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Blaming Victim Gives Society False Sense of Security 7

 hit-and-run-victim-Tom-Samson-with-his-wife-and-two-children-photo-courtesy-of-Samson-family

Tom Samson – the cyclist killed on Nov 23, 2012 with his family prior to his death – Photo courtesy of the Samson family

When Grade 2 teacher Tom Samson was killed on his bicycle early in the morning on November 23rd 2012, Toronto Police had told Samson’s wife that he was struck and killed by a van after Samson illegally went through a red light on his bicycle.

The driver of the van fled after killing Samson and was later charged with failing to remain at the scene.

Perhaps family members of other victims may have accepted the police version of the events and tried to move on with their lives. But something didn’t add up for Samson’s widow – Kasia Briegmann-Samson. Tom Samson was always a safe rider, and it didn’t make sense that he would have run a red light – nor did it make sense that he would be travelling northbound at that particular intersection.

So Briegmann-Samson hired a prominent criminal lawyer to probe the police investigation to determine whether Samson was indeed responsible for his own death or not.

Now that the death is being probed, the official version of the story has changed. It turns out that Samson was not running a red light at all, nor was he travelling northbound, as had been indicated in the official police report.

Samson was apparently stationary, or near stationary, waiting to make a left turn when he was struck and killed.

It also turns out that the 23-year-old driver who killed Samson had eight driving infractions between July 2010 and December 2012.

The Toronto Star highlights that the police in our car-centric society are quick to blame the victim rather than doing the work to perform a thorough investigation:

“A drug-dealing criminal who is shot and killed during a deal gone bad gets a higher degree of investigative services from the TPS,” Sapiano wrote in a letter to the Toronto Police Service.

A veteran Toronto police officer, whose husband was killed in 2007 while riding his bike to work, is quoted in the Star article:

“Part of the problem is you have these traffic investigators who’ve never ridden a bike before in their life, never cycled, and they really have no sense of what it’s like to be on a bike on the road,” she says.

“They investigate it from a very biased, driver-supported view, which I think happened in this case.”

She describes an interview that was performed by police with the man who killed her husband:

“it wasn’t an investigative interview at all; they already made up their mind. It was a formality.” No one was charged.

Tom Samson’s widow explains why society might tolerate these deaths and blame the victim:

She says that in some respects, people feel comforted when a victim appears to have contributed to his or her death. “It’s a big relief — that it’s a freak accident, he did something wrong. It’s reassuring and gives a completely false sense of security.”

Read the full article on the Toronto Star

Time after time we have seen victims being blamed for their own death – for not wearing a helmet, or for walking outside wearing dark clothing. The police tend to make excuses for drivers: “this was an unfortunate accident where the driver couldn’t see the pedestrian when he turned the corner”, or “it was dark outside and the cyclist wasn’t wearing reflective gear”.

In the absence of blatant driver misbehaviour, such as driving while intoxicated, drivers are more often than not let off the hook and not charged with the deaths they caused, often through negligence or distracted driving.

Sometimes the police and media blame pedestrians when their behaviour clearly had nothing to do with causing a collision. A recent article in the Toronto Star discussed pedestrian misbehaviour while discussing a collision where an illegal manoeuvre by a driver resulted in the driver mounting the sidewalk and injuring 10 people – including 6 pedestrians.

There are dozens of excuses and rationalizations that we make as a society to avoid the uncomfortable task of challenging our car culture and getting to the root cause of these deaths.

By blaming the victims, it saves police the time consuming task of doing a thorough, proper investigation. It reinforces society’s belief that cycling is dangerous and when a cyclist or pedestrian dies it’s nothing more than an unfortunate accident – collateral damage.

If a highway bridge were to collapse and someone was killed, you can be sure the root cause would be thoroughly and exhaustively investigated. Our society sees a bridge collapse as an avoidable situation. But police avoid thoroughly investigating cyclist or pedestrian deaths because our society views cyclist and pedestrian deaths as an acceptable cost to our car culture.

In reality, these are avoidable collisions and couldn’t be further from unavoidable “accidents”. If we continue to not hold drivers accountable, we will continue to have unnecessary, avoidable deaths on our streets.

Tom Samson was Toronto’s 39th traffic fatality in 2012. My deepest condolences go out to Samson’s family for the pain they have suffered as a result of his death as well as the salt on the wound caused by the apparent incompetence by the police investigation.

James D. Schwartz is the Editor of The Urban Country and is based in Toronto, Canada. You can contact James at james.schwartz@theurbancountry.com or follow him on Twitter.

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  • dr2chase
  • smartygirl

    this is so upsetting. every day, i see drivers, cyclists, and pedestrians all taking unnecessary risks. i follow all the rules as thoroughly as possible (well, with a bit of jaywalking thrown in), and it’s kind of terrifying to know that even when a person does everything right, and someone else does things flagrantly wrong, the toronto police and canadian justice system will let them walk away unpunished. funny how in almost every accident, no matter the types of vehicles involved (i.e. even in a case where it is all cars), it’s always the driver who causes the accident who walks away unscathed.

  • Har Davids

    In most countries cyclists are a, often derided, minority which is fighting to be taken seriously. This group knows how to travel from A to B in a very efficient and non-polluting way, unlike most of the motorists who see their interest in the safe hands of politicians and the lobbyists for oil and cars.

    Maybe, if a relative of politicians were to take up cycling with fatal restults, we might see a change in traffic-law and infrastructure.

  • Kam

    I walk, I cycle and I drive. I do my best to pay attention and remain courteous at all times, whichever mode of transport I’ve chosen at that time. Perhaps the civil or criminal penalties are not severe enough to pose a significant deterrent. But even if they were, prosecution and punishment always comes after the fact. The police should do their job, as you call out. But we should all take responsibility to protect ourselves and others BEFORE the fact, while it’s not too late for prevention. No one else has that responsibility.

    • http://www.theurbancountry.com James Schwartz

      Kam, I agree that punishment generally isn’t necessarily a deterrent. The United States is a case study for this. But I’m not even asking for harsher punishment necessarily. I’m simply asking the police and the media to hold people accountable. I’m asking them to investigate the root cause of this collision, educate the public on what went wrong and attempt to do something to prevent this from happening again.

      Perhaps we would find that this particular intersection is in dire need of some bike infrastructure to allow a safe left hand turn. Or perhaps they would find that the 23-year-old who was behind the wheel shouldn’t have had a license in the first place after having 8 convictions in a 2-year period.

      When the police shrug it off and blame the cyclist for contributing to his own death, it contributes to making the situation worse for everyone. Nothing improves, and it sends a message that drivers are free to carry on driving dangerously and putting others at risk. It perpetuates the problem.

      What I’m trying to do here is change perception to prevent collisions before they happen. The media and the police have the unique ability to influence this and proactively make our streets safer by doing a proper investigation, reducing their bias towards car culture, prosecuting the aggressor appropriately and educating the public on safe driving practices. The media and municipality can take that information and attempt to design our streets better to improve safety. When they blame the victim we miss all of these important steps to improving safety.

  • sharkbait

    That dude driving that van needs to go to jail. Even if Samson HAD crossed against a red, which he didn’t, that guy ran him over, then took off from the scene and left him to die in the road like a raccoon.

    Just based on that total disregard for a human life…Jail time. Do not pass go. do not collect $200.

  • concerned citizen

    Thank you so much for bringing this story to our attention. I find it unbelievable that the investigators didn’t spend more time gathering information. After all, a human being was killed. Not only that, the guilty party drove off and the victim was left for dead. I missed the original story in the Toronto Star. I hope that you will do a follow-up when further details about this story emerge.
    The present outcome of this investigation is unacceptable.