News - September 28, 2011

Neither cyclist nor truck driver found at fault in fatal collision

• DNA evidence led to conclusion but not closure in the Alpine Road accident.

by Dave Boyce

The full and final report on the death of Lauren Ward, 47, of Los Altos Hills will likely remain unavailable to the public, but the California Highway Patrol investigative team has concluded that Ms. Ward was not responsible for her death on Nov. 4, 2010, when her bicycle and a tractor trailer truck collided on westbound Alpine Road at Interstate 280.

That finding overturns an earlier conclusion that placed the blame for the collision on Ms. Ward.

The report also did not blame the truck driver. The truck and bicycle came into contact "while the bike was still in an upright position," a CHP statement said.

The truck, which has an extended front end, had "very significant" blind spots for a "significant time that they were in proximity," CHP Capt. Mike Maskarish said in a telephone interview. "In this case, we just can't determine which party is more at fault."

After discovery of a "very, very minute" amount of DNA found under the left side of the truck cab near the front axle, the investigation by the CHP's Multidisciplinary Accident Investigation Team and a forensics team from the San Mateo County crime lab concluded that the rear tire of Ms. Ward's bike collided with the front bumper of the truck, Mr. Maskarish said.

Investigators concluded that the DNA was human, but because the sample was so small and because months of time had passed, it had become impossible to type the DNA and identify it as belonging to Ms. Ward, Mr. Maskarish said.

The investigation included a re-enactment/reconstruction of the accident, a task complicated by a lack of witnesses and of any physical evidence, not even paint flecks from Ms. Ward's pink bike, he said.

A massive chrome truck bumper and an insubstantial rubber bicycle tire "were not surfaces that would really lend themselves to a really good transfer (of materials)" in a collision, Mr. Maskarish said. "It's not going to take much for the rider to lose control."

The original speculation held that Ms. Ward had turned into the left side of the truck cab, perhaps because she got hemmed in by another vehicle. It is not uncommon for bikes and vehicles to be next to each other in the three lanes of this freeway underpass.

Cyclists run a 100-yard gauntlet that includes stark and sudden darkness when passing under I-280. In trying to regain the right side of the roadway headed west into Ladera, cyclists and drivers must negotiate two merges that cross each other: Vehicles at the stop sign may be aligned with the southbound freeway but want to go west, or vice versa.

"This is just such a horrific tragic accident," Mr. Maskarish added. "It's taken a tremendous amount of time to put this whole thing into place and get this reconstruction together. There has been a very high quality of attention that this department has put into this in fairness to everyone involved."

For the truck driver, Gabriel Manzur Vera, this was the third fatal accident involving his truck since 2003, but in none of them was he found to be at fault, CHP Officer Art Montiel said.

(Ms. Ward's relatives launched a wrongful death lawsuit in January against Mr. Vera and the trucking company, Randazzo Enterprises Inc. of Castroville.)

It seems an unusual number of fatal accidents. "I'm sure it's happened before but I'm not aware of it," Mr. Maskarish said. "It was a coincidence and nothing but that in this particular case."


Posted by Mark, a resident of Atherton: West of Alameda
on Sep 29, 2011 at 1:01 am

I would think that any truckdriver who has been involved in 3 fatal accidents should be taken off the road. Seems odd that all three didn't have enough witnesses to place the blame - is he driving offensively? He certainly isn't driving defensively.

Posted by LocalRider, a resident of Menlo Park: Menlo Oaks
on Sep 29, 2011 at 1:27 am

Wow. This story makes me ill. It's amazing to me how the CHP lacks the common sense to make an insightful analysis. First the CHP dismissed the accident as the bicyclist's fault because she made an "unsafe turn" into the path of the big rig (this "turn" would have occurred while she was going straight, but the CHP didn't let that fact get in their way). Now they find she was upright, hit by the left front of the big rig, and still they cannot determine that the trucker just ran her over. And 3 fatal accidents for one driver is just "a coincidence and nothing but that"?!? That's stupid, clearly there is a trend with this guy.

And now the CHP won't release its full report. Why is it that the Freedom of Information Act does not pertain to something as basic as a traffic collision investigation report? I have encountered difficulty getting findings in a local non-fatal accident as well. Clearly the public should not be made aware of safety issues on our streets.

Posted by Poster , a resident of another community
on Sep 29, 2011 at 9:08 am

There is another thread on this topic: Web Link

Posted by Pete, a resident of Menlo Park: Downtown
on Sep 29, 2011 at 11:46 am

As tragic as this accident is, all of us bicycle riders face similar risks when merging with cars and trucks whenever we ride under or through a freeway or expressway overpass. More needs to be done by traffic engineers, cities and counties to protect bicyclists and in laying out bicycle bike lanes and right of ways when traveling through these high risk zones. Some of these have crosswalks and sidewalks, but those often are typically outside of the flow of traffic and do not work for bicycle commuters who have no protection from motorists that are in a hurry to get on or off a freeway or expressway. As winter approaches more of us will be commuting during darkness (this accident occurred during daylight)and the risks of being struck from behind will only increase. We bicyclists are all vulnerable and unprotected, especially to drivers that do not respect bicyclists road rights.
I telecommute via bike, light rail, train, from Campbell to Menlo Park.

Posted by Jack, a resident of Woodside: Mountain Home Road
on Nov 2, 2011 at 1:24 am

This is truly tragic and sad especially because the truck driver has
been involved in a similar accident before. You would think the driver would use extra caution around bicyclist after having been involved in a similar accident. Having said this, I think there
should be mandatory bicycle safety training classes and annual certification required for cyclists and mandatory safety equipment for those who bike on busy roads. Also training in defensive action, preventative measures on how to be seen by drivers and avoiding drivers'blind spots & turning raduis's may help. When riding bikes recreationally, safety often is not in the forefront. Case in point, last week the traffic lights were not working at the 280 Woodside Road exit and underpass for a few days. temporary "Stop" easels were placed at the bottom of the 280 off ramp and on both directions on Woodside Road. I stopped at the small easel sign while 3 cyclist, who had been traveling up Woodside Road beside me, continued to pedal past the signs and across the 280 off ramp exit without even slowing down. I cringed. If cars had been on the 280 offramp, these cyclists could have been killed. Maybe because drivers are req'd to have a license, insurance, driving tests, and therefore have more risk to observe traffic laws more readily than cyclists do even though cyclists are far more likely to suffer more serious injuries.

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