There many things I love about Wisconsin, but our tolerance of criminals behind the wheel is hard to live with. Funny television commercials aside, for far too long people have been getting away with mayhem and murder while driving on our roads.
James R. Erdmann Jr., of Poy Sippi, was arrested by the Ripon Police Department on Wednesday after Appleton police issued an arrest warrant on charges of a hit-and-run resulting in the death of 61-year-old Robert Joosten on Nov. 9.
Tom Held dug into Erdman’s driving record and posted some of his violations on his blog The Active Pursuit. Since 2010, Erdmann has been found guilty of at least 13 traffic violations, including a previous case of hit-and-run, operating a vehicle with a suspended license; failure to yield right-of-way; knowingly operating a vehicle with a suspended license and causing property damage; operating without insurance; and displaying an unauthorized vehicle registration plate.
He has never been sentenced to jail time for any of those violations and now Robert Joosten is dead. Erdmann is accused of fleeing the scene after he hit and killed Joosten while he was riding home from work on his bicycle. Joosten was a daily, year-round commuter who took care to ride safely and obey traffic laws. Unfortunately Joosten’s respect for the law was trumped by Erdmann’s disrespect.
The Wisconsin Bike Fed is working with out legislature to pass a Vulnerable User Law to address some of the inequities in our current statutes, but even if that passes, we have a long way to go. I remember watching a local news report in which they interviewed people as they came out of Waukesha County Court after they had their drivers licenses revoked. Quite a few headed directly to their cars parked in the court parking lot and drove away!
In 2003, the AAA Foundation published the report Unlicensed to Kill: The Sequel found that as of 1999, 13.8 percent of all drivers involved in fatal crashes between the years of 1993 and 1997 had no driver’s license, an invalid license, or was of unknown license status. I have seen statistics that as many as 30% of people are driving without a license in Milwaukee.
These frightening statistics point to a problem that goes beyond our legal system. Our sprawling development, car-centric transportation system and cuts in funding for transit and bicycling have made a car almost mandatory for many. For people in suburban and rural areas who live far from their work places or shopping, there is often no other way to get to around than drive a car. If you lose your license and want to keep your job or buy groceries, you will drive illegally. In urban areas, the lack of bicycle infrastructure leave many of those interested in bicycling afraid to do so. And don’t get me started on zoning requirements for parking lots.
I don’t know exactly when it happened, but at some point in the last 50 years we shifted our cultural emphasis from safety, health, self-reliance and frugality to personal convenience, comfort and speed. My grandfather lived through the depression, and despite being an arch conservative, he always choose to live close enough to work so he could walk or take transit. He named his 1965 Chevy Impala SS with red leather bucket seats when he bought it new, and it was still low mileage and in mint condition when he handed it down to my uncle in 1978. This was a guy who’s heroes included Charlton Heston and Ronald Reagan, and he was a big supporter of transit and rail.
After work he also made a regular stop at the tavern for “a bump and a beer,” but it was down on the corner and he could walk home. When I was a kid there were also grocery stores on the opposite corners from the taverns in most neighborhoods, and bigger super markets close enough to walk to as well. All those things made it easier to walk and bike more and drive less.
After my brother and I walked home from school, we would play with kids in the neighborhood. After a family dinner around the table, we would play a family game or watch a family TV show. I took swimming lessons downtown at the Y on Saturdays, but other than that, I don’t ever remember my parents driving me to an activity, even though we had two cars. Most parents today could not get their kids to soccer, Irish Dance, debate, First Stage, etc. without a lot of driving.
I am rambling a bit here, but this case in which a repeat violator kills and innocent man opens up a floodgate of problems in our society in the United States. I’m not opposed to suburban living or soccer practice, but those luxuries have come with a big price tag because people have lost my grandfather’s conservative values. Not known for mincing words, I cannot write what my he would say to my two neighbors, one who drives three blocks to work and the other five; nither would never consider walking or bicycling. Turns out they are not alone, because statistics show 28% of all trips are less than one mile, but most are taken by car.
Our transportation funding system is broken, our kids have adult diabetes and we don’t know our neighbors who live a block away. With so many problems, it is tempting to throw up our hands and say “too bad, but what can we do?” It might not be the only answer, but I am a huge believer in the bicycle’s ability to solve lots of those problems. So let’s hop on our bikes, put the conserve back in conservative, and get to work on it.