10 February 2014

In Memorium—what cyclists must do

Monday, 10 February 2014

Saturday I took part in the annual Tour de Palm Springs. The event has never had a fatality for its previous 13 years of rides, but this year's ride was tragic for one cyclist's family. The cyclist was identified as La Vonne Koester of Alta Loma. She was an experienced cyclist who devoted a lot of time to longer rides, including the 475-mile RAGBRAI (the DesMoines Register Annual Bicycle Ride Across Iowa). Her husband of 36 years, Ron, found great comfort in Christianity and bicycled with La Vonne on occasion. Ron, however, has been recovering from health issues that began late 2012. Their son Scott is also a cyclist, who has neared or exceeded the avid interest in long-distance rides. La Vonne's other son Shawn does not seem to have strong cycling interests. 

The loss of an active, supportive, and loving woman must be given more than a mere moment of silence.

And we must understand how such a tragedy can be avoided. Will Fuller, President of the Desert Bicycle Club wrote about the accident:

"Saturday, a fellow bicyclist ...died after a tragic accident at the intersection of Avenue 60th and Harrison in Thermal. ... Fellow DBC member, Dave Hilts was in a peloton of around 60 riders. According to Dave, the front of the peloton stopped at the stop sign, to cross Harrison and continue west on Avenue 60. and then proceeded through. The large peloton continued crossing Harrison [even] when it became unsafe to do so. Dave, who was near the back of the peloton, noticed traffic coming down Harrison at a high rate of speed and realized it had become dangerous. Dave yelled out and came to a stop and the rider in back of him almost crashed into him. According to Dave, the truck with a trailer, who hit La Vonne, had no way to stop.
Intersection of Avenue 60 (horizontal) and Harrison
"The intersection of Avenue 60 and Harrison can be dangerous if not crossed thoughtfully (coming to a stop and looking both ways). It is a two way stop, not four way. Vehicles on Harrison have the right of way and are not required to come to a stop. I believe the speed limit is 55+ on that stretch. (It could be marked otherwise).

"From the facts I currently have, it sounds like this accident never had to happen. Riding in pelotons can be safe and dangerous at the same time. If you don't know the riding styles and habits of those around you, anything is possible. One of the things to be conscious of is a pack mentality. Just because the person in front of you crossed an intersection doesn't mean it's safe for you to proceed. As Dave Cooper reminds us, we are all on the safety committee. We lookout for each other (the peloton, fellow riders) and ourselves all at the same time. On the plus side, riding in a peloton, the likelihood of being seen by traffic is much higher.

"...I share these details to keep you aware of what happened and to remind each of us to remain vigilant for each other and yourself. Even though I did not know La Vonne Koester, my thoughts and prayers go out to her and La Vonne Koester's family and friends. A tragic loss and a sad day for the cycling community during an event special to so many."
Other sources have reported that a vehicle on Harrison from the north had stopped, despite having right-of-way, to allow the peloton to cross without breaking up. The truck also approached the intersection and the stopped car from the north and passed the car in the middle lane, without awareness of the peloton of bicyclists. However, this report does not come from eye witnesses. One Facebook contributor described the accident.
"The incident occurred at a right angled intersection in a very rural area, there were no buildings in the area and the terrain was flat. All roads were one lane in each direction.
Cyclists approaching the intersection had a stop sign, traffic approaching from the left or the right did not have a stop sign. There were trees on the near right side as the cyclists were approaching the intersection obscuring traffic approaching from the right until the riders were very close to the intersection. The trees also obscured the view of the cyclists by automobile traffic. 
"On the road to the right of the cyclists, automobile “A” had stopped to motion the cyclists to go forward through the intersection. As the cyclist who was hit was going through the intersection, automobile “B” passed automobile "A" in the intersection using the lane intended for vehicles going in the opposite direction and struck the cyclist. 
"As a cyclist it is easy to simply follow others through an intersection thinking that it must be safe for you if it is safe for them. It is also easy to just look at the first automobile in the only traffic lane approaching the cyclist, not the cars behind. Vehicles in ‘the wrong lane’ on a 2 lane bidirectional road, that is, a vehicle approaching from the north in a lane intended for traffic going to the north are rare but must be looked for.
"For a cyclist approaching this intersection, it would be very difficult to see and properly interpret this situation unless the cyclist came to a full stop at the stop sign and took the time to assess the circumstances in both directions."

Television report on the accident.En español

The accident occurred perhaps a half hour before I passed through the intersection. Some 30 cyclists were stopped, the intersection was clear of any debris, perhaps the vehicles involved were already removed, and an emergency vehicle was still on the scene—but no ambulance.

Beyond the needless death of a cyclist and the psychological effects on the driver who killed her, it is important that the local law enforcement, event management, and participants learn from this event.
  • Local law enforcement must be present throughout the event to encourage cooperative use of the roads and polite share of the rights of way. 
  • The organizers of the event must redouble their efforts to assure compliance with traffic signals and signage. 
  • Of course, also that each cyclist know that safety is, first and foremost, your primary responsibility. Not speed. Not time. Not the team. Even not the convenience of keeping up your momentum.

Ride conditions
Temperature: 52 to 85°F
Precipitation: none
Winds: 10 to 15 mph from the west
Clothing: Skinsuit, longsleeve undershirt, ankle socks, open-finger gloves
Bike: Serotta Colorado fixed 48x15
Time: 7:18:52 for 109.04 miles
Heart rate: 132 bpm HRave, 155 bpm HRmax
Playback of the ride

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