When the cyclist shares the blame

This is a summary of the Wilder-Watt altercation
This is a summary of the Wilder-Watt altercation

Over the last few weeks, a story has taken the cycling world by storm. As recounted in the press, a biker was left holding a $100 ticket after rear-ending a pickup truck. There was a general air of disbelief as to how the vulnerable road user could be considered at fault in an encounter with a motorist. As it stands, victim blaming runs rampant when cyclists are hit, so this story certainly had to be approached with caution. And although this incident didn’t happen anywhere near the IE, it seemed like a situation that may repeat itself out this way, so it seemed like a good topic to dive into.

Analysis

First, a look at what Evan Wilder, the cyclist in question, had to say about the incident, as recounted in the description of the video:

On Friday, May 9 as I rode home on the R St bicycle route I checked my rear view mirror and saw a truck one block behind at a four-way stop. I attempted to move into the center of the one-way lane in order to have the safest lane position if the truck were driving quickly. Before I could finish adjusting my lane position the motorist Rashad Watt came up beside me in his Toyota Tundra. I stretched out my hand to gauge the distance and was able to touch his truck meaning he was less than 3 feet from me and I said, “Move over!”

That summary covers the first 4 seconds of the video, which begins right as Wilder is passing 2nd St. NE. According to Wilder, he said he’d observed the motorist via his mirror at a four-way stop “one block behind”, so he decided to “move into the center of the one-way lane…if the truck were driving quickly”. (Emphasis added.) Right here in just this short segment, the tone of the whole encounter is set by Wilder. Intriguingly, there are several discrepancies between Wilder’s story and what’s in his video.

First issue: the location of the stop sign where he said he saw Watt’s truck.The actual stop isn’t visible on Wilder’s video, so perhaps it was just a minor oversight on Wilder’s part (though that’s odd since he seems familiar with the route). Still, it’s worth noting that the 4-way stop is two blocks behind at First St. NE, not one, which is Eckington Place. Maybe Wilder did first notice Watt’s truck when Watt was at the 4-way then kept an eye on him as he proceeded to the 3-way at Eckington. But in the absence of any such explanation, one is left to wonder if Wilder was actually referring to First St. NE on purpose or if he really meant Eckington Place and just didn’t realize that it was only a 3-way. Either way, it isn’t hard to check a map and confirm something like this

This leads into the next issue: Wilder attempts to race Watt for lane position. Considering how Watt’s truck appears abreast of Wilder almost immediately after the video began and that Wilder states that he was using his mirror, Wilder knew Watt was close behind. Watt presumably had also seen Wilder and elected to go around him instead of wait, as evidenced by Watt’s truck merging over the painted gateway toward Wilder as they entered ‘R’ St. At the same time, Wilder can be seen feverishly upshifting as he attempted to assert his place in the lane.

As it became evident that Watt was going to actually pass, Wilder says that “I stretched out my hand to gauge the distance and was able to touch his truck meaning he was less than 3 feet from me and I said, ‘Move over!'” However, the video again doesn’t quite agree with Wilder. Right after the 0:02 mark, Wilder’s arm can be seen reaching out. But on the video, the alleged stretch has all the elements of something more forceful. Additionally, a faint thud can be heard around 0:03 as his hand hits the truck. Audible contact isn’t expected if it was a mere touch, especially not contact that is audible to a bar-mounted camera. Since Watt and Wilder were nearly parallel at this point, the sound also cannot be attributed to either Watt or Wilder making a significant movement over toward the other. Therefore, Wilder had to have intentionally slapped the truck for there to be an actual sound. This is punctuated not by a polite “move over” as he states in his narrative, but by a far more agitated-sounding “move the fuck over!”

Those first few seconds take place over the space of 50 yards going from about the center of the intersection 2nd St. NE and ‘R’ St.  then continuing down ‘R’. By time Wilder finished touching Watt’s truck, they are well into the street itself. Wilder’s narrative continues:

The speed table on this street is significant and I trusted that Mr. Watt would slow and at that point I would pass him and get safely out of the door zone. Instead, he maintained his speed and then quickly drove over the speed table. I yell again for him to move over and this time he does, but towards me instead of away. I braked to avoid the sideswipe and since he was stopping at the stop sign and my lane had been cut off I ran into his truck.

As they continued down the street, Watt and Wilder were virtually neck-and-neck. At that point, the door zone was quickly approaching. But instead of actually trying to stay out of it, Wilder chose maintain his speed, despite it being evident that he was being passed. Wilder attributed this to his assumption that Watt would slow down for the upcoming speed table, which presumably he figured would then allow him to take the lane in front of Watt. However, many cars could undoubtedly drive over that speed table at 25 MPH with ease. It should be no problem for a full-size pickup, even if it is a Tundra. Perhaps Wilder is unfamiliar with handling characteristics of various vehicles, but it is still foolhardy to assume that someone passing is going to slow down to allow a slower vehicle to take the lane ahead of them.

In actuality, Watt did begin to slow for the table as can be seen right around the 0:04 mark, but almost immediately accelerated as they go over the table. By the end of the table, Watt was clearly passing Wilder. At that point, Wilder was also decidedly in the heart of the door zone as he was passing the parked cars mere inches away from their wing mirrors. As they continued down the road, Watt pulled on Wilder some more. At that point, Wilder again yelled at Watt to “move the fuck over, buddy!” Watt can be seen beginning to move to turn right at the the stop sign. However, as they near the corner, Watt apparently realized that Wilder was (still!) right beside him and turns back to avoid sideswiping him. As Wilder realized that Watt was coming over, he downshifted and slammed on his brakes, which can be heard squealing in the video. While he didn’t get sideswiped, he still ended up hitting Watt’s bumper.

Why Wilder should keep his ticket

Watt certainly was in violation of DDOT Rule 18-2202.10, DC’s 3 foot law, but Wilder is not completely off the hook either. As detailed above, he refused to give way to Watt, even after he’d been obviously passed. Yet, coming from the exact same section of the law as the 3 foot statute, DDOT Rule 18-2202.4 requires that a vehicle being passed “give way to the right in favor of the overtaking vehicle…and shall not increase the speed of his or her vehicle until completely passed…”. In short, Wilder got passed and should’ve given way to Watt and he had numerous opportunities to do so.

First opportunity: entering ‘R’ St. Both sides are daylighted and there is a bus pad that looks to be about 60′ long that directly abuts the no parking zone on the right side of the street. No vehicle is stopped there in Wilder’s video, so he had around 100′ available to allow Watt to safely pass after he observed Watt driving fast in his mirror. Instead, Wilder attempted to speed up and take the lane.

Next opportunity: the entire drag race down ‘R’ St. Instead of even just letting up his cadence a bit,Wilder continued racing along next to Watt and directly in the door zone. That was quite ironic to observe since Wilder stated that avoiding the door zone was his original reasoning behind trying to take the lane in the first place. Every second of the encounter as they continued down the street was an equal opportunity for Wilder to drop back a little and give Watt a couple feet, but he continued to attempt and assert his position even after he’d clearly lost it.

Watt avoids Wilder
Watt’s wheel can be seen turned left as he sought to avoid Wilder.

Third opportunity: end of the ‘R’ St. There is another daylighted corner where Wilder could have ducked at the end of the street. Watt cannot be seen signaling in the video, but his actions suggest that he planned to turn right and the road straight ahead doesn’t go anywhere either. Yet, it seems that Watt did realize that Wilder was still keeping pace with him and stopped his turn to avoid being in Wilder’s path. But even after Watt had seen Wilder and altered his path to avoid a collision, Wilder still rode directly into the back of Watt’s truck.

There’s also the issue of Wilder’s own account. When he finally started braking, he was barely 60 feet from the stop bar and he was braking hard. Yet, he says he braked to “avoid the sideswipe”, not because he was approaching a stop sign. Was Wilder just so distracted by the encounter with Watt that he didn’t notice the stop sign up ahead? Would Wilder have planned to stop if not for the situation with Watt? Since DC doesn’t have an ‘Idaho stop‘ law,

Summary

Wilder deserves to keep his ticket. He’s at least as guilty of any road rage as Watt is and he was ultimately following too closely after he got passed, to say nothing of his riding straight into Watt’s bumper. His other videos also show numerous instances of similar encounters, including some where he runs stop signs chasing drivers. That’s not responsible riding at all. Vehicular cycling does have its benefits and one should definitely ride assertively, but there’s no point in being “dead right”. A little courtesy goes a long way, especially as bikes still remain the minority on American roads. It’s no secret that riders can be harassed for riding correctly, but hopefully that has decreased in DC with their anti-harassment law.

Watt should hop on a bike sometime and feel the wind in his face. It’s a far different world when pushing the pedals actually requires energy, but just preaching or reading about that change isn’t the same as actually experiencing it. For as much of a hurry as he seemed to be in, his trip definitely got delayed far longer than waiting for Wilder would’ve taken.

2nd at R
The entrance to ‘R’ St. from 2nd St. NE as seen via Stret View in October 2011.

Washington, D.C. could improve the ‘R’ St. route. In another video, Wilder calls it “fantastic” while rolling along a street choked with cars. While possibly better than riding on a freeway, those are not fantastic biking conditions at all. A priority bike route should have as few stops as possible, so those signs he refers to have got to go. Though the paint is likely an interim change (picture at left shows old configuration), they should also consider upgrading those gateways from paint to something more substantial soon to keep this kind of conflict from repeating itself. And traffic diverters should be employed to make ‘R’ St. completely unattractive as a through route for cars.

Final thoughts

Stay safe on the roads and stay alive. Ride assertively but smartly. “Right of way by tonnage” means that sometimes, being right and being safe are not compatible with each other. It sucks, but we just have to deal with it. If possible, report harassment episodes. Even though charges may not be brought, the information can still be aggregated and help transportation planners improve the streetscape. A hot spot of complaints is a place to focus on that may not be evident strictly from collision data or Strava.

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