Blaming the Biking Victim

Driver kills biker on shoulder of road, driver’s attorney tries to blame the cyclist.

By - May 29th, 2017 09:05 am




It’s the job of defense attorneys to provide a zealous defense of their clients. But that doesn’t excuse them from criticism when they cross the line.

That’s what happened this week when attorney Mark Eisenberg asked a Dane County sheriff’s deputy if he had heard complaints about Cynthia Arsnow riding her bike on Highway 14.

Cynthia Arsnow was just trying to get to work when she was killed by Rollen Fries.

Cynthia Arsnow was just trying to get to work when she was killed by Rollen Fries.

Arsnow rode her bike from her home on Madison’s East Side to her job in Cross Plains. It’s about a 20-mile trip one way and Arsnow took the most direct route, which is Highway 14. That’s a fairly highly trafficked road, but it has a wide paved shoulder and it’s relatively straight and flat. When you’re just trying to get to your job, it makes sense to take it.

Arsnow had every right to be there and there are no reports that she didn’t take every reasonable precaution. In fact, she made that trip for many years without incident.

Then last July Rollen J. Fries, a Mazomanie man, swerved onto the shoulder and killed her. His excuse was that he was reaching for something on the passenger’s seat. But did he do it intentionally, in a flash of road rage, irritated that a cyclist would dare to claim their legal space along his highway? Witnesses said that Arsnow had been clearly visible to other drivers along a straight stretch of the road before Fries swerved right into her.

Still, intentional homicide in a case like this would be very hard to prove. Instead, Fries is charged with homicide by negligent driving and he has now been ordered to stand trial for his actions. Our thanks go to the Dane County District Attorney and Sheriff’s Department for sticking with this case and bringing the charges they could. Now, unless there is a plea deal before trial, we’ll see what a jury decides.

This brings us to Eisenberg who according to press reports about a preliminary hearing asked a sheriff’s detective whether there had been any complaints in the past about Arsnow riding her bike along Highway 14. To his credit, Dane County Circuit Judge John Markson disallowed the question as not relevant to the preliminary hearing.

But, frankly, where does Eisenberg get off asking a question like that at all? We don’t know if there were complaints, but what if there had been? Arsnow was doing something both entirely legal and appropriate. Drivers do not own the road. The safe thing to do in this situation is simply to slow down and pass the cyclist with caution. It might cost three or four seconds on a trip.

Eisenberg’s question is indicative of a bigger problem in our society: the idea that a person riding a bicycle on a state highway is somehow responsible for her own death or injury should a driver hit them. It’s a classic case of blaming the victim.

Of course, we don’t know how Fries’ trial will turn out, but his lawyer is already guilty of ignorance.

Dave Cieslewicz is the executive director of the Wisconsin Bike Fed and former mayor of the city of Madison.

14 thoughts on “Biking: Blaming the Biking Victim”

  1. bobbi says:

    “Everybody knows” that bikes don’t “belong” on roadways. They’re toys! Get outta the road! Get on the sidewalk!

    It’s “common knowledge” that adult, responsible, grown-up people drive cars, not toys.

    She just got what she had coming to her! Blocking traffic! Delaying motorists from their god-given right to traverse the byways without interference!

    Because liberty! And Justice! And Freedom! For motorists everywhere!

    America! Land of the free hand home of the automobile!

  2. bobbi says:


    Would this be a good time to wonder why premeditated murder wasn’t charged as such?

    Anyone who’s DELIBERATELY targeting defenseless cyclists for vehicular homicide really should get what THEY have coming, too.

    The guy probably stole 20-30 years from the woman’s life.

    Payback should be AT LEAST that same 20-30 years.

  3. Joe says:

    If you are ever in need of a defense lawyer, you too would want your lawyer to use every possible argument in your defense.

  4. bobbi says:

    > use every possible argument

    Arguments REALLY should pass “The Laugh Test”.

    True Fact: Bill O’Reilly and Fox complained that (now) Senator Al Franken for infringed on Fox’s “trademarked”, “copyrighted” and patent (pending) phrase “Fair and Balanced”.

    Lawyer: “Your honor, Franken infringed our COPYRIGHTED, trademark phrase! Make him pay!”

    Judge: HAHAHAHA! Case dismissed!



  5. Matt says:

    “But did he do it intentionally, in a flash of road rage, irritated that a cyclist would dare to claim their legal space along his highway?”

    Lets talk about a laugh test. This is Trump level bullshit made up out of nothing. If you want to bitch about a lawyer have at it, but do not think your reasoning skills are above reproach. Indeed, what is this nonsensical speculation based on? If you want to imply a man is a murderer based on your own feelings and citation to no evidence, you are far worse than a guy that has an accident on a roadway. Who exactly do you think you are, anyway? It is grotesque.

  6. Victor says:

    I’m with Matt. Insinuating the driver acted intentionally crosses a line. Asking if the biker had complaints against her is totally relevant to the case, and the judge should have allowed the sheriff to answer the question.

    The biggest question in my mind is was she wearing a helmet? I have to assume so from “there are no reports that she didn’t take every reasonable precaution” and another article I found mentioned that she was wearing high visibility clothing, but what if she wasn’t?

    Anyhow Fries definitely deserves to be found guilty, though I can see him pleading guilty to unintentional vehicular manslaughter (or whatever lesser charge the DA offers)

  7. John. Pahlmann says:

    What is relevant is did the driver operate his vehicle in a safe and responsible manner? If another person is killed or injured due to unforced circumstances then that person is liable. There is no blame to the cyclist in his case since she’s was using the roads in a legal and predictable way. All fault lies with the driver who has a legal and moral obligation to operate his vehicle in a safe and prudent manner on public roads.

  8. Tom Held says:

    The helmet question is irrelevant. One, it’s not required. Two, it wouldn’t protect a person on a bike hit by a vehicle traveling at highway speed. I wear a helmet to prevent or limit injuries, while recognizing its protective capabilities are limited.

  9. What would help is if the State would give bicyclists and pedestrians the right of way. That is, make it very clear roads are not just for cars. Roads should be for people however they choose to use them.

  10. Jerry says:


    What specifically do you mean? There are laws protecting pedestrians on the road as well as cyclists (the enforcement of these laws is quite another story). Do you mean better roadway design?

    I know police officers feel they have more important things to do than enforce traffic laws…but if they could at least start pulling people over and have a discussion about yielding to pedestrians/bikes in crosswalks, at RRFB’s, and at crossings that would do wonders. You wouldn’t even have to start out ticketing drivers, just let them know we’re getting serious about pedestrian/bike safety.

    As far as state highways like HWY 14 go, ad width to the paved shoulder or better yet add more long range multi-use path connections from large Wisconsin cities to their neighboring suburbs. This all costs money, but even a separated gravel path would be enough.

  11. MKE kid says:

    Bicyclists: Obey traffic laws. I’m stopped at a red light and so many others blow past me. Too many make a bad name for all others.

  12. Vincent Hanna says:

    Drivers: Obey traffic laws. Too many speed, ignore red lights, and talk or text and drive. Drivers are a much bigger hazard than bikers.

  13. Tom R says:

    Matt and Victor,

    I have repeatedly been yelled at, honked at and nearly run off the road while legally operating my bicycle on Milwaukee streets. Twice I have called the cops to report incidents with drivers.

    One time on Wisconsin Ave, some lady in a Jeep pulled up next to me, got really close and started yelling at me. She claimed that I had no right to be on the road, and I should be on the sidewalk (pro-tip: Sidewalk riding is typically not allowed for adults unless the municipality has a law regarding this.) Somehow my little bicycle made her feel threatened in her 4500 lbs vehicle with air bags, seat belts and crumple zones. While I’m biking legally in the right lane, trying to make my way past pot holes, parked cars and crazy bus drivers on my way to the safety of the bike trail.

    The law states that if I feel that cars cannot safely pass me, due to obstacles on the road, I have the right to “take the lane.” ( How do we know Cynthia wasn’t “taking the lane” for her safety, and this enraged the driver?

    Don’t tell me that there aren’t people out there who intentionally go after cyclists. I know first hand that they do.

  14. Wis. Conservative Dgiest says:

    Story is always same: “never saw them”. My Rule stay off the rally busy hi ways. Our cycling team got smart and never rode the busy hiways. I have lost 4 friends.

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