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VOL. 45 | NO. 22 | Friday, May 28, 2021

Attorney combines avocation, occupation

Longtime rider finds her niche helping bicycle crash victims

By Nancy Henderson

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Amy Johnson had spent her entire childhood as a competitive swimmer, running as part of her training. So during a post-college stint in Washington, D.C., she signed up for her first triathlon, bought a bicycle and assumed her longtime endurance in the other two sports would propel her through all three segments of the race.

“I was one of the first ones out of the lake on the swim, and then everybody passed me on the bike,” recalls Johnson, 38, a bike crash attorney and advocate in her hometown of Knoxville. “And I realized, ‘Oh I’m not very good at the biking, but there’s a whole world out there.’”

The sociable Johnson has been exploring that world ever since, as an attorney representing cyclists across the state and a crusader for measures involving safety, equity and public awareness. She is scaling back her legal practice to make more time for the latter.

“Amy is professional and thoughtful about her opinions and responses to legal issues,” says Caroline Cooley, who took over as president of Bike Walk Knoxville in 2013, a year after she and Johnson started the local advocacy group. “She expresses constructive comments that are beneficial to the board’s decision-making.”

Johnson was a high school sophomore when she told her dad, David Benner, an insurance defense attorney at what is now Lewis Thomason, that she wanted to follow in his footsteps. To her surprise, he discouraged her from doing so. “I was sort of taken aback,” she says.

Intrigued by lessons learned from decades past, she changed course and pursued a history major from the University of Tennessee, participating in the interdisciplinary Normandy Scholars Program, which focuses on the broader implications of World War II.

Unsure what she wanted her future to look like, Johnson moved to Washington, D.C., where she took several graduate level history courses at George Washington University.

“I was in a class with a lot of very fascinating folks whose objective was to become museum curators,” she recalls. “I was like, ‘Well, that’s really cool, but I don’t want to do that. This feels like a really fancy book club.’”

Living in D.C. without a car, Johnson “got sick of riding the escalator down into the bowels of the Metro station” so she started pedaling the bike she’d bought for the triathlon to her part-time jobs. “I found that it actually saved me time, and it was more enjoyable for me than the hustle and bustle of jostling people in the Metro.”

Toying with the idea of getting her MBA, Johnson returned to Knoxville in 2007, went to work as operations manager at the Hardin Valley branch of First Tennessee Bank and took a handful of accounting classes at UT on the bank’s tuition reimbursement dime. She enjoyed interacting with customers and managing people twice her age, but the lure of law school wouldn’t die.

Amy Johnson, bike crash attorney and founding president of Bike Walk Tennessee, rides on a Knoxville greenway. Johnson says her family loves going on biking vacations to state parks in Tennessee.

-- Photo By Michael Patrick |The Ledger

Two days before Christmas in 2009, her bank was robbed. The robber was later captured in the Sevierville area and served time for hitting up a string of branches. “People think that experience is what prompted me to take the LSAT (Law School Admission Test), but I’d already taken it,” she says. “The two are not related, but I sure was glad to know that I was on the way out once that happened.”

Johnson chose to attend the Florida Coastal School of Law in Jacksonville, Florida, to connect with her mom’s side of the family there. (Her mother Susan Benner is a retired dean of the UT College of Education, Health and Human Sciences.) The timing wasn’t ideal. “There were more people in law school than there were decent-paying lawyer positions out there,” she says. “There was a bubble. But I did it anyway.”

Bicycle commuting in Florida was far different from it had been in D.C. “Jacksonville is geographically the largest city in the United States,” she points out. “It is spread out to kingdom come and it’s not easy to get around.”

Fortunately, the law school was only a couple of miles from where she lived. “I made it work, but it was a wake-up call, having to ride my bike with my laptop on my back to take my second-year law school final exams. It was a taste of what it’s like to have to live your life like that. And it lit a fire in me to figure out how to help people and make their lives easier if that’s their main mode of transit.”

So she set out to learn everything she could about cycling policies just as President Barrack Obama’s Transportation Equity Act was coming to fruition. She also served briefly in the local public defender’s office, handling all types of cases.

In her final semester, Johnson focused a class research project on bike infrastructure in an effort to find out why some roads have bike lanes and others don’t. “I quickly learned that lawyers don’t play a large role in that,” she says. “That’s traffic engineers.”

Johnson had planned to stay and practice law in Florida. But after her grandfather died, she moved back home to Knoxville to help her parents care for her ailing grandmother. That summer, while waiting for the results of her bar exam and lunching with her dad’s attorney friends, “poking around, trying to get a job,” Johnson attended community meetings prompted by several recent bicycle crash incidents, including a hit-and-run in which a motorist forced a biker off the road and into a ditch on Hardin Valley Road.

Most accidents involving bicycles and cars are due to distracted driving, Amy Johnson says, those road rage often plays a role.

-- Photo By Michael Patrick |The Ledger

Launching a small solo practice in 2012, Johnson handled mostly indigent defense cases appointed by the court. The same year, she helped create the nonprofit Bike Walk Knoxville, an offshoot of the larger Bike Walk Tennessee, which works to protect cyclists and pedestrians and expand safe avenues for them. She then served as its first president and legal liaison.

Before long, Johnson was getting bike crash calls from potential clients who’d heard about her advocacy work. After referring the first few to other attorneys whom she felt were more qualified, “I finally realized, ‘I’ve got to be their lifeline. I need to be the one to help these people.’ A lot of times, somebody will call with a bike crash fact pattern and they’ll get turned away [at a law firm] if the person who’s screening the call thinks the insurance company is going to say that you’re at fault, whereas I would hear the fact pattern and think, ‘Well sure, you have a case.’”

Johnson distinctly remembers her first one, which involved a cyclist who often took part in a weekly group ride from a designated bicycle shop in Farragut along the backroads to Campbell Station, which sports a bike lane on either side of a flat, high-visibility thoroughfare and back to the shop. One evening, she says, an irritated truck driver hauling a pontoon trailer began cursing the cyclist. Rolling the window up as he drove away, the trucker jerked the empty aluminum trailer, which fishtailed and knocked the cyclist off his bike. The injured man’s horrified spouse saw it all from a few bike lengths behind.

More than a year later, Johnson settled a lawsuit for her client.

“Nine times out of 10, it is just distracted driving, not paying close enough attention, not keeping a safe lookout, failing to yield,” she says. “And every so often it’s a little bit of road rage.”

At the 2014 National Bike Summit hosted by the League of American Cyclists, a lobbying organization of which Johnson was a member, she met the founder of the Bike Law Network, became the group’s Tennessee attorney, and marketed her practice under the umbrella. “I wanted my name to be ubiquitous in the biking community,” she says.

By the time her first crash case wrapped up, she says, “I had five or six more in its place.” Soon, she was concentrating solely on bike cases from one side of the state to the other, including a steady stream from a 1,000-member cycling club in Memphis.

Listening to clients, she says, is her legal forte. “Being that person’s storyteller is a big responsibility. It’s my job to tell their story for them. So trying to figure out what their story is, to me, is a really important piece of it.”

Amy Johnson says she sometimes feels a little guilt while shuttling her children around in her car when she would rather be living a “car-free lifestyle.”

-- Photo By Michael Patrick |The Ledger

Johnson has also worked with law enforcement in both Knoxville and Chattanooga to improve cycling safety.

In Chattanooga, she teamed up with then-traffic officer Rob Simmons (he’s now a detective), himself a cyclist who saw a need for bicycle law training within the police department. “They would show up to work a car-versus-bike crash and would just not know what to do,” Johnson explains. “They wouldn’t know the applicable laws. They would have no idea how to work up the crash and submit the information for a report.”

With Johnson’s assistance and his chief’s permission, Simmons launched a mandatory training curriculum and made it available on laptops in the officers’ cruisers. He also started a community education program to teach drivers about bicyclists’ rights and responsibilities and introduced the use of a small ultrasound device that alerts civilian bikers if a car comes within 3 feet. The data can then be transmitted to the nearest police officer with the license plate number. “Instead of ticketing, they educated unless the motorist was combative or there was something egregious that warranted issuing an actual traffic citation,” Johnson says.

After the program became a success, reducing unsafe passes and crashes in Chattanooga and drawing national press coverage, in 2018 Johnson helped coordinate a safe passing study in Knoxville, funded by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. She also volunteered as a participant, riding her bike outfitted with data tracking equipment. The study, she says, showed that “high visibility enforcement” like the kind used in Chattanooga did have a positive impact on driver behavior, but the results have not yet been published.

As Bike Walk Knoxville prepared to celebrate National Bike Month in May – the local group hosted a neighborhood ride, presentations on pedestrian safety and the benefits of inclusive bike rides and other events – Johnson is mindfully winding down her law practice, although she plans to keep her license current. She left the Bike Law Network at the end of 2020.

“Practicing law fulltime and having a full caseload has taken me away from some of the original passions about the advocacy,” she says. “I spent the first two years, three years, of driving my daughter to day care beating myself up and shaming myself internally over the fact that I wasn’t commuting by bike. How had I not been able to figure that out? If I was going to talk the talk, I needed to be able to walk the walk and I wasn’t. I was failing by not figuring out a way to live a car-free lifestyle.”

Being a new mom – Betty is now 5; Johnson also cares for her two teenage stepchildren, Ross and India, with her husband Stephen, a criminal defense attorney – and the removal of her thyroid gland has left her with less energy, she admits, and made it even more difficult to keep up with her nonprofit work.

She says she’s looking forward to being on her own bike more often – the family enjoys cycling the greenway and racing their sailboat whenever possible – and diving back into her grassroots advocacy efforts. She also hopes to continue speaking to community groups about bike issues, including how to handle off-leash dogs, a common concern. She still serves on the board of Bike Walk Tennessee and the advisory committee of Bike Walk Knoxville.

Fighting misconceptions about biking is high on her list of priorities. Cyclists need to respect the roadway and refrain from riding two or three abreast when they should be riding single-file, she notes. And motorists should accept the fact that bikers have a right to be there, whether it’s for utilitarian purposes or recreation, and expect to see them on a regular basis.

“There’s almost a sort of resentment [against bikers],” she says. “It is fear: ‘I’m going to hurt this person. Where do I go? Am I going to get in a head-on collision?’ One of the last things that people think to do is just to slow down instead of trying to squeeze through and beat the car if there’s a car in the oncoming lane. To slow down is never the instinct. If we would all slow down a little, I think that would go a long way.”

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