How much is a human life worth in Florida?
Well, if it's the life of a cyclist, about $250.
That's how much Pasco County Judge Robert J. Cole fined Jennifer Tuttle, the woman whose GMC Yukon slammed into Pasco Middle School teacher Brad Ash, 41, as he — legally and responsibly — rode his bike on St. Joe Road near Dade City last Oct. 4. Ash died six days later.
"My thought is that it's very sad that in the state of Florida life is valued so low and the punishment for this kind of thing is so minimal," his father, Bud Ash, said from his home near Dayton, Ohio, this week.
If these comments seem unusually restrained, it's because Bud Ash and his wife, Cheryl, are unusually forgiving people. When I wrote about their son's case two months ago, they were the ones who convinced me to go easy on Tuttle, 30, of Dade City.
She had struck Ash after turning to tend to her young son in the back seat, taking her eyes off the road for a few seconds as we all do sometimes, Bud Ash told me. She was emotionally shattered by the accident, he added, and the family didn't want to add to her suffering.
And though she had been cited only with a traffic infraction, careless driving, the Ashes had been assured by the Florida Highway Patrol that the charge carried enhanced penalties because her actions caused a death: a $1,000 fine and a one-year suspension of her driver's license.
Then Bud Ash e-mailed me back on Wednesday, when, after some digging, he'd found out what actually happened when Tuttle appeared before Cole on March 10.
Neither Tuttle nor Cole returned calls to talk about the hearing, but court records confirmed Tuttle pleaded no contest and the judge withheld a formal finding of guilt. That meant the tougher penalties no longer applied, a lawyer told me, and Cole was free to fine her the previously mentioned pittance — $250 plus court costs.
You could easily pay more for a speeding ticket and, judging by the money and fuss recently devoted to saving a bird nest on a Tampa crane, I'm starting to think we care more about cute little osprey chicks than human beings on bicycles.
Riders' rights are protected by law because encouraging cycling has broad public benefits — improving health, lowering transportation costs, reducing pollution. It could also draw more well-to-do visitors to prime cycling grounds such as eastern Hernando and Pasco counties.
But Ash wasn't just a cyclist any more than you are just a driver.
He was a father who had spent his life in the selfless work of counseling troubled teens and teaching math to middle-schoolers. To give you an idea of the kind of family he came from, his parents are still refusing to profit from his death by filing a lawsuit and have given $3,000 to start a scholarship fund for students he worked with at Pasco High and Pasco Middle schools. (Note to Tuttle: A generous contribution would seem to be the least you could do.)
Then there's Vincent Lloyd Barnes, who was riding his bike on the shoulder of U.S. 19 (with traffic, as the law requires) in Hernando County last week when a black Chevrolet Silverado pickup struck him from behind, dragged him about 200 feet and then sped off. Barnes, 28 years old and living in a tent, was on his way to work as a dishwasher, at least partly so he could pay child support for his 3-year-old son.
He wasn't just a cyclist either. Just a citizen doing what the law allows. And, though I think the victim status widely claimed by cyclists is usually unhelpful and often unwarranted, it's hard not to think the law has turned its back on their particular legal right.
At least 16 cyclists have been killed on Tampa Bay area roads since July. Drivers weren't always at fault, of course. But when they were, the penalties have often been shockingly light. And now that I've seen the outrageous conclusion of Brad Ash's case, I'm not in the mood to go easy on anyone.
Let's send a message that distracted driving really is as bad as we say. If it kills, make it a criminal offense. How about the next time a rider- or walker-killing driver appears in court, the judge does what the law allows to dignify the loss of life. And how about law enforcement officers make investigations of cycling deaths more of a priority.
I can't say this hasn't happened in Barnes' case, and FHP spokesman Sgt. Steve Gaskins said troopers have chased down several promising leads. But it has been 11 days since Barnes was killed on a busy road in full daylight, and, still, no arrest.
Besides the identity of the driver, the main mystery of this case is why he or she would leave the scene. Unless there were drugs or alcohol involved, I doubt there was much chance of jail time or a real fine. This is Florida, after all, and as far as the law is concerned Barnes was just a cyclist.