Around 10:30 on the morning of May 22, Jan Morgan was biking a stretch of State Highway 50 just a couple hours north of Jackson, Mississippi, when Robbie Norton, driving at 55 miles per hour, struck her from behind and carried her 200 feet before coming to a stop. Morgan slumped off the hood of Norton’s car and was missing her shoes; her carbon seat-stay was shattered. Eyewitnesses claim that Norton was on her cell phone—not talking with 911 dispatchers—when she got out of her car, shouted something at Morgan, and then got back in her car and drove her front tire over Morgan’s head. An unconscious Morgan, who had suffered a cardiac contusion and was bleeding from the back of her head, was airlifted to a hospital in Tupelo, where she was placed in a sedative-induced coma. “For at least two weeks, I did not know if she was going to live,” said her husband, David Morgan.
To date, Norton has been charged with just a $50 fine, which she plans to appeal. That’s mainly due to Mississippi’s three-foot law—passed in 2010 after John Paul Frerer was killed by a truck while biking Highway 6 in 2009—which charges motorists who come within three feet of a cyclist with only a misdemeanor, even if the driver hits the cyclist. Having the Mississippi Highway Patrol press charges against Norton isn’t about “payback for this woman,” said David. “It needs to be a case example—it needs to be a test case for the laws [protecting cyclists] in Mississippi,” which he and various cycling groups in state find inadequate. (As of May 1, 2011, two cyclists had died and 33 had been injured in accidents involving motor vehicles.) After a five-week stay in the hospital and 30 days of outpatient therapy in Atlanta, Jan has been in outpatient therapy in Jackson, Mississippi, since August. In the middle of October, David thought Jan would soon be able to make the two-hour drive to therapy solo.
I’ve been working on the research and reporting for this story since October, and am currently planning a reporting trip to Mississippi. The Oxford American, a national magazine award winner in 2004, plans to publish the piece. The story will focus on the accident itself and Jan’s recovery, the movement now afoot in Mississippi to amend the state’s three-foot law to include harsher penalties for drivers who violate the rule and cause serious injury or death to cyclists, and why the Morgans feel like the state court system has failed to bring true justice. In addition, the article will examine trends in cycling laws throughout the South, as well as efforts in several cities to improve conditions and safety for cyclists. Feel free to e-mail me with questions at email@example.com.
To read examples of my past work—which has been published in Urbanite magazine, Richmond Magazine, Grist.org, and The Big Issue: South Africa, among other venues—go to www.AndrewZaleski.com.