Cassie Gelzer's plea deal last week in the 2011 hit-and-run death of bicyclist and high-schooler Ronny Gallardo was no surprise to attorney Peter Wilborn.

Gelzer pleaded guilty to leaving the scene of an accident with minor injury and will serve two years of probation.

To Wilborn, it's another in a tragic series of bicyclist deaths that are treated as accidents, when they should be treated as crimes.

That doesn't mean that Gelzer should have been locked up for life. It means that there should be the same considerations and weight as any other traffic fatality.

“The general idea that these are accidents is absurd and wrongheaded,” Wilborn said. “A hit-and-run is not an accident. Someone committing a major traffic violation that ends up killing someone is not an accident. It is a criminally reckless act.”

Wilborn, a bike activist whose website is bikelaw.com, cited a case in Aiken County involving the 2010 death of bicyclist Matthew Burke, a doctor killed by a pickup truck driver. The prosecutor in the case decided it was a felony death and the driver pleaded guilty to involuntary manslaughter. He served a short sentence, “but the important thing is that he's a convicted felon, and the community knows he's a convicted felon,” Wilborn said.

Group effort

Wilborn thinks we can get to where we need to be in terms of treating bike fatalities more seriously, but it will take a concerted effort from everyone.

The thing that few people, especially drivers, want to hear is that the law requires them to basically not be jerks to bicyclists, and gives them added duties when the two are sharing the road — the duty to allow the bicyclist a safe operating distance, for example. “I think some people think if you ride a bike around, you're assuming a risk,” he said.

Which certainly isn't fair.

That doesn't mean, of course, that you should tune out, figuratively or literally, on a bike. There's a clear responsibility on the part of the bicyclist, but there's no question who has the upper hand in a competition between a bike and a motor vehicle. The challenge is getting the former to be recognized as a legitimate mode of transportation.

Changing the mindset

“The good news is bicycle culture arrived in Charleston a decade ago,” he said, citing the proliferation of bikes on King Street.

And officials have responded, with bike corrals downtown for better parking, and bike lanes on S.C. Highway 61 in West Ashley.

It's still a far cry from the not-so distant past when kids rode their bikes to school. How the justice system treats bicyclist fatalities in vehicle vs. bike crashes feeds into the way bicycling is viewed as a whole, and all that feeds the reasons not to ride. Taking the accidents seriously is one step in changing that.

The legal system has penalties in place, he said. “Ultimately, it comes down to whether people care enough to enforce them,” he said.

It wouldn't bring back Ronny Gallardo. But it might bring his family some peace of mind and some hope to bicyclists who fear they're risking their lives every time they ride.

Reach Melanie Balog at 937-5565 or mbalog@postandcourier.com.