Thirty-five members of Philadelphia’s cycling and pedestrian advocacy community descended upon the District Attorney’s Office on Friday, Aug. 16, to demand the office appeal the case of Emily Fredricks, who was hit and killed by the driver of a Gold Medal trash truck in November 2017.
Earlier that week, Philadelphia Judge Lillian Ransom dismissed all charges — vehicular homicide, involuntary manslaughter, and reckless endangerment — against the driver of a trash truck who struck and killed the 24-year-old Fredricks while she was riding her bicycle to work on Spruce Street.
The group who showed up to the DA’s Office was concerned about this case not only because we want to see justice for Fredricks and her family but because we want to change the culture, and the system, that allows motorists to walk away from killing and injuring people without so much as a slap on the wrist.
The odds of getting charged for killing someone with a motor vehicle are very low. According to a study put together by the Bicycle Coalition of Greater Philadelphia and Families for Safe Streets Greater Philadelphia, using Philadelphia Police Department data, only about 16 percent of motorists who have killed cyclists or pedestrians in Philadelphia are ever charged. Eleven cyclists have been killed in Philadelphia over the last three years, and none of the drivers who killed them have been brought to justice, yet.
Perhaps because motor-vehicle use is built into the fabric of our society, is heavily subsidized, and is required for so many activities, the injuring and killing of cyclists and pedestrians are often met with an inherent bias implying that the victims deserved their fate for using the streets for something other than driving.
That’s why this case — high profile because of the victim’s popularity in the Philadelphia culinary scene, and the fact that her death took place on what were once considered Philadelphia’s premier bike lanes — was a chance to change the conversation, and culture, surrounding traffic violence.
We don’t think the driver meant to harm Fredricks. But whether or not you mean to hurt someone, if you’re doing something illegal that you deem harmless while driving, and you hurt someone, there need to be consequences.
Roughly 40,000 people are killed in traffic in the United States each year, and hundreds of thousands are maimed and injured. The number of pedestrians, in particular, rose 41 percent between 2008 and 2018, and are at a 28-year high. Charges are rarely filed.
Along with these enormous privileges afforded to motorists, non-motorists’ needs in the form of clean streets and sidewalks, robust public transportation, and protected paths for alternative transportation face intense competition for public investment.
Eliminating traffic fatalities by 2030 is an important goal of Mayor Jim Kenney’s Vision Zero policy. Re-engineering streets and adding new protective infrastructure will help motorists, pedestrians, and bicyclists avoid fatal crashes like the one that killed Emily. But it’s important to improve how justice is sought when fatal crashes do occur.
Shrugging off fatal crashes as the price of being on the road is a notion that must end.
As announced last Friday, the District Attorney’s Office is doing the right thing and will appeal Judge Ransom’s decision. And while we don’t know the case’s outcome, it will set a precedent for showing that accountability will be pursued for anyone who recklessly endangers others on roadways and that consequences should result when someone unnecessarily takes another person’s life.
Sarah Clark Stuart is the executive director of the Bicycle Coalition of Greater Philadelphia. Randy LoBasso is the coalition’s policy manager.