I couldn’t take your call — I was in the shower.”
“No problem,” I said hastily. “Listen, I’m sorry that I have to do this, but everything we talk about tonight has to stay completely off the record.” This was perhaps the first smart decision I had made since the accident, twelve hours prior.
“Okay…” Ellen said tentatively. That wasn’t good enough for me.
“Can I have your word?”
“You have my word.”
“Thank you. So here’s the deal. I’m the cyclist from this morning’s accident. I sent an email account of what happened to my family, a few close friends, and my teammates. Somehow, it’s now all over the internet. People have connected me to your article, and they’re posting my personal contact information and bits of the email in the comments section, mixed in with some of the most profoundly hateful personal attacks I’ve ever seen.”
“I’m sorry about that, Chris. I’ve asked the web team to replace those anonymous forums with something that uses real people’s identities, perhaps even their Facebook accounts. Because right now they’re brutal.”
“Yeah, using Facebook or something would be great, but about what’s happening right now with my contact information — what can we do to get rid of it?” I’m sure she could sense the wide-eyed terror in my voice, shaky from the physical trauma and nearly short of breath from the emotional, painkiller-laced roller coaster ride.
“Are you using the abuse reporting form on the website?”
“Well, that’s a good start.”
“But people are posting my contact information faster than I can request that it be taken down. I’m having trouble keeping up.”
“I’ll call the web ops team and see if there’s anything they can do. It’s late, but I’ll do the best I can.”
“Thank you, Ellen.”
“Listen, while I’ve got you on the line, do you want to make a statement?”
“Yes, I want to. But I can’t. We have to stay off the record. But I’ll tell you what. There’s already a lot I want — I need — to say about this. So I promise, the moment I can talk, you’ll be the first person I call.”
“Thank you, Chris.”
“All right then. We’ll be in touch.”
As I put the phone down, I wondered whether I had accidentally stepped on a hornet’s nest or intentionally kicked one in — and, moreover, whether or not that distinction mattered even in the slightest.
30 March 2012–1 day since the accident
I awoke in such overwhelming pain that the very thought of getting out of bed made me ask myself how it was, exactly, that I had managed to get myself into bed the evening before. I tried to gather my wits and take inventory of my injuries. On the surface, my left side stung with a red-hot, burning sensation: like a bee sting on top of a sunburn. My left thigh pulsed with dull thuds, reminding me of the deep-purple, football-size bruise on my hip. And in my head, the bells still tolled, but not as loudly as they had yesterday. I knew I was lucky to be alive — and lucky I wasn’t more seriously injured.
Putting aside the splitting headache, perhaps the most vexing problem was that my teeth still didn’t seem to line up quite right when I bit down. I wondered if my jaw issue might require some follow-up care. I also wondered if I should call Inspector Cadigan again to check on the condition of the pedestrian. But it was too early to call. I made a note to try her later.
I dreaded the reality of what checking the internet would bring, but the morbidly curious part of me dragged my body out of bed and up a flight of stairs, where I plunked myself down in front of my laptop. A few dozen more comments had streamed in on the Chronicle’s website through the night, but they had slowed to a trickle by the morning. Thank god, I thought, they found some bigger fish to fry. I scanned the site for traces of my mobile number or email address, but I didn’t find any.
I felt — albeit tenuously — in control. Perhaps, with some help from Ellen, I had dodged a bullet, but I had a funny feeling this wouldn’t be the last time I would see my private artifacts strewn across the pages of the media, both social and mainstream.
For now, however, all I could find were more commenters making more negative over-generalizations — cyclists NEVER stop at red lights or stop signs — and more personal accounts of how cyclists are to blame for ignoring the rules of the road, riding on sidewalks, running down innocent pedestrians. Those arrogant bastards!
All this was peppered with the equally repetitive counter-arguments: cars hurt a lot more people than bikes do, and besides, nobody follows the rules of the road anyway, etc. On both sides, everyone seemed either unreasonably entitled to something or bemoaning the unreasonable entitlement of others to something else. And, in keeping with “Godwin’s law,” people eventually started comparing me to Hitler and the Nazis.
For some of these commenters — who hid behind a cloak of pseudonymity — it was difficult to discern the exact target of their animosity, but most of it appeared fundamentally related to how some sub-group — in this case, cyclists — were bringing ruin upon our fair city. If we could only save our city by banning bicycles — or at least licensing them — or enforcing the rules of the road — then we could have the wonderful San Francisco to which we’re all entitled.
This “full-fledged bike-car hatefest” (as commenter queerflame put it) revealed a palpable bias against cyclists. Nearly every adult drives, but relatively few ride bikes. This makes it easy for non-cyclists to generalize the lawless behavior of a small contingent of outlaw cyclists and apply it to all cyclists. Never do people consider blaming all drivers when a pedestrian gets killed by a car.
I desperately needed to think about something else. I contemplated going to work. More often than not I cycle-commuted there, but I was in no shape to ride. I loosened up a bit in the shower and, after some breakfast and aspirin, I found myself driving to my contract software development job in San Bruno.
During my commute, I finally remembered to call Tobias. He picked up.
“How are you holding up?” asked my good friend of more than a decade.
“Well, could be worse, I guess,” I said. “My biggest concern right now is what those pedestrians were doing in the street. You slowed to turn onto 17th Street and would have had a perfect vantage point. I thought I made the light at Market Street. Did the pedestrians jump the WALK indicator?”
“Look, Chris, I didn’t see anything, just heard a commotion as I approached the light, so instead of turning right, I stopped, waited for the light to turn green, and came over to help. Really though, we shouldn’t be having this conversation.”
“Because if I need to testify or I get deposed, I don’t want people to know that we talked; otherwise they might think we’re colluding.”
“Colluding? I just — ” I had more to say, but Tobias cut me off.
“Look, Chris, I’ve retained counsel. You probably should too. And we need to not talk about this. Trust me; it’s the right thing to do.”
The conversation hadn’t gone at all as I had expected. I’d already lost my dignity from the shellacking I was getting on the internet; was I about to lose a good friend now, too?
I tried to put these thoughts aside as I walked from my car into the office. My coworkers’ reactions were measured. Faced with all the drama that goes with running a global e-commerce operation that employed more than 800 web servers in rotation at any given time, these guys and gals hardly ever got fired up about anything. I found that admirable and tried my best to follow their lead.
One of my co-workers, a slim, long-haired, goateed software developer, stood out from the pack. He was of Indian descent, but because he had been born in Nairobi, he identified more with being Kenyan than being Indian — if not with being human itself. As a meeting broke up for lunch, I pulled him aside to say hello.
“Man, are you okay?” asked a concerned Prince, his eyes avoiding the hideous lump and gash on my forehead.
“Hanging in there. All in all, I wasn’t hurt too badly; was out of the ER in just a few hours.”
“You know, I live just a couple blocks from SF General, so if you ever need anything.”
“I know, but if I never see the inside of that place again, it’ll be too soon.”
“Don’t tempt the universe,” warned Prince. We laughed.
I had only known Prince for about nine months, but he’s one of those people with whom nearly every topic of conversation ends up transitioning into comedy. But this time I needed his help, not his humor.
I wanted to bounce some ideas off Prince as I pieced together a preliminary understanding of what really happened at Market and Castro the day before. Armed with a fierce-smelling whiteboard pen, I drew a quick sketch of the intersection, narrating along the way.
“I entered the intersection from the north, coming down the hill on Castro. It’s not too steep, but I had picked up some speed — low twenties is my guess, perhaps more — but I don’t really know for sure. Anyway, I’m headed south down the hill when I first saw the yellow, and my lizard brain took over and decided to go for it.”
“Why didn’t you try to stop?” It was a good question, coming from a place of love and concern.
“It was a spur-of-the-moment decision — my gut thought it was safer to run a stale yellow than to try an emergency stop at the bottom of the hill, which could have sent me skidding into the intersection, where I would likely then be run over by a car — or two or three. But who knows if I really put that much thought into it. It was instinctual.”
“I’ve been there, man — we all have. There’s that feeling in the pit of your stomach — relief when you make the yellow — and guilt and fear when you don’t. So, did you make it?”
“Great. Well then, you have nothing to worry about.” Prince smiled wryly, indicating either irrational confidence or wicked sarcasm — or perhaps a bit of both.
“Have you come down the Castro hill before where it crosses Market?” I asked.
“Then you probably know that there are two pairs of traffic signals — one pair at the north end and one at the south end. The northern signals were out of view when I saw the southern lights turn red, meaning I was already in the intersection.”
“Good. So, then, how the hell did you manage to hit someone?”
I hadn’t quite sorted this part out yet. And I needed Prince’s help. I continued scrawling with the whiteboard pen.
“The intersection is pretty wide — I would guess somewhere between a hundred and two hundred feet — it crosses four lanes of traffic and then narrows like a funnel as it continues down Castro Street, south of Market Street. The instant I looked down from the changing light, people — crossing from both sides — started to close in on me. I tried everything — braking, yelling, swerving, even ditching the bike — but I didn’t stand a chance. Here’s what I can’t figure out: Were those pedestrians supposed to be there? Did they have the right of way somehow?”
“No and no,” said Prince. He seemed overly confident, especially given how little information I had shared with him.
“How can you be so sure? You don’t even know whether they had the WALK symbol!”
“It doesn’t matter! When you get a green light, what does that mean?” asked Prince.
“Go?” I answered tentatively. I had a feeling I was about to be taken to school.
“No!” Prince said loudly, but not loudly enough to turn any heads.
“Green means proceed with caution. It means, if the intersection isn’t clear, you have to wait until it clears before you go charging into it. And the same rule applies to walk symbols. WALK doesn’t mean ‘go’ — it means look both ways, then if it’s clear, ‘proceed with caution.’”
We’d only known one another for a short time, but I’d loved Prince since the moment I came into the office one day and found him loitering in my pod. We worked ten feet from one another, so we always made time for chit-chat and tried to have lunch together every day, if possible.
Certain that he was just looking out for his pal, I didn’t entirely believe his interpretation of the law. We stepped over to my cube and pulled up the site for the California Vehicle Code. Sure enough, Prince was spot on. CVC Section 21456(a) states that “a pedestrian facing the signal may proceed across the roadway in the direction of the signal, but shall yield the right-of-way to vehicles lawfully within the intersection at the time that signal is first shown.”
“So it doesn’t matter whether their signal said WALK or DON’T WALK, Chris. They were legally required to wait for you — and all other vehicles — to clear the intersection before they started crossing,” Prince said, again, with a confidence I wish I shared.
This revelation at least gave me the peace of mind to get back to work. I dove into one of my projects. Like Inspector Cadigan said, this was going to be no big deal. The pedestrians crossed too early. They either didn’t have the WALK sign at all or, if they did, they were still legally required to wait for me to clear the intersection before they started crossing. But they didn’t wait. And by “they” I meant at least a half dozen people, if not more, though I couldn’t be sure.
As the afternoon waned, I couldn’t hold out any longer; I needed to see what the media was saying about the accident. Expecting the best — but preparing for the worst — I searched “pedestrian cyclist market castro.” This time — it was good news. Sergeant Daryl Fong said that doctors expected the pedestrian to recover.
What a relief. The elderly man was going to live!
But then, just as suddenly as it had come, the lightness in my chest quickly gave way to a new heavy, sinking feeling: He’s still elderly and possibly not in great health. He’s still in the hospital. We’re not out of the woods yet. But then again, the papers were reporting that doctors were saying that he was expected to survive.
Later that evening, San Francisco Police Department Captain Rick Casciato told KCBS that “the light had just changed as a 73-year-old man stepped into the crosswalk and the bicyclist entered the intersection traveling downhill fast on the southbound side of Castro Street.” Although I found his assessment of my speed a little spurious, I noticed that by saying that the light had “just changed” as the pedestrian and I entered, he implied that we entered at the same time. This gave me a new frame of reference for understanding the accident. If we both entered at the same time, who had the right of way? Prince had already decided that I did. As much as I wanted to believe him, a definitive answer to that question remained outside my reach. My head, for a multitude of reasons, continued to throb.
Meanwhile, something remarkable happened online. SF Streetsblog started a counter-backlash of sorts by calling out the disparity between the relatively-small amount of media coverage given to all the pedestrians killed by cars versus the whopping amount of coverage about my accident. I took this as a good omen. Dissent in the media meant that the prevailing narrative might get challenged.
So for these reasons — and perhaps because I was still suffering from my head injury — I felt cautiously optimistic. I took comfort in the news that the still-nameless pedestrian was going to survive. And that the cyclist was still just a cyclist, not Chris Bucchere the cyclist.
Inspector Cadigan was right all along. The pedestrian would recover from his injuries and, in the end, this really would be no big deal.
31 March 2012–2 days since the accident
Saturday: the final day of this incomprehensible week. I was still in a lot of pain, but it was manageable without painkillers. My head also seemed clearer, but I couldn’t shake my nervousness and concern about the condition of the pedestrian; in fact, it seemed to be getting worse.
I couldn’t call Inspector Cadigan because I only had her office number, and I knew she wouldn’t be there over the weekend. I wanted to talk to her again, badly. I wanted to know how the elderly man was doing. Did he get moved out of the ICU? How badly was he injured? How is the family? I wanted her to reassure me again that this was no big deal.
Since that wasn’t going to happen, I drove to the store and bought the nicest-looking orchid I could find, one with a half-dozen beautiful purple and white flowers, along with a card. On the card, I wrote a note expressing my sympathy and wishing the elderly man a speedy recovery, even though I still didn’t know his name. I dropped the card and the orchid off at SF General Hospital, leaving them at the front desk. Although powerlessness and helplessness over this man’s situation overwhelmed me, I went to bed feeling slightly better for having at least done something.
The following evening, I spent some time on a website called IFTTT in an effort to help me stay on top of media coverage about the accident. IFTTT — pronounced so that it rhymes with “drift” — is short for “IF This Then That.” The site offered no content of its own, but it provided automation tools for connecting many of the popular sites and services on the internet. By stringing together a few alerts for mentions of keywords, I was able to get text messages to my phone within fifteen minutes of anything being said, anywhere on the internet, about me or the accident. I set the body of the text message to the URL so I could easily click through and read the stories and comments.
One of these IFTTT alerts soon provided an important clue in a letter to the editor from a man claiming to have witnessed the accident.
I had just read The Chronicle, including the column by C.W. Nevius, “Adopting a corner simple way to keep street safer” (March 29), when I witnessed a morning rush-hour traffic accident at the corner of Castro and Market streets involving a bicyclist and a pedestrian.
As far as I could tell, both parties were anxious to cross the intersection: an adult male cyclist going south downhill through that major, complicated intersection, and an elderly male pedestrian stepping into and crossing the street hoping to catch a northbound 24 Muni bus.
This intersection needs a major rethinking by all responsible parties, and updates to make it safer for all San Franciscans and visitors to use.
John Mehring, San Francisco
Why did the author assume that the pedestrian was headed for the bus? I didn’t remember seeing a bus, but my memory of the accident was far from perfect. If the letter writer’s account about the bus was correct, it meant that using the opposing northbound lane to avoid pedestrians wasn’t an option for me, because it was probably blocked, at least in part, by this bus. It also meant that the pedestrians coming from the opposite side of the street might have been hurrying to catch the 24 — or perhaps that people getting off the bus were hurrying to catch the MUNI underground on the west side of the street.
As I drifted off to sleep, I thought how the author was right: “This intersection needs a major rethinking.”
2 April 2012–4 days since the accident
Monday morning. I had substantially less difficulty prying myself out of bed relative to my experience the prior two mornings. Looking in the mirror, I gasped at the enormous blood bruise on my left thigh. Stepping into the shower, I felt the sting of thousands of pinpricks as the warm water coursed over my road rash — as if each droplet was trying to peel off a tiny nascent scab.
I still felt pretty beat up, but I knew I would eventually heal. As the stinging subsided, I turned the water a bit hotter, wincing in pain again from the change in temperature. I wondered how the pedestrian was doing. It was probably too early to call Inspector Cadigan, but I planned to do so when I got to work.
As it turned out, work was busier than usual on that particular morning, and I didn’t get a chance to call before an “Unknown” caller ID popped up on my phone.
“Chris, it’s Lori Cadigan. I have bad news. The pedestrian died today.”
The words “oh my god” came out of my mouth, though I don’t feel like I consciously spoke them. My face turned hot and red, and I didn’t know what to say. The stinging surged through my head and shot down my spine, radiating out to my extremities. I have never felt such a sensation before. It felt like burning from the inside out.
”Lori, that’s impossible! The newspaper said he was getting better! My god, this can’t be right. What happened?”
“I can’t discuss the specific medical issues with you. And we need to hold on to your bike for a while,” Inspector Cadigan said, her voice still soothing and reassuring, but now also stern and a little shaky, too.
“Keep it as long as you need. And please tell me if there is anything else I can do.”
She hung up the phone. I could hear the sadness and concern in her voice. It seemed genuine, as had all my interactions with Inspector Cadigan.
I desperately needed to tell my wife. But I couldn’t do it. Words failed me, completely. He was dead. Because of my actions, a man had died.
The only coherent thought I could assemble about this matter was that it was completely and utterly impossible. The doctors had said he was expected to “make a full recovery.” I had read it in the newspaper; I had seen it online; I had watched it on TV. The hospital spokesperson had said it.
This is not actually happening.
I finally mustered up a shred of courage and called Carroll. We shared the same emotions: devastation, shock, and horror as we thought about the family of the deceased and their loss. What have I done? What can I do?
I left work early, my emotions surging. I called my parents and a few close friends. Everyone was shocked and horrified. They expressed grief for the family, while feeling powerless and helpless. I felt the same.
But during each phone call, the conversation inevitably included one additional sentiment: Before saying or doing anything else, I needed to find myself an attorney.
3 April 2012–5 days since the accident
Still in shock from the prior day’s news, I finally heeded the many warnings I was getting and started calling attorneys. I began my search by calling Lauren, an occasional Mission Cycling rider with whom I had been doing some cycle-commuting. I knew — from an email he himself had sent to the Mission Cycling mailing list — that he had been hit by a car recently while cycling in the city. He had good things to say about his attorney, Jacques Mumford, who, I soon found out, picks up his own phone.
“Hi, Jacques, I got your name from one of the guys I’ve been riding with. I was in the bike accident with a pedestrian that’s all over the news.”
“Oh, yeah, that one. Were you injured in the accident?”
“I was, but not too badly. I was in and out of the ER in about six hours.”
“Good. How about the old Asian guy?”
“At first they thought he would recover, but then out of nowhere he died in the hospital yesterday. Hey, wait a minute, who said he was Asian?”
“Nobody. I’ve been doing this a long time, man — and when a pedestrian gets hit by a car in this city, it’s always some old Asian guy.”
I’d spoken to the police several times and read dozens of news stories and umpteen-thousand comments. No one had said anything except “elderly” and “male.”
“Look, Chris, this sounds terrible. I wish I could help you. But I usually represent cyclists as plaintiffs looking for medical bill payments and other compensation for being injured by vehicles. What you need is a criminal defense attorney.”
“Yes. People really despise cyclists in this city, so you’ll likely face criminal charges for this.”
“Criminal charges? What kind of criminal charges?”
“Too soon to say.”
“Well, what do I do?”
“I would call Ted Cassman. He’s the best criminal defense attorney in the Bay Area. You should act quickly. And don’t talk to anyone about anything.”
“Thanks, I will. And I won’t.”
“Oh, and one more thing. Have you heard of a kid named Randy Ang?”
“No, I haven’t.”
I did, and soon found out that San Francisco, unlike most other cities, had a concerning history of overcharging a cyclist for accidentally — but fatally — injuring a pedestrian.
About a year prior to my accident, District Attorney George Gascón charged cyclist Randy Ang with misdemeanor vehicular manslaughter for his role in a bike/pedestrian collision with a 69-year-old woman in a crosswalk at Embarcadero and Mission. The news of Ang’s sentencing broke just seventeen days before my now-fatal accident.
The press ate up Ang’s story, causing a torrent of angst-ridden, vulgar, and often violent screeds, as commenters read and remarked about how Randy “got off easy.” His supposedly “light” sentence? 500 hours of community service, three years of probation, and a restitution payment to the victim’s family in the neighborhood of $15,000.
In actuality, Randy Ang received a decidedly heavy sentence, compared to the de facto punishment for the drivers of machines that cause more pedestrian deaths than anything else on wheels: motor vehicles. A study of 434 pedestrian deaths in the Bay Area from 2007–2011 revealed that “sixty percent of the 238 motorists found to be at fault or suspected of a crime faced no criminal charges.”
They probably didn’t see their names in the newspaper, either.
So Ang actually got a relatively stiff sentence, but one that walked a very fine line between San Francisco’s highly vocal bicycle lobby and the raging anti-cyclist contingent clamoring for Ang to serve jail time — ignoring that all the while, the deceased’s widower called for no incarceration, saying, “Our loss is done.”
I put in a call to Ang’s attorney, Tony Brass, and he told me that the pedestrian, Didi Cherney, was about to finish lawfully crossing Embarcadero Street with a group of several others in a crosswalk with the clear right of way. Ang then ran a late red light — stale to the point of being near the next green cycle — and collided with her. Tony said he immediately admitted to blowing the red and failing to yield the right of way to a lawfully-crossing pedestrian. Then he made a plea deal and received a sentence similar to that of some motorists, which may have been stiffened up a bit because the cyclist was clearly at fault. Perhaps the heavier charges also had something to do with the overwhelmingly negative public reaction to anything involving people who ride bicycles in San Francisco.
Commenters whipped themselves into a frenzy over Randolph Ang and Didi Cherney, but the stories about Ang quickly faded into obscurity as attention turned toward the next controversy. If the Chronicle’s online comment forums were to be believed, however, many in the city were left with the mistaken impression that cyclists always get off easy.
4 April 2012–6 days since the accident
The two-story offices of Arguedas, Cassman, & Headley conveyed a modest sophistication that included, in the waiting area, a large print of the churning whitewater that succeeds the crash of a great wave. I sat in the lobby and played with my phone, not really knowing what to expect.
After a short while, a slight man strode down the stairs. He wore black jeans, a fitted, dark-gray dress shirt, and minimalist athletic shoes. A few wisps of silver hair remained upon his otherwise bald head to complement his gray goatee and slate-blue eyes.
“Ted Cassman,” the man said, as he stuck out his hand. “I’ve gathered a team in a conference room. Come on upstairs and tell us what happened.”
Ted led me into a large room and introduced Cris Arguedas and several other folks — junior attorneys, contract private-investigator types and the like. I had the floor, so I recited my account of the events of the week prior — the same account I had given to the police — along with printed emails exchanged between Inspector Cadigan and me in the days after the accident as I continued to cooperate fully with their investigation. I took a deep breath, suspecting that those in the room could sense the gravity of the situation.
“So, then there’s this awful email,” I said with chagrin, as I produced the final piece of paper I intended to hand to the folks who I would likely soon entrust with my future.
I held the paper in my hands and stared at the words I had written not even a week ago. How I hated those loathsome words! They felt foreign to me, as if they were written by someone on drugs, in a fog; by someone who had most of his screws loose.
“It’s this glib, post-concussion rambling email I sent to my family and my teammates, primarily so that they would know that I had been in a serious accident, but that I was — mostly — okay. One or more ‘teammates’ forwarded the email around, and now it’s bouncing from one online bike forum to another. It’s only a matter of time before the media are gonna get their hands on this.”
I handed the printed email to Cris, and the room sat silently as she quickly read it to herself. She looked up, but didn’t speak. After a few moments, I could no longer bear the silence, so I spoke first.
“It’s not incriminating, right?” I didn’t think that it was, but I wanted to be sure.
“Incriminating? No. Callous? Yes.”
“I had a concussion and didn’t really know what I was — ”
Ted stopped me in my tracks. From this point forward, he did the talking. “Right now the email doesn’t matter. What does matter is this: Because the pedestrian died, you could be charged with vehicular manslaughter, which carries a sentence of up to a year in county jail.”
I swallowed hard. For the first time in my life, I faced the prospect of going to jail. Ted must have seen the color drain from my face, because he then said, “Our first priority is making sure you don’t get charged.”
“That would be great. I don’t feel like I broke any laws out there, and I’ve been nothing but cooperative. I’m sure they’ll understand that it was nothing more than a tragic accident.”
“We’ll see about that. In the meantime, you are forbidden from speaking with anyone: the pedestrian’s family, journalists, the cops, insurance companies — no one. If anyone contacts you, send them to me. Do you understand?”
“I do,” I said, mostly because I feared the consequences of saying anything else.
“And if anything you experience strikes you as wrong or unfair, write it down, okay?”
“I’ve already started.”
“Good. My bill rate is $760 an hour. We’ll need to establish a retainer and an expense account. A $10,000 retainer and $4,000 in the expense account will do for now.”
The words for now sounded ominous. But, if I wanted the best criminal defense attorney in the Bay Area in my corner, it was going to cost me. I set up a wire transfer for the amount they needed. Fortunately, my wife and I had been saving aggressively for the past fifteen years, so we had some emergency cash in a separate account reserved for the unfortunate circumstances in life that just can’t be predicted.
Like being charged with vehicular manslaughter for riding a bicycle.
>> Continue to PART II: Dirty Laundry
For a closer look at the research behind Bikelash, visit the companion GitHub project.