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SJ Mercury finds cyclists most often to blame in fatal crashes

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  • 8/24 SJ Mercury
    Published Wednesday, August 24, 2005, in the San Jose Mercury News Bikes, cars share blame for dangers INJURY ACCIDENTS DOWN STATEWIDE, BUT NOT HERE By Kellie
    Message 1 of 1 , Aug 24, 2005
      Published Wednesday, August 24, 2005, in the San Jose Mercury News

      Bikes, cars share blame for dangers
      INJURY ACCIDENTS DOWN STATEWIDE, BUT NOT HERE

      By Kellie Schmitt and Elise Ackerman
      Mercury News

      Santa Clara County prosecutors on Tuesday said they plan to file
      vehicular manslaughter charges against Craig Hunter Borlik, who is
      accused in the May hit-and-run death of a 72-year-old bicyclist in
      Palo Alto.

      But the case against Borlik is an exception, not the rule. A
      Mercury News review of bicycle fatalities over the past five years
      shows that most often, the cyclists themselves are at fault.

      Since 2000, 25 cyclists have died in Santa Clara and San Mateo
      counties after collisions with vehicle drivers. According to
      investigators, about half of them failed to follow a basic rule
      of the road or lost control of their bikes.

      Six cyclists were killed after they abruptly turned into a car,
      pulled out in front of a car, left the designated bike lane or rode
      against traffic. The most recent fatal accident occurred Sunday in
      San Jose, when a 15-year-old riding against traffic stopped to stamp
      out a cigarette and was hit by a driver who fled.

      "Motorists do dumb things, and bicyclists do even dumber things,"
      said Mike Nelson, president of the Peninsula Bicycle & Pedestrian
      Coalition, which promotes cycling as an alternative to cars.

      The trend is especially troubling, some cyclists say, because while
      the number of injury-causing bike-car collisions has dropped
      statewide in recent years, injury accidents in Silicon Valley have
      held steady at an average of 800 a year.

      That's led cyclists to work with public officials to try to make the
      roads safer -- and sometimes, to share tips about avoiding high-risk
      intersections.

      Worst roads

      In the wake of Borlik's fatal collision with cyclist Robert Beebe,
      the Mercury News asked dozens of police officers and cyclists to
      identify the Bay Area's most dangerous roads.

      The spot most often mentioned: Page Mill Road in Palo Alto, where
      cyclists must brave a bike path that's sandwiched between two lanes
      of cars speeding onto Interstate 280. But from Los Gatos to La
      Honda, cyclists have a stockpile of stories -- of harrowing
      intersections, near-misses or of ending up on a car's windshield.

      "There are two types of riders," said Palo Alto cyclist Tom Jelmyer.
      "The ones who have been in a crash, and the ones who are going to
      be in one."

      The corner of West Charleston Road and Wilkie Way, where Borlik
      allegedly ran a red light and hit Beebe on May 25, was not
      considered an especially dangerous spot. And Beebe was a veteran
      cyclist who was wearing a helmet.

      But Borlik told police he had been drinking throughout the day.
      When arrested about an hour after the 4 p.m. collision, he had a
      blood-alcohol reading of 0.23 percent, according to court records
      -- nearly three times the legal limit.

      Borlik's attorney could not be reached for comment Tuesday.

      Prosecutors plan to charge the 40-year-old real estate agent with
      vehicular manslaughter possibly as soon as today, when he is
      scheduled to enter a plea on charges of felony driving under the
      influence and hit and run.

      In other instances, experts say, it's often hard to establish who is
      at fault in a bike-car collision; for example, it can be impossible
      to prove whether a light was red or green at a particular moment in
      time.

      In fact, area prosecutors have filed vehicular manslaughter charges
      against just four drivers in those 25 deaths -- Borlik would become
      the fifth -- and murder charges against only one driver.

      In four of the 25 cases, prosecutors declined to file charges, and
      in one instance they pursued lesser charges than manslaughter.

      Even when the cyclist is clearly the victim, prosecutors may opt
      not to bring charges because, they say, jurors tend to sympathize
      with drivers.

      "They say, 'Gosh, I do that all the time,' " said Peter Lynch, a
      deputy district attorney in San Mateo County.

      Collisions continue

      Hoping to pare the number of such tragedies, cyclists, law
      enforcement and elected officials across the state are trying to
      find ways to make it safer to share the road -- from promoting
      awareness to creating more bike lanes.

      That's helped lead to a drop in the number of bike-car accidents
      statewide -- but not in the bike-centric Bay Area.

      Across California, there was a steady drop from 1999-2003 in the
      number of injury collisions involving cyclists -- from 12,159 to
      10,817.

      But in Santa Clara and San Mateo counties, the numbers have bounced
      up and down and up again. In 2000, there were 873 bike-car injury
      collisions here, including six bicyclists killed, according to the
      California Highway Patrol. Last year, there were 767 such accidents
      and five fatalities -- down from 2000, but up nearly 4 percent from
      2003.

      John Brazil, San Jose's bike and pedestrian coordinator, said that
      could be because the Bay Area is a growing urban region with more
      and more people biking and driving.

      In an effort to crack down on unsafe cycling, Palo Alto police in
      June handed out hundreds of citations to young cyclists.

      Palo Alto also has been among the leaders in safety education for
      bikers. In 2001, the city introduced classes developed by the League
      of American Bicyclists to help riders learn the rules of the road.

      Since then, cities across the Bay Area have adopted the classes,
      which include classroom and on-road time.

      Helmets help most

      Experts say the best way to stay safe is to strap on a helmet. Since
      1994, helmets have been mandatory in California for riders under 18.
      A University of Washington study that measured the effects of the
      law found that it resulted in an 18 percent reduction in the number
      of traumatic brain injuries among youth cyclists.

      During that time, there was no change in similar injuries for adults.

      "Anyone with headphones and no helmet is a magnet for a crash,"
      said Rudi Weaver, who works at a bike shop in downtown Palo Alto.

      And when prevention strategies don't work, there's punishment. A
      bill awaiting approval in the state Legislature would create tougher
      penalties for motorists who injure someone while committing a
      traffic infraction, such as running a stop sign.

      Currently, the fine for right-of-way traffic violations is $154,
      whether or not a driver injures someone. If the bill passes, a right-
      of-way violation that causes bodily injury would be $195, and a
      violation that causes great bodily injury would climb to $265.

      The bill's sponsor, State Sen. Debra Bowen, D-Redondo Beach, told
      the Mercury News she thought it unfair for the fine to be the same
      whether or not someone was injured. "It can be very scary to be a
      cyclist in California," she said.

      Even with such progressive measures, frequent cyclists say some
      collisions are hard to avoid.

      Tom Garvey rode his bike safely for 35 years before a crash last
      October at the corner of Arastradero Road and El Camino Real in Palo
      Alto. He said he was moving toward the curb to avoid a car heading
      toward him when his front wheel caught on some raised concrete.

      He crashed, broke several ribs, fractured some vertebrae and
      punctured a lung. He was in the hospital for 15 days and out of
      work more than two months.

      Garvey is shaken, he said, but still riding.

      "I used to like coming up hills and going down fast, but now I am a
      little more cautious," he said. "I'm much more aware of my mortality
      and the frailty of the machine I ride."


      Mercury News staff writer Kim Vo contributed to this report. Contact
      Kellie Schmitt at kschmitt@... or (650) 688-7558.
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