Ride Boldly!

Bikes, bicycling, and road safety.

Bicycle Headlights

On Cyclist Fatalities & The Meaning of Statements

Bike LightLast Friday, a young cyclist named Elyse Stern was killed in a collision at Lake and Cedar Avenues in Minneapolis. The time was 2:15 a.m.

There has been a lot of hubbub, and in certain cases outrage, that the Minneapolis police specifically called out that the cyclist was not wearing either a helmet, or using lights on her bicycle as required under Minnesota Statute 169.222.

Here’s the thing. There is a reason they say these things. And it’s not necessarily that a helmet would have saved the cyclist, or that lights provide protection in hit-and-run accidents with drivers suspected of driving while intoxicated. It’s because they hate cleaning up these accidents. And it is even worse knowing that because of issues like the lack of lights (and there were no lights on the bike or within the accident scene), the charges against the motorist are likely to be reduced significantly over what they’d like to see applied. And so, there they are, making a statement, trying to find something to say. So they choose to try to pass a message of safety to others who are still standing, and still have a chance of being in an accident where these things can help them survive. They don’t think the helmet would have saved this rider. They think a helmet might save someone else, and make it easier to prosecute another accident of this nature.

The Minneapolis police, and police almost everywhere, hate drunk drivers. They hate seeing drunk drivers kill people. And they hate seeing the charges against these drivers get reduced. Prosecutors hate having to explain to the families of the injured and the deceased why the charges don’t seem to fit the severity of the results. And when there are factors that can be used to mitigate responsibility — like a lack of legal bike lights — it angers and saddens them.

As a result of factors of the accident, including the lack of lights, the driver in this collision is not being charged with criminal vehicular homicide, which is the most serious charge possible. Instead, the charges have been downgraded to felony hit-and-run, and DWI. City Pages points out that on paper, the accident merits the more serious charges. However, the legal system also has an element where prosecutors have to use state resources wisely, including ensuring that the charges they apply will “stick.” The prosecutors may not be so much concluding that the cyclist was “as responsible” for the accident as the driver so much as they are concluding that the risk of trying to prosecute with that involved in the case becomes a risk factor. Given a choice of some consequences, or a risk of nearly no consequences, they have to take the pragmatic path.

And that is why the police will always call out the helmet and the lights, even if the helmet didn’t have a chance in hell against what came at it.

Let’s be careful out there, okay?

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Author: julie

Julie Kosbab is an online marketing consultant and active transportation advocate living in Anoka County, Minnesota. She was one of Minnesota's only League of American Bicyclists Certified Instructors when certified in 2005. She is a past member of the National Bicycle Tour Directors Association. She has 2 children and 4 bicycles. Find her on Twitter as @betweenstations.


  1. Well stated.

  2. Good points.

    I often drive in Minneapolis at night and make an effort to see cyclists. Sometimes it is easy because they are lit up like Christmas trees with various brilliant bulbs and have highly reflective luminous strips on their clothes. Sometimes they may have one or two bulbs. They are a little less easy to see. As often, there are no lights and no reflective strips, and the cyclist is wearing dark clothes. It is really hard to see them even for a diligent driver.

    I have also witnessed a bike vs pickup truck accident while at a stop light. The rider of the bike literally landed at the door of my car. She was not wearing a helmet and had a bloody lump on her forehead as big a deviled egg. I did not know if she would survive (she did, and recovered well after 100 stitches in one leg).

    Several years ago I saw New York City Mayor Ed Koch interviewed by Dick Cavett. Cavett asked Mayor Koch if he believed in destiny. Mayor Koch said, “Yes.”

    Cavett asked, “Would you walk across Central Park alone at night?”

    Mayor Koch replied, “I don’t believe in tempting fate.”

    There are many risks in life and sometimes we operate on hope against hope alone, but there are things we can do as drivers and cyclists to give ourselves a better chance.

  3. I think the reduction in charges also has something to do with the fact that Elyse apparently attempted to turn across the driver’s lane while he was going forward through a green light. Pulling a move like that, with absolutely no precautions and at that time of day was completely reckless. I think if the MPD was going to say something it should have been to remind us, as bikers, that sometimes we forget we are far more invisible than invincible. Buy a $20 light and stay alive.

    And of course I mean no disrespect — I’ve pulled all of these moves and had my share of close calls. But if we start down the path of always circling our proverbial wagons around the biker in these instances we’re doing a disservice to the next generation of bikers that are going to inherit this very bike-friendly city we built for them.

  4. As a Bike rider I am hyper vigilant, and wear a helmet and use lights at night! My question would be what if she was walking and this guy hit her, would that be the same charge? Just asking since pedestrians don’t wear helmets and use lights….

    • Depends.

      As a pedestrian, the lighting rules of 169.222 do not apply. Therefore her lack of lights would not be, in itself, a violation of traffic law.

      If she were crossing against the light, it would likely qualify for a downgrade of the charges — again, because she would be in violation of traffic law.

      It really comes down to the idea that the highest level of charges is easiest to levy and prosecute when liability is absolute.

  5. I long ago learned to wait for all the facts to come out before passing judgement on these things. Police will often release a minimum amount of the facts and evidence. Media then picks and chooses what it wants to print. They may paint a very inaccurate picture for readers when based primarily on comments from friends and family. I can assure you that happens far too often.

    I can tell you (from personal experience) there are many police departments around the U.S. who do a much worse job of investigating bicycle related crashes than Minneapolis PD. Every crash investigation is different depending on the personnel involved. I hate to see anyone make blanket statements against an entire agency. Does anyone know Ms. Stern’s blood alcohol level? That may still be coming from the ME’s office.

    Lake Street is a busy place even at 02:15 am. Many late closing bars are located within close proximity. The area is lit by street lights, but it is somewhat dark due to a large cemetery on the NE corner. Bike lights are not only legally required for night cycling on the roadway, they are a huge help in being seen. Its hard to see and recognize someone as a cyclist, and afford them their rights, if you don’t know they are there. Headlights are more for being seen by other traffic than they are for the cyclist’s benefit.

    If Minneapolis police are irresponsible about anything it may be by their inaction at ticketing bicyclists blowing traffic lights, riding against traffic and on sidewalks, and riding at night without headlights. They can do much better should they choose.

    Helmets are not required – we all know that. It is also dumb to go without one. Why tempt fate, when they can be so effective. Even a minor fall can cause permanent injury or death. A bike is a single track vehicle – it doesn’t take much to tip it over. If her death could have been prevented by a helmet, then it would have been a very important point. I have no problem with MPD pointing out the lack of a helmet if it will get someone else wearing one.

    If you want to be rebellious and go without a helmet, do us a favor; don’t bitch, or play the victim, if you get a head injury as a result.

    Lastly, if she was indeed making an improper or illegal turn in front of the car, then charges should take into account the deceased person’s own conduct if it had a hand in the collision. It didn’t cause or explain the H&R, but the original collision may have been prevented had the cyclist’s behavior been legal.

    I would be very curious to find out the driver license status and even the immigration status of Mr. Hernandez-Campoceco. He may not have been qualified to drive in the first place. Remember, in Minneapolis the Police are forbidden from making certain inquires about such things. Could that have anything to do with this?

    Sorry for the length. I had a lot to say.

  6. Excellent piece and much needed information. Wish I could get my bike-commuting kids to read it and act on it.

  7. Powerfully put. Thank you for writing.

    I really think you hit the nail on the head when you discussed how the police hate seeing these accidents as much as anyone. My brother is a firefighter and mother is a nurse in a jail, and they are as hurt and angry as anyone when they see the physical and emotional aftermath of a preventable death. I don’t think they’re blaming the victim by mentioning the importance of lights and helmets. I think they’re expressing their desire to see this sort of situation go right, since they’re the ones who show up every time it goes wrong.