The death of a cyclist while cycling contains within it an inherent irony. We ride to see the world, to enjoy ourselves, to improve our health—in short, we ride to live. So when a cyclist dies while pedaling a bicycle, for those of us who identify as cyclists, the loss is tragic on a grand scale. What could be more opposite of enjoying abundant health than to be struck down by a car?
So it was for Milt Olin. As the former COO of Napster, and married father of two, he wasn’t a nobody, not some random gangbanger shot while riding through the wrong neighborhood, not some kid who darted from between cars and was struck by the next door neighbor. Olin was riding a road bike on Mulholland Highway in Calabasas, Calif., on December 8, 2013, when he was struck from behind by Sheriff’s Deputy Andrew Wood. In the ensuing investigation we learned that the deputy was using his computer as he drove, an activity that’s tantamount to texting while driving, and veered into the wide shoulder where Olin was riding when the road turned slightly. Deputy Wood, fixed on his computer, went straight, straight into Olin.
Olin never stood a chance.
Cyclists are killed by cars every day. Reporting on all the deaths could consume a whole blog, a very depressing blog. So why should we pick up on this? It’s not because this is close to my home or his bike was made by one of my advertisers or any other trite detail. He serves as a tragic example of the way even as cycling advocacy has grown and gained traction, even as cycling infrastructure has improved across the U.S., cyclists themselves exist as some form of second-rate form of life, not entitled to the full protection of the law.
Consider this: Deputy Andrew Wood, who was effectively texting while driving, an act allowed for deputies, but otherwise illegal for the rest of the California driving public, will not be charged in Olin’s death. We are indeed second-class citizens.
The problem here is that for the district attorney to dismiss this as just some accident shows a complete failure to consider applicable law. A man died as a result of Deputy Wood’s inattention. We have a term for that: involuntary manslaughter.
From Wikipedia: Involuntary manslaughter is the unlawful killing of a human being without malice aforethought, either express or implied. It is distinguished from voluntary manslaughter by the absence of intention. It is normally divided into two categories; constructive manslaughter and criminally negligent manslaughter, both of which involve criminal liability.
It’s not hard to grant that Deputy Wood didn’t desire to kill Olin. But that’s not the issue. Deputy Wood failed to exercise the basic caution expected of anyone operating a motor vehicle. And a man died.
That’s not an “Oopsies.” This was a man with a wife, two sons and a thriving career. His departure from this world will touch a great many people. The grief that will cause, the harm his absence inflicts, that’s a real, measurable loss, which is why “oops” is an unacceptable response from the district attorney. If we allowed every accidental death to go unpunished, the government would in effect be saying that exercising care isn’t necessary when operating a car, a chainsaw or any other device that can injure people. Mayhem would ensue.
To be clear, every day people are killed while riding bicycles. Milt Olin wasn’t necessarily a better person, doesn’t necessarily have a greater need to be remembered, but because he was a productive member of society and was struck down by the very people charged to “protect and serve,” he serves as a flashpoint. His death perfectly illustrates what is wrong with the law enforcement community’s attitude toward cycling accidents, an attitude that isn’t specific to California. If we can convince the DA that Deputy Wood should be held accountable, then perhaps they will see that they should hold other drivers accountable as well.
Years from now Olin may be most broadly remembered as a rally point for cyclists to petition law enforcement for greater attention, greater consideration. But for that to happen, each of you reading this need to act. Start by signing this petition with Change.org. And then join the Milt Olin Foundation; Olin’s widow, Louise, could prove to be one of the best cycling advocates to come down the road. For those of you who are in the area, there will be a ride and vigil on September 3.
It’s sad to think Olin’s greatest contribution to the world may come after he had left it (and I’m sure his wife and sons will dispute that idea, as they should), but if his death helps to change how law enforcement views accidents involving cyclists—especially fatal accidents—then he’ll have touched the lives of millions of people in a positive and lasting way. Let’s help him do that.