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Statement on Death of Thomas Palermo

It is with great sadness that we received the news that on December 27 41-year-old Baltimore resident, Thomas Palermo, was struck and killed while riding his bike.

As details emerged, and prosecutors alleged the intoxicated and text-messaging driver left the scene initially and had an arrest record for drunk driving, our sadness and exasperation increased. The specifics of the case -– that the driver was one of the highest ranking officials in the Episcopal Diocese of Maryland; that her blood-alcohol level was 0.22 when the Maryland legal limit is 0.08; that charges were not immediately filed; that the crash occurred in a bike lane –- have made this a particularly high profile event. But preventable fatalities on our roadways are all too common.

Each fatality is a reminder that we need to use every tool in our toolbox to increase the safety of those most vulnerable on our streets -– separated bicycling infrastructure, increased penalties for careless driving, awareness and education for all road users. In particular, we need to be reminded as a society what a great responsibility it is to get behind the wheel of a car. It needs to be done with the utmost respect for the damage that can be done. The driver has been charged with manslaughter, though it is small comfort.

“There are no winners in the aftermath of the awful tragedy that took the life of cyclist Thomas Palermo on the afternoon of December 27,” said Andy Clarke, League President. “We mourn the loss of a fellow cyclist, a father of two, and take no satisfaction in welcoming the charges brought against the driver. Heather Cook had no business being behind the wheel of car that day and was a danger to everyone on the road at the same time as her. The terrible danger of drinking and driving is well known and documented — there is simply no excuse for that behavior. The fact that she may also have been distracted by texting while driving argues for the strongest possible punishment — to prevent her from ever doing this again and to send a clear signal to others that these behaviors are not acceptable.” 

This tragedy is another reminder that the legal system needs to hold drivers responsible for the safety of others. Yet despite far too many instances like this one, criminal charges are rare. In our “Every Bicyclist Counts” report, an analysis of bicycling fatalities reported in 2012, we found evidence of criminal sentences issued against drivers for only 12 percent of fatal crashes in our dataset. The League encourages states to pass and enforce Vulnerable Road User laws, like one currently being considered in Nebraska, which will increase penalties for killing or causing serious injury to bicyclists, pedestrians, and other people who face disproportionate risks from motor vehicles.

Too often decision-makers fail to take action to make streets safer, claiming that the causes of bicycling and walking fatalities are unknown. That is why we support the recent request by Congressional Reps. Rick Larsen (D-WA), Peter DeFazio (D-OR), and Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-DC), that the Government Accountability Office (GAO) investigate trends and causes of accidents involving pedestrians and people on bikes and to make recommendations about improving safety. We belief this knowledge can result in better policies and road design leading to low, safer speeds.

With the commitment of all road users and policy-makers, traffic deaths are preventable. We have been working with Congress to require states to set targets for reducing non-motorized fatalities. Additionally, we urge communities to set the goal of achieving zero traffic deaths by a specific date (a strategy known as Vision Zero). Only by committing ourselves to the highest standard of safety can know that we’ve done everything we can to prevent future tragedies like the death of Thomas Palermo.

The League of American Bicyclists sends our deepest condolences to Thomas Palermo’s family and loved ones and to all those who have lost a loved one.

(Photo via Thomas’s Facebook page)

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