Mess Media, November 11, 2009
On August 31, 2009, former attorney general of Ontario, Michael Bryant, in a fit of road rage intentionally slammed his car into cyclist Darcy Allan Sheppard after Sheppard passed his car and pulled to a stop in front of Bryant at a red light in a construction zone.
After Sheppard grabbed on to Bryant’s car, Bryant sped away on the wrong side of the road, and mounted the curb, deliberately smashing Sheppard into a mailbox, fire hydrant and other fixed obstacles, eventually killing him.
Since the attack, many people in the media that knew Michael Bryant have come to his defence. Most of the defence is connected to Bryant’s $600 per hour public relations firm Navigator Ltd. but some others genuinely find it difficult to believe that someone like Bryant could be capable of such a vicious attack. He is educated, prominent and successful.
“And he is never going to commit another crime in his life. Why would you have to put a guy like that in jail?” says criminal lawyer, Robert Rotenberg echoing what many of Bryant’s friends are thinking.
But what kind of person gets carried away by road rage?
In the span of about thirteen months there have been at least three high profile cases of road rage attacks on cyclists. Two of them resulted in critical injuries and one in death. In all three attacks, the perpetrators were from the privileged class – a doctor, a show jumping son of wealthy parents and a former attorney general for Ontario. All three perpetrators deliberately drove their vehicles into their victims and all three seemed to want to punish their victims or teach them a lesson.
In July 2008 in Los Angeles, respected Dr. Christopher Thompson, 60, intentionally slammed on his brakes in front of two cyclists after passing them and shouting at them to ride single file. A police officer testified that Thompson told him he slammed on his brakes “to teach them a lesson.”
Ron Peterson, crashed face-first into the rear windshield of the doctor’s car, breaking several teeth and his nose and lacerating his face. The other victim, Christian Stoehr, suffered a separated shoulder.
Thompson who was convicted of several felonies faces up to 10 years in prison when he is sentenced December 3rd. [Update below]
After hearing the verdict Peterson, said “our hope is that this brings to light how vulnerable cyclists are out there.”
In September 2008, in Britain, a former international show jumper, Christopher Robertson, 21, the son of wealthy stud farm owners deliberately drove his car into cyclist Leslie Smith, 66 because he felt Smith was taking up too much space on the road.
After critically injuring Smith, Robertson fled the scene and set about covering up his role in the attack. Robertson, who was upset that Smith was “hogging the road,” was found guilty of dangerous driving and perverting the course of justice. He was sentenced to only 33 months in jail.
These kinds of road rage attacks against cyclists happen quite frequently although in most cases they do not result in serious injury or death.
Ontario Provincial Police Sgt. Cam Woolley said he’s dealt with plenty of road rage and aggressive driving cases during his career, and there’s no way to pigeonhole the type of drivers who lose control behind the wheel.
“We’ve seen even soccer moms (commit road rage),” Woolley said.
“People get so angry they lose judgment.”
“What’s interesting is road ragers tend to have above-average income and above-average education… they’re often middle-class people with responsible jobs.”
A recent Globe and Mail article (Brain’s ‘rage system’ cuts rational response, September 3, 2009) suggests that it doesn’t take much to trigger a road rage attack.
Experts say that all it takes is a raised middle finger to trigger the brain’s “rage system,” which shuts down rational decision-making and activates the “fight or flight” response, sending adrenalin pulsing through the bloodstream and preparing limbs for battle.
“It overpowers the brain and literally shuts down the sensory systems and the power of reason,” said W. Doyle Gentry, author of Anger Management for Dummies and founding editor of the Journal of Behavioural Medicine. “You are literally out of your mind,” he said.
York University’s David Wiesenthal is one of the country’s leading experts on road rage. He said that being behind the wheel in this state can be especially deadly.
Normally, when people are faced with life-altering decisions, from marriage to how to treat a disease, they have time to step back and rationally consider their options, he said.
But on the road, in the heat of the moment, they don’t have the time or cognitive ability to take into account potential consequences, from injuring themselves or others to winding up in jail.
“Someone’s life can take a tremendous turn in a few moments,” Dr. Wiesenthal said.
While it may be difficult for some of Michael Bryant’s friends to believe that he could be capable of such a vicious attack, it’s clear that history, traffic experts and science all agree.
Unfortunately it makes complete sense that someone like Michael Bryant behind the wheel of a car would attack and kill a vulnerable cyclist in fit of road rage.
Update: Dr. Christopher Thompson was sentenced to five years in prison for assaulting cyclists, Ron Peterson, and Christian Stoehr.
The LA Times reports:
Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Scott T. Millington called the case a “wake-up call” to motorists and cyclists and urged local government to provide riders with more bike lanes. He said he believed that Thompson had shown a lack of remorse during the case and that the victims were particularly vulnerable while riding their bicycles.