Guest opinion by Dan Moser
First, there’s shock, which turns to sadness. Now, there’s outrage and the need to act.
The facts are simple: On May7, 2011, while driving across the Sanibel Causeway, Theresa Shirley veered across oncoming traffic and struck Tracey Kleinpell, who was riding her bicycle along the shoulder. Kleinpell died at the scene. Shirley walked away – and apparently will now walk away again without taking any responsibility for her actions.
So we ask:
· What happened to the investigation into this homicide? Why wasn't all the evidence gathered and appropriately analyzed?
Why did it take the Florida Highway Patrol (FHP) more than a year to bring this investigation to a close?
· Is FHP capable of properly investigating any fatality involving a bicyclist or a pedestrian? The local pattern indicates cyclists and pedestrians are second-class citizens when it comes to roadway safety.
How was so little evidence collected by FHP that the State Attorney’s Office (SAO) felt it was left with few legal options to seek punishment for Shirley?
Was “failure to drive within a single lane” the best legal option left? Really? Even if the FHP botched the investigation, prosecutorial discretion allows the SAO to aggressively pursue criminal acts if the situation warrants – and we think it does.
Look at the cocktail of prescription drugs (muscle relaxants, anti-anxiety meds and narcotic pain pills) found in Shirley’s bloodstream, any one of which carries a clear warning to “use caution when operating a car." Didn’t authorities deem that to be “reckless” behavior or “driving under the influence”?
Finally, where’s the justice? How can one person take the life of another, in a case where the fault is crystal clear, and the killer walks away with minimal consequences?
We don’t have answers, but we do have suggestions on what needs to happen next:
First, we call on Gov. Scott to launch an investigation into the FHP’s handling of this case and a broader look into FHP’s investigative practices into bicycle/pedestrian fatalities. The troubling pattern of disregard for the rights of the most vulnerable road users warrants a closer look.
Second, we call on the FHP to recuse itself from any investigation into bicycle and pedestrian traffic homicides until this inquiry is complete and any recommended changes can be implemented, allowing local law enforcement agencies to handle these cases in the interim.
Third, we recommend Gov. Scott and the Legislature undertake a comprehensive study into the safety of the state’s transportation system for vulnerable road users (pedestrians, cyclists, and motorcyclists).
Fourth, the SAO needs to charge Shirley commensurate with the seriousness of the crime, not let her off for killing another person.
Fifth, if there’s a legal gap here that allowed Shirley to fall through the cracks, we need to hear about it from the SAO and FHP. While we think there are laws in place that could have been applied here, if a new law is needed to ensure justice, tell us.
Finally, we encourage bicyclists and pedestrians to keep the faith. Cycling and walking are still safe pursuits and a vast majority of motorists do drive responsibly and are willing to share the road.
What can you do? Tell Gov. Scott to investigate FHP’s handling of this case and support a safety study of Florida's roads. Tell FHP (firstname.lastname@example.org) to recuse itself from bicycle and pedestrian traffic homicide investigations. Tell the SAO to bring criminal charges in this case (email@example.com ).
We can’t stress enough the importance of fair and thorough enforcement of traffic laws to keep our roadways safe. When laws are enforced, they are obeyed; conversely, when enforcement is lax or inconsistent, more road users cut corners, engage in dangerous behavior and put themselves and fellow users at risk.
Dan Moser is on the steering committee for BikeWalkLee, a community coalition raising public awareness and advocating for complete streets in Lee County. A more detailed BikeWalkLee statement on this issue is available online at www.bikewalklee.com.