DeWitt: Robert Schenck's crash points to weakness in traffic laws

Robert Schenck’s name was misspelled in court records.
Robert Schenck’s name was misspelled in court records.
Published April 20, 2016

The Florida Highway Patrol says Robert Schenck got treated just like anybody else.

Maybe. But there was no news release on a 2014 collision that ultimately killed a bicyclist from an agency that fills up journalists' email with reports of just about anything more serious than a fender bender.

Schenck, likewise, who at the time was finishing up an eight-year stint as a Republican state representative, said he did nothing to prevent this incident from going public, nothing to keep this bike wreck from becoming a political train wreck.

Once again, I'm a little skeptical, especially because it appears the misspelling of his name that made it difficult for Times staff writer Barbara Behrendt to track down the court file was not a one-time deal.

Schenck has no records of traffic infractions on the Hernando County clerk of courts website under his given name, Robert Cornell Schenck III, but four of them under the "misspelled" name of Robert Cornwell Schenek. And nobody in the relevant state and county agencies was able to explain why that might be.

Bigger picture, though, the claim that Schenck's case is typical of what happens when a motorist seriously injures or kills a cyclist is absolutely right.

Most people in his shoes walk away with nothing more than a traffic infraction. The amount of his fine, $164 for an "improper left turn," is pretty close to the going rate for the life of a cyclist.

No, it wasn't quite that simple in Schenck's case. First of all, when his case came before County Judge Kurt Hitzemann in the spring of 2015, the cyclist, Lyle Swanson, had not yet died from his injuries.

In fact, the trooper who investigated the crash had checked a box on the citation designating that Swanson had suffered an "injury" but not "serious bodily injury."

(FHP spokesman Sgt. Steve Gaskins said that when the trooper on the scene checked with the hospital, Swanson was listed in stable condition; Swanson's widow said her husband was loaded into an ambulance in a back brace, a neck brace, unconscious and unable to draw breathe.)

Little checked boxes are important in such cases, Hitzemann said, because he relies on them to decide whether to impose the license suspension and additional fine that are allowed when traffic infractions cause serious injury.

But even when cyclists are killed, judges often withhold a formal finding of guilt — as Hitzemann did in Schenck's case — and this means no enhanced penalties.

It happened after cyclist Brad Ash was killed in Pasco County in 2010, and the distracted driver got off with a $250 fine.

It happens all the time, said Bob Mionske, a former professional bike racer and lawyer who writes a column on cycling law for VeloNews.

"It's a big problem all over the country," Mionske said. "There are no consequences for taking a life."

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A possible solution, he said, is for Florida to follow the lead of several other states and adopt a law to protect "vulnerable users."

That means walkers, cyclists, people in wheelchairs and anybody else not protected by a rolling steel cage. Serious injury or death can lead to significant license suspensions, fines in the thousands rather than hundreds of dollars and a mandated appearance in court that could put them face to face with the families of victims.

These laws recognize the responsibility of driving a large, potentially lethal vehicle on the same roads as these users.

I agree with Schenck's attorney, Matt Foreman, when he says that a momentary loss of attention or carelessness is not a criminal offense. I don't agree that a civil settlement, such as the $25,000 Schenck paid to Swanson's widow, is the only necessary penalty.

There's the matter of uneven enforcement. Lawyers usually only take such wrongful death cases if the drivers are rich or lavishly insured, Mionkse said.

Then there's the statement the current system makes: that the consequences of our actions are all but irrelevant, that taking the life of a human should cost us less than exceeding the speed limit.

Contact Dan DeWitt at; follow @ddewitttimes. Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report.