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Respecting the Road and Reflecting on a Tragedy

The Bay Area is enduring three emotional events this weekend involving bicycling, but the most important, and most emotional cycling incident and tragedy occurred in Novato on Thursday afternoon.

The Bay Area is enduring three high profile and emotional events this weekend involving bicycling, including the 20th anniversary of Critical Mass in San Francisco, and the return of the Levi Leipheimer Gran Fondo in Sonoma County. In those first two combined, nearly 20,000 cyclists will take to the streets.

But the most important and most emotional cycling incident occurred in Novato on Thursday afternoon when an innocent 12-year old life was taken during the meeting of her bicycle and a several-ton, fast-moving vehicle on a well-known Novato roadway near schools and homes. 

The two formal cycling events and the tragic accident in Novato also come at a time when Gov. Jerry Brown is considering the authorization or veto of Senate Bill 1464 — the 3-foot Separation Law — to formally designate a safety space between cars and bikes on California’s roadways.

My rationale for writing this short piece is not to get into an argument one way or the other for the Assembly bill (although there are many local residents who have been very vocal on both sides and I, in fact, support the proposed legislation) nor is it to blame drivers or cyclists for accidents.  Instead, I am using this space to plead to the citizens of Novato and others reading this to recognize that not one user — vehicle driver, cyclist, pedestrian — solely “owns” the roadways. 

I am also here to plead to the vehicle drivers that you must be more patient, you must slow down, you must be aware of your surroundings and please —DO NOT USE THE PHONE as you are driving.

I am here to plead to cyclists — young and old – to be more patient, follow the laws of the road including traffic signs and lights, ride with traffic and not against, and be courteous to drivers, pedestrians and other cyclists.

The fact is, we have seen nearly a doubling of cyclists in the past decade or so. We also have seen increases in the number of drivers. Even with the much better cycling infrastructure in Novato and Marin County (including more and better marked bicycle lanes, separate bicycle trails, and continued education by groups such as the Marin County Bicycle Coalition), my personal experience is that the frustrations and confrontations between driver and cyclist also are increasing. I do not have an explanation for this latter occurrence, but I fear it has to do with our faster-paced lives and general intolerance toward patience.

Why does a driver need to pass me cycling down a narrow downhill road near Black Point while I am coasting downhill at 20-25 mph, still below but close to the legal speed limit? It only takes me 30 seconds to get to the bottom of the hill where the roadway opens up and the car can pass safely.

Why does the road warrior cyclist feel like he has to go through stop signs and stop lights endangering not only himself but the other riders and vehicles and pedestrians around him?

Both of these situations make no sense to me. 

But what makes the least sense of all, is why does a 12-year-old girl have to die while riding her bike home from school? I, like many of you, have children who we wish to encourage to be independent, ride more to school and to the market like we did when we were kids many decades ago.  Cyclists are good for the environment, and are good for drivers because they take cars off the road. And drivers, you have to understand that physics dictates the final result of a confrontation between a fast-moving several-ton vehicle and a lightweight bicycle. The bicyclist will not win. 

I love cycling — I just rode 330 miles from Eureka to San Francisco to raise more awareness for bicycling and environmental causes. But the high of that ride is dashed by the tragic taking of a young life.

I encourage — no, I plead — for all of us to be more empathetic toward each other. I plead for us to not just share the road but respect the road and the users of the road. And to do all we can, in our power, to prevent more instances of the tragedy that unfolded in town just a few short hours ago.

This post is contributed by a community member. The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Patch Media Corporation. Everyone is welcome to submit a post to Patch. If you'd like to post a blog, go here to get started.

Sarah Gant September 29, 2012 at 03:58 PM
As drivers, think of every close call you have ever had with a pedestrian or cyclist. You would not want to be the driver of that White SUV this weekend. Get to where you are going safely and as if you could not live with yourself if you harmed a child.
Karen Green September 29, 2012 at 05:09 PM
Beautifully said, Scott. There is nothing in our lives, other than our lives themselves, so important that cannot wait the extra minute it takes to be patient and safe. And parents, we set the example for our children. They are watching our impatience...and learning. Let them watch our courtesy to others on the road, be it to bicyclists, pedestrians, or other drivers. Let us teach the next generation to be more courteous than we are.
Tina McMillan September 30, 2012 at 04:31 AM
Scott There is no doubt that we must slow down and focus on one thing when we drive, and that is the road around us. No eating, no cell phones, no music, no makeup, no flipping dials and switches or even watching your hybrid mileage as you drive. Driving is serious business. There is so very much at stake. What has been said repeatedly in the last two days is SLOW DOWN. This is actually great advice for life. Slow down, look around, stay focused on the one thing you are doing in the moment. Life is precious we do not want to lose a moment of it or risk taking it away from someone else. All that being said, I do not support the three foot distance because it cannot be enforced on roads where there are cars parked along the sidewalks, no bike lane and no place inbetween. I do wish more adult bike riders would model for our kids safe riding by stopping at intersections, riding on the correct side of the road and following the same rules as vehicles. I was driving down Vineyard today and two teens in a truck, passed me on the right going at least 35 ( the limit is 25) and ran the stop sign at Vineyard and Eucalyptus. It is not just teens but in this case all I could think was whose next......
Gram September 30, 2012 at 02:47 PM
If the driver were a "visitor", why would he not be slowed down as he was very unfamiliar with the roads in the area? And Keeping him a "mystery man" is adding to the consternation of this more than sad incident.
Karen Dionne September 30, 2012 at 02:56 PM
My husband rides his bike 12 miles round trip to work. He just had hand surgery as a result of a car/bike accident. The woman driving the car was ticketed. He says he has a near-miss at least once a week. I feel that all bikers should wear florescent jackets/vest and use flashing lights to make them more visible from a greater distance. Three feet should be given at all times to the biker, no matter what. If there's not enough room to pass, then slow down until there is. Getting somewhere is not more important than saving a life. As long as there are bicyclists on the road we all have to pay more attention and be much more careful. Personally, I feel my husband is crazy for taking such huge risks on these roads with all the distracted drivers. The bicyclist always loses.
BugFamily September 30, 2012 at 03:25 PM
My family is relatively new to the area and lives less than a mile from the Novato accident site. When we moved here from the Midwest, we were shocked to learn that there is no transportation provided for students who live more than a mile from school, or who have to cross busy and/or dangerous roads. Apparently busing cost too much. Maybe, just maybe, this little girl would still be with us if she'd been able to take a bus home instead of riding her bike along a heavily traveled, poorly marked road. How many children must be hurt or killed just because of a cost saving measure? I for one would be willing to kick in a couple hundred bucks a year so kids can get to school safely.
BugFamily September 30, 2012 at 03:26 PM
My family is relatively new to the area and lives less than a mile from the Novato accident site. When we moved here from the Midwest, we were shocked to learn that there is no transportation provided for students who live more than a mile from school, or who have to cross busy and/or dangerous roads. Apparently busing cost too much. Maybe, just maybe, this little girl would still be with us if she'd been able to take a bus home instead of riding her bike along a heavily traveled, poorly marked road. How many children must be hurt or killed just because of a cost saving measure? I for one would be willing to kick in a couple hundred bucks a year so kids can get to school safely.
Mary Balestrieri September 30, 2012 at 03:45 PM
I agree with the post on providing transportation for the kids. The priority must be, to assure childrens safety in getting to and from school. There is no greater cost than the loss of a life to illustrate this critical need. The great minds of this county and state need to ensure all children who live beyond safe walking distance from their schools are transported. With the personal and commercial resources in this county, it can be done! Please don't let this happen again before consideration is given to addressing this issue.
Rebecca Lack September 30, 2012 at 04:29 PM
I just need to add that riders young and old... Please please wear a helmet! There are way too many bicyclists I see not wearing a helmet. Unfortunately most are children between 7 and 15. The most critical age because they think they are invincible and can be daring and reckless.
Lucia Tallchief Mele September 30, 2012 at 05:18 PM
Beautifully written. One would think that with the reduction of drunk driving, there would be fewer pedestrian and cyiclist fatalities. But then along came cell phones and monster SUVs.
Brant September 30, 2012 at 05:59 PM
On the three feet item, have a look at Sir Francis Drake Blvd between Lagunitas and Olema. The center line is a double line the entire way and the road bed is too narrow to permit passing a bicycle with a three foot clearance without crossing the double line. I'm all in favor of road safety - especially safety for two-wheeled vehicles - but I do not understand how the three foot restriction is to be applied. Your advice, please.
Tina McMillan September 30, 2012 at 06:04 PM
Brant Legislators keep creating more and more rules without thinking through the consequences. If adult bike riders would also follow the road rules it would be possible to anticipate what they are about to do. I just drive slower and slower in anticipation of the unexpected.
Richard H. September 30, 2012 at 06:46 PM
Response to Brant: Hi Brant, are you suggesting that briefly touching or crossing the double line is an inferior alternative to driving dangerously close to, and perhaps endangering the life, of a cyclist (i.e., a fellow human being who undoubtedly has people that love and care for her)? Have you - or has anyone here - ever heard of someone getting a ticket for crossing 1-2 feet over the yellow lines to afford a cyclist a respectable buffer? I doubt it. Remember that cyclists have all of the same rights on the road as you do. If you need to wait 10 or 15 seconds, or even a minute, for a safe opportunity to pass, is that really worse than potentially killing or maiming a person? Less the 3 feet really is unsafe. All it takes is a pothole, an oncoming car, or anything else you can think of to instinctively swerve and instantly close that gap. I am an avid cyclist and I rigidly obey every traffic law, and it frustrates me to no end when others do not - it gives us all a bad name and fosters bad relations between cyclists and drivers - but again, we are talking about life and death here.
Scott Warner September 30, 2012 at 06:47 PM
Thank you all for your comments. For those interested in the outcome of SB1464, the Governor returned the Bill without signature. For your information, I am providing both the link to the bill to read it for yourself, and also the Governor's response - the outstanding issue concerns handling a liability issue. Tina, this is not just an "adult bike riding" issue. http://leginfo.legislature.ca.gov/faces/billNavClient.xhtml?bill_id=201120120SB1464 --------------------------------------------- To the Members of the California State Senate: I am returning Senate Bill 1464 without my signature. I applaud the author's continuing work to improve bicycle safety. This bill requires motor vehicles to pass bicycles at a distance of at least three feet and expressly permits the vehicle to cross a double yellow line to do so. Crossing a double yellow line is an inherently dangerous act that increases the risk of head-on collisions. When a collision occurs, it will result in a lawsuit where the state is likely to be sued as a "deep pocket." By making it legal to cross a double yellow line, the bill weakens the state's defense to these lawsuits. Caltrans proposed a solution to insulate the state from costly lawsuits, while still providing the three-foot safety buffer for bicyclists. Unfortunately the author declined to amend the bill. I encourage the sponsors to work with my administration to resolve the liability problem. Sincerely, Edmund G. Brown Jr.
Scott Warner September 30, 2012 at 06:48 PM
Dear Brant. I included the text of the proposed legislation in the string below and the Governor's response. sw
Scott Warner September 30, 2012 at 06:56 PM
Tina. I agree that all cyclists need to follow the traffic laws. As with driving, if a law is broken and in particular, if an unsafe condition arises, the responsible party should be cited. However, I do put much more burden in rigorously following the traffic laws on to drivers - how many "false stops" occur by drivers, how many drivers fail to use their turn signals? Our police force is not large enough to enforce every law on every infraction as we know. It is up to us to follow those laws voluntarily. For cyclists, we must remain in a defensive cycling position and more aware of our surroundings at all times. It's not that we have too many safety laws - we have too many safety laws that are ignored by the public. But that doesn't mean we stop developing them and doing the right thing.
Brant September 30, 2012 at 07:15 PM
Richard, I do not at all mean to contend that the lives of any user of the road should ever be considered unimportant or a secondary consideration. I ride on two wheels myself with little protection around me and I know that some drivers (cage operators!) pay inadequate attention and take unnecessary risk. However, I believe that safety is the result of our habitual behavior, not some sort of add-on thing. Establishing as habitual behavior the crossing of double lines in violation of the law will diminish safety - even though, as you note, it is often done. You say that you rigidly obey every traffic law, so I'm surprised that you are suggesting that motorists not do the same. Of course, this is all moot. The proposed law (thank you Scott for providing the link) would have permitted legally crossing the double line.
Richard H. September 30, 2012 at 07:38 PM
Hi Brant, firstly, apologies if I offended. I won't reiterate my points, but I just wanted to respond to one comment. Despite the assertion, I don't believe my comments were inconsistent. I rigidly obey traffic laws because I believe to do otherwise gives cyclists a bad name, and I would rather be part of the solution. My suggestion that drivers touch or briefly cross the double yellow is simply a matter of preventing unnecessary tragedy. Obviously I would only suggest it be done under safe circumstances (i.e., when its clear no oncoming cars are coming).
Jeni September 30, 2012 at 11:29 PM
I agree wholeheartedly with so much of that and give my heartfelt condolences to Hailey's family and that of the driver. I am curious, since I have not yet seen it brought up; why, oh why was she down there in the first place? Such a tragedy. There is no crosswalk there. Everyone wants to blame the driver, when we really don't know what happened. Perhaps she zipped right in front of him to cross the street...clearly she was far from a crosswalk at a busy road where the curve just beyond gives no notificatin that there may be kids riding their bikes crossing the road. This could very well be an accident plain and simple, and maybe no one at all is to 'blame. Please have compassion for the driver as well as Hailey's family, until we really know what happened.
Jeni September 30, 2012 at 11:31 PM
100% agree! These children should not have to be riding/walking to and from school. Sad that this is not a priority.
Jeni September 30, 2012 at 11:33 PM
If you have not driven that particular road and have no clue there is a school there around the bend...the speed limit says 45...how could you know (in a spot where the school can not even be seen) that a child might be in the roadway on a bike right there. Perhaps better signage coming from that direction would avoid things like this.
Tina McMillan September 30, 2012 at 11:38 PM
Scott I focus on adult bike riders because I believe there is a learning curve for children who do not necessarily understand the rules of the road. Adults need to understand that while riding a bicycle they are held accountable for the same rules as cars. The three foot passing law is not the issue. We all need to share the roads safely by following the rules. We also need to model responsible behavior for our children. No matter how hard we try accidents are bound to happen. That is why I persist in saying how important it is to simply SLOW DOWN and stay focused on what we are doing when we are behind the wheel. This accident terrifies me because a child died. It is a tragedy. There are no words to express the pain of the loss.
Brent Ainsworth (Editor) October 01, 2012 at 04:44 PM
I think this all can be traced back to the taxpayer revolt that resulted in Proposition 13 in 1978. That's pretty much when the school buses disappeared except for field trips and special cases. http://www.caltax.org/research/prop13/prop13.htm
Syd October 01, 2012 at 05:17 PM
School bus service would be beneficial in many ways - especially since the middle school debacle. Does anyone know the approx cost to Novato taxpayers if we did bring the buses back?
Tina McMillan October 01, 2012 at 06:31 PM
Schools throughout California have had to cut bus service because our state is in bankruptcy. Many middle school age children want to be able to ride their bikes to and from school. Buses are not the answer. We need to make our roads safer and drive slower. The area in which the accident occurred needs attention. If we all email the city they may be able to add a crosswalk as well as a sidewalk on both sides of the road. We could also reduce the speed limit until you reach Stafford Lake to 25 or 30 miles an hour.
Scott Warner October 02, 2012 at 06:15 AM
Dear all: public transportation is not the sole answer here - we will continue to see multiple uses for the roadways - bikes, vehicles, and pedestrians along the edges.and crossing streets. We need to continue to educate cars and cyclists and walkers, and continue to educate our kids and all riders about defensive riding and increase the safety measures of our roadways (slower legal speeds in high pedestrian traffic areas around homes and schools, for example) One final comment - I think it is time to hear from our City Council members in a written forum on steps being taken to eliminate these horrific accidents. The elected leaders of this community should not be quiet.
Matt October 08, 2012 at 08:55 PM
Im all for safety, but when Bikers are in the middle of a major road....???? and I mean middle and not off to the side...... These are bikes not cars.... I dont drive my car on the bike trails.........
Scott Warner October 08, 2012 at 09:45 PM
Then you slow down so as not to create an accident. What do you do if another car is in your pathway? How about an animal? How about a ball from a playground that goes into the road and a child chases it down? You are a several ton machine going very fast - regardless of fault as to why the pedestrian, animal, or cyclist is in the road, you do all you can to avoid a collision. And by the way, bikes can make turns from the left turn lane in the middle of the road if it is done safely. Again, you do all you you can to avoid a collision.
Chris October 09, 2012 at 12:53 PM
I encounter cyclists all the time when driving my car. I'm glad to see them and don't mind having to slow down before it is safe to pass. And I've never had to wait more than a minute to pass safely, even on ridiculously narrow roads like Coleman Valley Road. When the traffic lane is too narrow to be safely shared by cars and bikes, cyclists will "take the lane" to avoid the risk of being side-swiped. What's a few moments' inconvenience, anyway? Safety trumps convenience every time.

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