The Toyota 4Runner struck Frank Towers as he rode his green Trek bicycle — a recent Christmas gift — across a busy Montgomery County road exactly where he was supposed to: in the crosswalk.
But six months after Towers, 19, died in the December 2015 collision, the Toyota driver was acquitted. It turns out that hitting a cyclist in a crosswalk isn’t illegal in Maryland.
Alyx Walker, Towers’s housemate, was outraged. In addition to being a close friend, Towers had been a beloved teacher and children’s birthday party supervisor at her family’s Rockville gym, Dynamite Gymnastics Center.
The driver “killed someone,” Walker recalled thinking. “How is this possible?’”
A Montgomery judge agreed with the driver’s lawyer that Maryland law gives pedestrians the right of way in a crosswalk, but it doesn’t say anything about cyclists or others on wheels. That includes skateboarders, people on roller skates, or children in a stroller or being pulled in a wagon. The driver had been charged with passing another vehicle stopped at the crosswalk.
It was a legal loophole that Montgomery police and prosecutors said they had never come across.
“We were sort of thrown when the argument came up,” said Assistant Montgomery State’s Attorney Kyle O’Grady, who prosecuted the case.
Towers’s death and the fact that no one was held accountable for it spurred Walker, Montgomery prosecutors, police and bike safety advocates to push to get the law changed. It worked.
Beginning Oct. 1, Maryland law will give anyone on nonmotorized wheels — including bicycles, children’s play vehicles, and even unicycles — the right of way in crosswalks. The new penalty for hitting someone on wheels will be the same as it is for striking a pedestrian: up to a $500 fine and two months in jail. The law will apply only where local ordinances allow bicycles and play vehicles on sidewalks.
Under current law, O’Grady said, motorists can be charged with hitting a cyclist in a crosswalk only if prosecutors also can prove that the driver was speeding or driving negligently. Under the new crosswalk law, drivers can be charged with failing to yield the right of way to a cyclist or play vehicle, overtaking a vehicle stopped for a cyclist or play vehicle, or failing to exercise due care to avoid striking a cyclist or play vehicle.
The Maryland General Assembly probably created the legal loophole inadvertently years ago when it changed the law to allow cyclists to ride in crosswalks, O’Grady said. Lawmakers failed to also include cyclists in another part of the law that grants pedestrians the right of way in crosswalks. That legal protection now covers only people who are walking, in wheelchairs or riding an “electric personal assistive mobility device,” such as a Segway.
One week after the driver in Towers’s case was acquitted, another cyclist, 31-year-old Oscar Mauricio Gutierrez Osorio, of Silver Spring, was killed after being hit in the same crosswalk — where the Matthew Henson Trail crosses Veirs Mill just west of Randolph Road.
The driver in Osorio’s death was not charged, O’Grady said, because he couldn’t avoid hitting Osorio. The law protecting pedestrians — and soon cyclists and others on wheels — also restricts them from darting into traffic, he said.
The District and Virginia both grant cyclists the same legal protections in crosswalks as pedestrians, according to the Washington Area Bicyclist Association (WABA).
Safety advocates have long called for better protection on roads designed to move traffic, not walkers and cyclists. Moreover, many increasingly poor suburbs have struggled to adapt their auto-centric road networks as more residents like Towers, who couldn’t afford a vehicle, turn to riding bicycles or walking to public transit stops.
Sen. Richard S. Madaleno Jr. (D-Montgomery), who sponsored the legislation along with Del. David Fraser-Hidalgo (D-Montgomery), said he was surprised to hear a police officer describe a frustrating legal scenario: A family gets hit in a crosswalk. The father is on foot, the mother is on a bicycle, a son is on a skateboard, and a daughter is on a Razor scooter. Under current law, police said, the driver would be charged only with hitting the father.
“If you’re following the rules to be in the crosswalk, you should have some protections,” Madaleno said. “To me, it’s just a sensible thing to happen as the result of a tragedy, especially when we’re encouraging people to use crosswalks.”
The crosswalk where Towers and Osorio were hit is particularly dangerous — and busy, safety advocates say. The cyclists, runners and dog walkers on the popular Matthew Henson Trail must cross six lanes of Veirs Mill Road traffic often moving at or above the 45 mph speed limit. The crosswalk is in a dip, so vehicles coming both ways can pick up speed heading downhill.
The road has “Trail X-ing” signs with yellow flashing lights that are activated when someone wanting to cross pushes a roadside button. But that often does nothing. On a recent weekday morning, hitting the button 10 times resulted in vehicles stopping three times. The other seven times, traffic whizzed past as usual.
A spokesman for the Maryland State Highway Administration said a full traffic light will be installed at the crosswalk by midsummer. The signal will flash yellow at all times, warning motorists to proceed with caution. When someone wanting to cross pushes the roadside button, the light will turn to red, requiring traffic to stop.
Magda Jean-Louis contributed to this report