Witness: Lauren Davis Was Biking With Traffic, Not Against, as NYPD Claimed

A witness who was biking behind Lauren Davis at the time she was struck and killed by a turning driver on the morning of April 15 says she is “absolutely sure [Davis] was not biking against traffic.”

As head of NYPD Highway Patrol, Deputy Inspector Michael Ameri is responsible for police crash investigations.

The eyewitness account directly contradicts the version of events police have propagated since the immediate aftermath of the crash, when NYPD told several news outlets, including Streetsblog, that Davis was biking against traffic.

The discrepancy fits a pattern of police bias, in which NYPD supplies reporters with information exonerating drivers who kill pedestrians or cyclists immediately after a crash, forming the basis of most media coverage. With alarming regularity, those initial NYPD reports and press accounts are proven erroneous when witness testimony or video evidence implicating the driver surfaces later on.

No charges have been filed against the driver who killed Lauren Davis.

Rebecca Ballantine was biking north on Classon Avenue at around 8:30 a.m. that Friday after seeing her son onto a school bus. She first noticed Davis stopped at a red light facing north on Classon at the intersection of Gates Avenue, wearing a helmet. Ballantine proceeded when there was a gap in traffic, before the light turned green, she said, while Davis stayed behind.

Soon after, Davis overtook Ballantine heading north, in the direction of traffic. Davis worked at Pratt, and Classon would have taken her to the campus.

At the time the driver, a 41-year-old woman, struck Davis at Lexington Avenue, two blocks north of Gates, Ballantine says she was behind Davis but less than a block away.

Ballantine said her impression of the lead-up to the collision is not completely clear, but she saw the moment of impact. “I thought [Davis] was going [straight] on Classon as the driver made the turn,” she said, describing a “left-hook” scenario in which the driver failed to yield. (NYPD told reporters that the driver turned left from Classon onto Lexington.)

One thing Ballantine is certain of is that Davis, contrary to NYPD’s account, was not riding the wrong way. “I am absolutely sure she was not biking against traffic,” she said. “I was very aware of her.”

After the collision, Ballantine saw Davis lying on the ground on Lexington, and “the driver was slowing but had not come to a complete stop,” she said. Then the driver stopped and got out of the car.

“The driver was screaming, ‘She ran a light!’ Which was not true,” said Ballantine. “[The driver] was clearly in complete distress, she was distraught.”

Davis, meanwhile, “wasn’t talking coherently,” said Ballantine. “She was trying to get up but she couldn’t.” Outwardly, she said, the injuries did not appear to be life-threatening.

Almost immediately, a black car pulled up and two men with two-way radios called in the address. Ballantine assumed they were police and left the scene to head to work.

A week after the crash, on Friday the 22nd, NYPD investigators reached Ballantine and took her statement, she said. Police told her they have video of Davis passing her, indicating that NYPD now has visual evidence that Davis was biking north on Classon, in the direction of traffic.

But as of this afternoon, NYPD’s crash report still says Davis was traveling south when she was struck, and no charges have been filed against the driver. NYPD’s public information office could not say how crash investigators determined Davis’s direction of travel.

The most reliable information available to the public is Ballantine’s first-hand account directly contradicting NYPD’s report. This would hardly be the first time that NYPD jumped to conclusions and spread misinformation implying the victim of a fatal crash was at fault. To cite a few examples:

NYPD Commissioner Bill Bratton, Deputy Commissioner for Public Information Stephen Davis, and Highway Patrol commanding officer Michael Ameri need to reform how crash information is handled and disclosed to the public. The pattern of treating erroneous details and unreliable testimony as facts to be publicly broadcast harms victims and their family and friends. And by obscuring the true causes of traffic fatalities, it hinders efforts to implement effective solutions to save lives.

  • If DOT won’t do it, I believe advocates and others should get out there and paint one themselves. Enough waiting for big institutions to act. It gets people killed.

  • djx

    Conspiracy is a strong word, and not quite right. What it is is a culture that values drivers over other users, due in part to many officers preferring to travel by car when off-duty and using cars all the time when on-duty. PLUS very little support/incentives from the top to care about pedestrians. The message is “Street safety doesn’t matter, don’t waste time on it, don’t deal with it professionally.”

    Not a conspiracy – just a clear message to not care and not spend time on it.

  • reasonableexplanation

    Very much agree with this. When I started driving I was taught to drive as though every other driver is actively trying to kill me and that all pedestrians are suicidal and will dart out between cars for no reason. When I started motorcycling I was taught to ride as though no driver will ever see me or will actively trying to plow me off the road. Hence, when I cycle, I assume nothing and behave the same way i do as when I ride or drive.

  • reasonableexplanation

    That’s not necessarily a bike only thing; NYC tickets are notoriously difficult to fight sometimes; here’s an example of one that I got recently (as a motorist);

    I got a ticket for being less than 15 ft from a hydrant. Which seemed odd, since it looked like I had plenty of room; so I got out a tape measure and measured how far away I was: 15.5ft. I sent in the photo as proof, and I got back the response that, “well, you could have moved your car after the fact. The ticket stays.”

    So, at least we’re all in this together.

  • WalkingNPR

    Which, when you think about it, is even scarier. A conspiracy you might have hopes of bringing to light and dismantling. This is just the baseline mindset of the NYPD (and many others in NYC). They don’t even realize they have this mindset or that there are other possible ways of thinking about it. Makes change even more challenging.

  • Robert Wright

    My argument (which I made in greater detail here: http://invisiblevisibleman.blogspot.com/2014/11/a-1980-crash-rushed-hearing-and-why.html ) is that there’s a shared paradigm among police officers in many places and the media about what causes crashes. There’s an idea that they typically result from the carelessness of feckless pedestrians or cyclists and that drivers are hapless in the face of these silly individuals’ responsibility. It’s the idea that underlies lots of pedestrian and cyclist education initiatives too. It leads (I think) many police officers and reporters to sift evidence in a misleading fashion, putting the blame on victims. The critical point is that statistics and common sense suggest the paradigm is entirely wrong. People don’t generally put themselves in obvious danger. Invulnerable drivers are not sufficiently careful. I think it’s critical to tackle this mistaken understanding of crashes head-on.

  • Joe R.

    There’s also the importance of leaving yourself an out. My standard operating procedure on a bike is to assume everything will do the worst possible thing at the worst possible time. The only thing I need to do is to make sure I have a plan B when that happens. In a nutshell, the key is to never box yourself in. So long as you have someplace to go when something happens you can avoid most mishaps.

  • Joe R.

    I just hang back until they either turn or clear the intersection. That’s also one reason I prefer to avoid being in an intersection soon after a light goes green. You have motorists making all kinds of maneuvers, typically without bothering to check for something as small as a bike. I like to hit intersections either long after the light has gone green, or pass on red when there’s a gap in traffic (I know the second thing goes against your philosophy). Either way avoids conflicts with motor vehicles.

  • Joe R.

    Let’s see then if the police file charges against her for giving a false statement. I highly doubt it, but you never know.

  • Cyclists are not required to yield to cars making left turns while the cyclist proceeds straight, even if the turning vehicle is signalling. The turning vehicle must yield to all through traffic and wait until the way is clear before proceeding.

  • reasonableexplanation

    That’s great and all, but if you do this at intersections, you’re putting yourself at increased risk. Again, defensive driving/cycling/etc is key.

    Drivers are required to do a shoulder check when they change lanes, but I still don’t hang out in their blind spots, you know what I’m saying?

  • Roundnround

    Citation for the 98% or cars being below 96th St? Or are we making things up again Vooch?

  • Tyson White

    There’s a time and place for everything. But educating cyclists on how to stay safe isn’t either of them.

  • JackDeeRipper

    Sorry, but I must disagree. It’s not a last vestige but a new phenomenon. I biked in the “Bad Old Days” without bike lanes, SUVs, cellphones and during the Arab oil embargo. Today there are more and bigger cars, and more cyclists on the roads. Listen to the traffic reports on the radio. 45 minutes at the Holland Tunnel, an hour delay at the GW. Motorists are angry and frustrated. I can’t understand how they tolerate it. They’re in a race to the next red light. Living in the suburbs yes, you do need a car. Here in the city, car ownership is wildly extravagant.

  • Joe R.

    Exactly. I’ll take biking 30 years ago over today. Drivers were less aggressive. Cars weren’t as powerful (hence a lot less of the stupid moves to fill any gap you see nowadays). They didn’t have as many distractions behind the wheel. You didn’t have a large segment of the population on prescription drugs (I think this is a big factor in erratic driving). There were far fewer traffic signals (a big plus for cycling). And traffic levels were far lower. 3PM or 8PM traffic nowadays in my neighborhood looks like rush hour traffic did 30 years ago. NYC’s population increased by only about 1 million from 30 years ago but it seems like the number of cars on the road doubled. It’s a shame the city didn’t nip this in the bud years ago.

  • I prefer now to the old days. It’s not even close.

    I have been riding in Manhattan since 1981, when I was 15-16 years old. I can still remember my first trip in from Queens that summer, over the Queensboro Bridge.

    I remember it because I almost got killed on the fucking bridge. This was in the days when each side’s service road was open to bikes at certain hours, and at certain hours bikes couldn’t cross at all and were instructed by a sign to use the subway.

    My friend and I got to the bridge and asked a traffic cop whether we could cross. He told us to use the south service road, on the Queens-bound side (the opposite side from where the bike and pedestrian crossing is today). So we started to cross — when someone opened the thing up to cars from the other side! We tried to make ourselves as thin as possible, as cars sped by in the other direction just to our right.

    After we made it to Manhattan, I found that the aggression on the parts of drivers was palpable. This didn’t stop me from riding in Manhattan, of course; but I was always aware of what I would be facing when I went there.

    As compared to those days, riding in Manhattan is civilised nowadays. It has become my favourite place to ride. While there are more cars than ever before, the drivers now know to expect bicyclists. Also, the sheer mass of vehicles often results in lower automobile speeds. If a bike rider goes at a responsible speed and stays in the bike lanes where they exist, then that rider is far better off than his/her counterpart would have been in 1981.

    So I will take Manhattan today to Manhattan back in the 1980s by a wide margin. The improvement is due entirely to the proliferation of bike lanes and signal that these lanes send to drivers. Despite the fact that many Manhattan bike lanes have flaws that need addressing, these lanes have, in the aggregate, contributed to turning our City’s most important borough from a jungle to a bicycle wonderland.

  • Joe R.

    I briefly rode in Manhattan in 1981 as a bike messenger. I’ll gladly admit it sucked to the point I quit the job after a week. I’m mostly referring to the outer boroughs when I say biking was better 30 years. That’s where I do all my riding. Manhattan, even though you might say it’s objectively better now than years ago, just isn’t a place I care to ride. I’d have to ride 10 mostly unpleasant miles to reach it. And for most of the day it’s just way too crowded for my tastes, either on foot or on a bike. Get rid of most of the cars and most of the traffic signals in Manhattan and I’ll reconsider my position.

    Anyway, I think if you were to draw a direct comparison of places like eastern Queens now and 30 years ago, you’ll find 30 years ago was better. I recall Sundays especially often had very light traffic, perhaps because a large percentage of businesses remained closed back then. Now it seems like weekend traffic is practically indistinguishable from weekday traffic. There is marginally more bike infrastructure now, but it’s mostly of the nearly useless door-zone bike lane type. The streets are in worse condition also. They were never great, but I don’t recall such a large percentage of poor streets 30 years ago. And when a street was repaved, it was usually smooth as glass. Now you have non-flush manhole covers, rough spots, and ripples which can be felt even at bicycle speeds.

  • Vooch

    reasonable – true much of motorcycling defensive driving lessons also applies to cyclists.

  • Vooch

    much better to ride today than in the 1980s. Riding 6th in the 1980s was a heart pounding – stand on pedals experience every single moment. Taxis today are positively genteel compared to the 1980s.,

  • skelter weeks

    I don’t like the position of that bike path. It’s on the wrong side of the street. I’d worry about cars to my right turning left and hitting me. Isn’t that what happened here? (Not familiar with NYC streets).
    In Chicago, they put a bike path on ‘the wrong side of the street’ on Dearborn but they gave it a special bike traffic signal at the intersection, so cars have to stop while bikes can go.through the intersection. Even with all that, though, as soon as I’m across the river I leave the bike path and go to the right side of the street (to avoid all those cars turning left into hotels, side streets, and streets that act as highway on-ramps).

  • It’s all well and good to lay blame on the NYPD. Cops cannot be
    everywhere, not even their front door. If you want to speculate that the
    white SUV is probably a cop, I’d tend to agree with you.

    But here’s my question: did you actually contact 88th Precinct C.O. John Buttacavoli or Community Affairs officers Brathwaite and Sergeant with this?

    I say this because posting stuff and making blanket accusations without direct contact is for children who don’t want to be taken seriously.

  • JamesR

    You raise some good points. Cars are fucking gigantic now, and for no good reason other than pursuit of status. It’s become a sick arms race of size and horsepower. Couple that with the sheer number of them compared to how it was back in the day, and driving around here just makes both the driver and everyone around them miserable (peds, cyclists, you name it).

  • Roundnround

    Any citation yet? Or was this indeed not a fact?

  • MatthewEH

    This is pretty standard practice for NYC. Bike lanes on the left hand side of a one-way street:

    * Put the rider in a more visible position to drivers, who are sitting on the left side of their cars.
    * Avoid interfering with buses pulling into and out of bus stops (or at least starting and stopping), and passengers embarking and disembarking. Note that Classon is a bus route.
    * Put riders on the right, passenger side of parked cars rather than the drivers’ side. Dooring is more likely from the drivers’ side.

    There is an issue with conflicts with motorists making left-turns on their green, to be sure, but that’s no less true of a right-hand-side lane.

    In NYC, protected lane treatments will give motorists a red left turn arrow when other lanes turn green at all or (more common with recent projects) some major intersections to try to reduce this conflict. Bikes get a red signal when the turn arrow turns green.

    Results here are mixed, though; cyclists will roll through on the green arrow/red-bike-signal phase even when there are cars about to make the turn — yikes! No big deal if the turn lane is empty, but if it isn’t, it’s irritating. Or more dangerously, motorists will miss their red arrow and blow through when cyclists have the green. I’ve out-and-out traffic directed people who are poised to do this. In some cases I’ve gotten them not to eff up. 🙁

  • MatthewEH

    Or the driver overtook and made her turn all in the same moment, effectively hitting the cyclist from behind.

    At any rate, whether the turn was signaled or not is practically immaterial.

  • MatthewEH

    Oh, I certainly get very nervous if a car is alongside me as I approach an intersection and pacing me. Turn signals are almost immaterial; I try to gauge the car’s body language and keep an eagle eye on the front wheels.

    It takes practice and exposure to get good at this. A relative newb won’t get there automatically, and even the best of us can have lapses.

    Admonitions to ride defensively have their place, but really these problems need to be addressed with design and with a change in culture around driving in congested cities.

  • To me, Vooch sounds a bit like the phone pole hit by a car

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