13-time loser arrested for killing Joosten in hit-and-run

Cyclists’  honors hit-and-run victim: Thirty members of the Fox Cities Cycling Association gathered for a 5-mile Ride of Silence Nov. 4, in honor of Robert Joosten, who was struck by a vehicle and killed Saturday while riding his bike. Photo Sharon CekadaAppleton Post Crescent

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.

Our vulnerable users legislation is an attempt to put the scales of justice back in balance.

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.

At one time Ronny new the bicycle was a part of the solution to our problems.

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.

Let’s get Charlton Heston tough on bad drivers, pull ourselves up by our cowboy boot straps and skip the car for short trips!

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.




About Dave Schlabowske, Deputy Director

Dave was the first full-time staff member hired to open the Bike Fed's Milwaukee office 15 years ago. A former professional photographer and life-long Milwaukee resident, Dave likes wool, long rides, sour beer, and a good polar vortex once in a while.

7 thoughts on “13-time loser arrested for killing Joosten in hit-and-run

  1. Dave, I share your frustration.

    This is a big problem, and it has no easy solution.

    The biggest problem is the economic necessity of car ownership and licensing.

    I’d like to start by stating that while I’m a year – round transportation cyclist, I fully recognize that I’m only able to do so because I’m in a privileged position. I have the economic ability to choose where I live in relation to where I work and my kids go to school. I’m able to design my life so I don’t ‘need’ a car for almost all of my daily transportation. Many people aren’t so lucky. They ‘need’ to drive. Public transport in the Milwaukee area is a joke — particularly if you need to get to work in the outskirts / suburbs. Is it any wonder why many job openings have the requirement “must have a valid drivers license / reliable transportation”?

    The problem is exacerbated by the how minor violations (things that aren’t particularly egregious or dangerous) can easily lead to the loss of driving privileges. For instance, non-payment of parking tickets can lead to the suspension of vehicle registration. If you are cited over for driving without valid registration, and don’t pay, you can lose your license. (Let’s assume that these tickets aren’t being paid due to economic hardship). In a nutshell, you can lose your license fairly easily without ever doing anything dangerous with your car. There are other examples, but you get the idea.

    In my opinion, this dilutes the ‘seriousness’ of dangerous repeat offenders — people who might be fiscally insolvent (or even irresponsible) are lumped in with folks who consistently disregard the safety of others when behind the wheel.

    My point being; if there was simply stiffer penalties for driving with suspended or revoked driving privileges, the results could be dire for a lot of families that isn’t proportional to nature of the original offense.

    There needs to be a significant adjustment in how various offences and non-payment of tickets are enforced so that it’s easier to differentiate between dangerous drivers and people who drive responsibly, but are having trouble with money.

    We need to keep dangerous people off the road without needlessly placing a burden on people who are economically disadvantaged. — At least until there is another ‘mainstream’ way to get around without a car.

    • Ben,

      I agree with most of your points, but disagree with the premise that bicycle commuting is harder for low income people to do. There are tons of “invisible cyclists” in every community working low-wage jobs. Look behind restaurants and you will see bikes parked for kitchen staff. Look around factories and you will see big-box bicycle locked to the fences. Look at coffee shops and you will see the barista’s fixie locked to a sign-post. None of these are high wage jobs, the demographics are pretty varied.

      I do understand it is harder to live near work and there are many good paying jobs in the suburbs, but perhaps those employers would move back or might be supporters of transit if people didn’t just cave in and get cars to get to work. There have been a number of news reports lately about the programs to help low-income workers get auto loans. I am not entirely opposed to those programs, and I know they often include sound financial planning advice, but helping a low income worker get a car loan comes with some built in future costs that might be better spent on good food or savings for a home.

      To be clear, I am not opposed to cars. Automobiles have a great purpose, but they are being misused at a great cost to everyone. Most people not only ignore that cost, but have a cultural stigma against transit users and people on bicycles. That bias is present in low-income workers who may be embarrassed that they have to bike to work, and dream of joining the traffic jam that defines economic success in the United States.

      • I agree that I probably overstated how difficult it is for low-income people to commute by bike. I also agree that the transportation cycling is a generally underrated option for any healthy person living within around 10 miles of where they work, and plenty should be done to encourage it.

        However, I still maintain that for many people in their current situation, car ownership is an economic necessity. It’s unfortunate, and a result of decades of misguided planning, but it’s a very real short term reality for many people. Getting that to change is obviously going to be a long process. A worthy process, but it’s going to take time.

        In the meantime, a relatively inexpensive / easy way to make the roads safer for all users (including other drivers) is to change they way violations are enforced so that people who are a danger to others are off the road — quicker. However, just making the penalties for driving under a suspended/revoked licence without adjusting what causes the suspension / revocation in the first place will cause undue hardship to people have committed an infraction that wouldn’t likely cause grievous harm to anyone & are safe road users. Right now, it’s all a jumble — too lax for dangerous drivers, and too strict for others. It’s not serving anyone’s interests.

        • I think we are in agreement Ben. I know I am asking for a big paradigm shift along with then entire reworking of our transportation funding system, those things will take time, as would changing our laws as you suggest. We have been successful in changing some of our laws, as you can see if you look on our legislation history, but heck, look how hard it has been for us to get the Vulnerable Useer bill passed. Other groups like ABATE and MADD are working on similar efforts.

          But, yes, let’s work on changing our legal expectations of people when they are behind the wheel. But while some may need that car, most can reevaluate their reliance on cars, starting with trips less than 1 mile.


  2. My dad owned a tavern in Fond du Lac and when i was 18, and self-rightous, I commented one day about a couple of his customers. This couple, Elmer & Goldie, came in every night and went through a case of shorties. I disapproved. Dad said, they walked to the tavern and probably stumbled home later. They had no kids and were only hurting themselves. The tavern was their second home, where they watched TV and socialized. You could drink and walk in the old days, in the 1950s, and maybe you would be found in a snowbank. But you wouldn’t kill someone else.

    • Just what I was talking about Ron. Don’t take what I wrote the wrong way though, my grandpa really did limit his stops to a shot and a beer, with maybe a package of blind robbins, a pickled egg or chicken gizzards thrown in.

  3. Disappointed by the title of this blog. I want to make it clear that I do not condone this individual’s behavior nor approve of the laws that seem to perpetuate this behavior however I do not believe there is any room for name calling. As a year-round bicyclist and long time proponent of bike and pedestrian opportunities I believe we must continue to engage in respectful debates and practice good bicycling behavior. When we call names we are no better than the driver who flips us off or tells us where to go in no uncertain terms while engaging in our choice of transportation.

    This blog is a representation of the WI Bike Fed and I do not think this is the type negative rhetoric we want to engage in.

    Sincerely and respectfully.

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