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Troubled by two serious bike accidents

Original post made by Tim Rochte, Menlo Park: other, on Jun 11, 2007

Last week's Almanac contained two more tragic stories of cyclist deaths due to apparently careless car driving. Beyond the obvious personal tragedies, they are each troubling for their own reasons.
The first is the report of the sentence given to Beverly Oaks for killing Thomas Colby Maddox. She received 30 days that can be served as work release and an 18-month license suspension where time to date counts. This is for killing a person?
I am not one to suggest draconian punishments, but since the story indicates a clear negligence on the part of the driver, how can we tolerate so little consequence? Lest anyone start thinking that the cyclist probably contributed to it by being in the road, I argue that it is neither evident nor relevant. Bicycles share the same rights and obligations on the roadway as cars. While it is always a good safety strategy to stay out of the way of fast-moving vehicles, an overtaking car is always obligated to operate safely.
Although the reports of Rodney Smith's death do not contain a definitive cause, the facts indicate a concern for this regular cyclist on Sand Hill Road. Based on the location given (eastbound, 1/2 mile west of Interstate 280) there are two potential points where I have often seen car drivers come far too close to the cyclists. Either they drift into the shoulder as they come around the blind top of the hill corner or they try to battle out the lane merges with the 280 on/off ramps. Both are highly dangerous practices committed by people that I will charitably call in a hurry.
I am afraid that these two stories are indicative of complacency toward road safety. This area is known far and wide as one of the best cycling locations to be found and yet we seem to be doing nothing to keep it safe. The Sand Hill Road, Portola Valley loop is heavily ridden by cyclists every day of the year, yet there appears to be no program to aid safety to remind drivers that they need to share the road at all times. The only thing that has that effect -- packs of riders occupying the road -- unfortunately also understandably aggravates drivers.
Perhaps we can use these tragedies to start a dialog about bicycle/car safety and what can be done to share the roads more effectively. Ideas like "Share the Road" signs in the area to remind people of the common bicycle traffic or re-engineering the road markings for greater safety.
For example, on Sand Hill Road the eastbound junction with Interstate 280 is particularly dangerous as it is a naturally high speed connection with no real effort to buffer auto and bicycle traffic. The westbound junction has been reconfigured to make it quite clear that there is bicycle traffic that needs to merge but eastbound is still a mini freeway. Might this approach help eastbound as well?
Tim Rochte

(This letter was published in the Almanac's June 6, 2007, print edition.)

Comments (31)

Posted by Angela Hey
a resident of Portola Valley: Brookside Park
on Jun 13, 2007 at 10:47 pm

Today I passed a bicycle doing more than 35 mph down Alpine Road - speed limits apply to bikers too. Can the police please cite people who speed on bikes or break the traffic laws in other ways?

As a student in the UK, peers were hauled up in front of the magistrate for breaking the vehicle code. As a society we need to make sure that every citizen, driver, biker, pedestrian knows that a bike is a vehicle not a toy.

When I was 5 years old at school in the UK, the police set up an obstacle course in the playground and taught children age 7 and up how to bike safely. It included stop signs, traffic signals and more. I don't know if schools offer training in bicycling, but it might be a good idea - after all they offer Drivers Ed.

We need to have more lessons in defensive biking. Assume a driver will make a mistake and think of strategies to escape and accident. Regulars on a route may tend to be more vulnerable than newcomers, because with familiarity one can lose attention.

I am going to post some safety tips from Tom Ockenden of Western Wheelers that he put on a bulletin board for a biking group in the hope that it helps people.
"Here are my safety suggestions:

1. Always ride with full focus and attention to cycling. I'll say this again, always.........
2. Always be aware of your riding position in relation to other cyclists and automobiles. Know your escape route in case of trouble.
3. Keep your eyes constantly open for road hazards and road debris.
4. Keep short conversations to a minimum. You can always save your conversations for a traffic signal stop, or stop sign, or regroup.
5. Always ride single file unless you are passing another cyclist.
6. Always ride in designated bike lanes.
7. Use affirmative hand signals to alert drivers (and, of course, other cyclists) to lane changes, turns, merges, etc. Try to make direct eye contact, when you can, with drivers in showing them what you are doing.
8. Train your ears to hear cars approaching from behind. I've been doing this for years, and you can even become good at judging distance behind you. If you are comfortable with the various types of rearview bike mirrors, use them.
9. Don't let cars pass you on blind turns. If you hear, or see, via a rearview mirror, an approaching car, and you are entering a blind turn, either speed up to beat the car around the turn, or slowdown and let the car pass you before you enter the turn.
10. Assess and know the cycling skill level of those riding with you.

I hope these safety tips help you. Please ride safe.

Tom Ockenden"

Posted by Al
a resident of another community
on Jun 13, 2007 at 11:03 pm

You say you passed a bicyclist and say that the speed limit applies to him, too. You must have been going faster than him to pass, so if he was speeeding then you were speeding even more. I don't understand your point. Are you asking the police to ticket you?
Your comments would make sense if you were on a bike, too, but you don't say what you were driving when you passed.
Your other comments make sense, but are out of touch with reality. Governor Pete Wilson cut funding for Driver's Education in public schools. Parents must now pay for private lessons to teach their children how to drive. Some school districts (Palo Alto is an outstanding example) have bicycle safety programs, but most do not. There is no funding for it, no state mandate, and it doesn't help anyone score better on standardized tests, so school administrators aren't interested in it.
Regular riding of a route makes it safer. Studies show that a regular bike commute is the safest ride. The more you ride the same route the more you understand where the hazards are. If you ride the same road every day you learn every crack and pothole, you know which intersections have gravel, you know where the drivers tend to pull out in front of you without looking, etc. This outweighs complacency.

Posted by Angela Hey
a resident of Portola Valley: Brookside Park
on Jun 14, 2007 at 12:15 am

I was in my car - I and the biker deserve to be ticketed. I confess I was exceeding the speed limit and accelerated to about 45 mph to pass safely.

Thanks for letting me know that riding a regular route makes it safer. I do agree that knowing where the deer jump out and where the cracks are increases safety.

My point though is that whereas we all know people with traffic tickets for speeding in cars, very few bikers are in traffic court for breaking the vehicle code.

I do believe that if people were regularly stopped by police for bike violations it would tend to make people bike more safely. Just as people drive at the speed limit up Alpine Road because there might be a cop behind a bush.

See Web Link - you will see that in many types of accidents the biker is almost as likely as a car to be at fault.

Posted by Citizen A
a resident of Woodside: Mountain Home Road
on Jun 14, 2007 at 11:05 am

Angela is on the right direction here. Bikes are vehicles and they should be held to the law if they are riding on roads. And that includes driving over the speed limit...or even being UNDER the safe speed limit.

Posted by Cyclist G
a resident of another community
on Jun 15, 2007 at 1:08 pm

Angela Hey wrote:
"I confess I was exceeding the speed limit and accelerated to about 45 mph to pass safely."

Um, how does speeding up make passing safer? Especially when the cyclist is already doing at least the speed limit, if not greater (as observed by Angela)? If anything, speed generally is not safer. Is this not the point of your original post, since speed limits are for our safety?

Then, Citizen A wrote:
"Bikes are vehicles and they should be held to the law if they are riding on roads. And that includes driving over the speed limit...or even being UNDER the safe speed limit."

Indeed, bikes are vehicles and as such should follow the laws of the road. According to the LAW - see CVC Section 21202 - which outlines how cyclists are to operate when using a roadway while traveling under the speed limit / normal flow of traffic speed. By inclusion, bicycles have legal rights to use the roads, and at times move into the lane, which may indeed impede your very important progress a few precious moments, but I'm sure you make it up by speeding before and after.

Posted by Ralph
a resident of Atherton: Lindenwood
on Jun 15, 2007 at 1:59 pm

Here's a reason for speeding up to pass a cyclist doing 35 mph -- when it is safe to do so.

A bike is not a car. It's got two wheels rather than four so it's inherently less stable -- to gravel or whatever happens to be lying in the road -- and it's got zero protection for the rider.

As a driver doing 35 mph, the last thing I need to be worrying about is the extreme vulnerability of my normal and legal speed vis-a-vis a bicyclist going faster than he or she should be and more or less right in front of me.

It's seriously distracting to be driving what inappropriately becomes a lethal weapon in this particular circumstance. The first thing I want to do in that situation is get around the bicyclist, when it is safe, and if I need to speed up to do it and return to normal speed afterwards, there's no reasonable cop that's going to ticket me.

Posted by Cyclist G
a resident of another community
on Jun 15, 2007 at 2:56 pm

Ralph, point taken - however, I think your point is a bit off. I agree that a bicycle is more susceptible to road debris and whatnot (a good reason why cyclist often move from the far right of the road to the center of the roadway / right hand lane, as allowed by the law). I also appreciate the consideration to the rider's safety that you appear to give.

However, in this situation where the cyclist is riding at 35mph - the speed limit - is it right to exceed the speed limit for you to pass solely so that you do not have to concern yourself any longer with the cyclist's well being? Would you pass a car moving at the speed limit? As operators of vehicles on the road, it is our responsibility to operate them in safe manners in accordance with the laws. With any vehicle in front, that means not following too closely to not be able to react to anything they might do. If we apply this to simply hitting the vehicle in front of you (whether bike or car), if you cannot react in time, you are a) following too close and/or b) not paying enough attention to the road and your surroundings.

If the cyclist is not doing the speed limit, but perhaps is close to it where to pass safely, you would have to pass quickly "forcing" you above the speed limit, I certainly follow your reasoning and would not strongly disagree with it. But, at the speed limit, you first had to be speeding to catch up to the cyclist, and then following at too close of a distance to make it a worry of yours.

In the scenario you describe, I suggest tapping the brake until you are a safe distance behind the cyclist, and then proceed at the speed limit along with the cyclist.

What seriously is distracting are cell phones, radios, passengers, etc. that you are dealing with while driving your, albeit not intentional, lethal weapon. As for the reasoning of "no reasonable cop [will] ticket me," I find that to be a rather poor excuse.

Posted by agree with Ralph
a resident of Menlo Park: other
on Jun 15, 2007 at 7:27 pm

Any driver with any experience is going to want to pass the bicyclist. Why? Because we've all seen too many cyclists behave in an erratic manner. For example, a cyclist biking at the far right of the lane suddenly swerves into the middle of the lane, or starts fishtailing for no apparent reason. You, G, may never be guilty of such behavior, but it happens way too often.

If I'm driving and I see another driver who exhibits erratic behavior, I will do my best to get past that person too, even if it means going above the speed limit for a few seconds.

Posted by and a p.s.
a resident of Menlo Park: other
on Jun 15, 2007 at 7:29 pm

I've seen a lot of bicyclists talking on cell phones. Talk about scary! I pass them too, if I can.

Anyone know if the new hands-free cell phone law is going to apply to people riding bicycles? It should!

Posted by TwoPedals
a resident of Menlo Park: other
on Jun 15, 2007 at 7:52 pm

You have two pedals in your car. If you want to provide a safety buffer between you and someone else, you can use the brake as well as the accelerator. I think all this stuff about passing bicyclists to be safer is B.S., an attempt to rationalize poor behavior. Drivers just can't stand to be behind bikes, and it usually has more to do with social status and egos than it has to do with safety.

Posted by Citizen B
a resident of another community
on Jun 15, 2007 at 7:57 pm

Going back to Citizen A's suggestino, although strict enforcement of traffic laws sounds like an effective strategy for achieving compliance, it is not likely to be effective alone, and may cause more problems than it solves. Can you imagine the backups on 101 if the CHP ticketed EVERYONE who exceeded the speed limit at all or changed lanes without signaling? We have never relied on enforcement alone to achieve safety on our roads. What we really have is an honor system with spot checks by law enforcement.
The honor system is like a tripod standing on 3 principles. Strengthening any one alone while ignoring the others is ineffective in increasing the strength of the system as a whole. The 3 principles are:
1) Education. All users of the road must understand their rights and responsibilities. Furthermore, to achieve compliance, the must understand how violations lead to hazardous situations. It is nearly impossible to get people to comply with laws that they consider to be unfair, capricious or illogical.
2) Respect. The users of the road must not only understand how their actions can endanger others, they must have some concern for the welfare of those others. Ideally they would treat everyone else on the road as a neighbor or compatriot rather than as an impediment or competitor.
3) Enforcement. There must be enough enforcement that road users feel there is a reasonable chance that violations will be prosecuted. We need not ticket every single violation, only enough to keep people thinking that it is a possibility.
In my opinion we are failing in all three areas, and improvements in any single area will be ineffective without corresponding improvements in the other two. Our licensing, testing and re-certification requirements for drivers are miserably ineffective. There is no mechanism for ensuring that drivers learn about new or modified laws. Bicyclist education is non-existent in most places. Some cities have good programs for adults and youth, but they are mostly voluntary and small-scale. Most drivers make subconcious cost/benefit analyses with regards to 2) and 3). Drivers know they should obey the speed limit, but they see some advantage for themselves in speeding, and the risks of hurting themselves or getting caught seem small. They may not understand the implications of increased stopping distance or increased pedestrian mortality that go along with the speed, or they may just not care. Civility and concern for the welfare of others seem to be on the decline in this country, and drivers provide many outstanding examples of it. There is no question that enforcement efforts are woefully inadequate to give drivers the feeling that there is a reasonable chance of getting ticketed for violations. The result is that minor or even serious violations are overlooked and only the most egregious violations are ticketed. The result is that sloppy and careless behavior is rampant on our roads. I don't see that any single group or operators of any particular type of vehicle are any worse than any other. We are all human beings, and too many of us are in too much of a hurry to be bothered with complying fully with laws that are not enforced, and we don't give a damn about people we don't know.

Posted by Citizen A
a resident of Woodside: Mountain Home Road
on Jun 16, 2007 at 12:06 pm

Citizen B - well said.

Underneath all of this bike vs. car dialogue, is frustration venting from issues of power and control for the individual. My guesstimation is that this is also related to the "green" vs. "comfort" arguments about energy sources/etc.

Posted by Angela Hey
a resident of Portola Valley: Brookside Park
on Jun 17, 2007 at 11:14 pm

Passing a biker in a car for me has nothing to do with ego, racing, being green or disliking bikers. I have biked on many dangerous roads, including main roads, narrow roads, Marble Arch and Hyde Park Corner in the middle of London at fast times and consider the bike paths around Portola Valley some of the safer routes.

What I am concerned about is how to reduce the risk of accidents.

When I bike I prefer the cars to pass - so if I do have an unavoidable accident - for example if I have to brake suddenly for a deer, burst tire, cable round the wheel or branch falling off a tree there is nothing behind me that impedes my escape route.

This may be defensive thinking but its based on years of experience.

Posted by safe driver
a resident of Atherton: other
on Jun 18, 2007 at 2:00 pm

My family drove along the San Mateo coast this weekend. Speed limit on highway 1 is 55 mph. Many cars go faster. There's a very narrow bike lane on that road, and there were many cyclists using it.

I realize that some people enjoy biking in cold foggy weather with cars zipping by them at high speed. I am not one of them (I use a bike as a means of transport, not recreation.) But the automatic instinct of any sensible car driver is to get around and get away from a cyclist before an accident occurs.

Power is not the issue! Is there any question about which vehicle is more powerful? Instead of lashing out at cars (still essential for most of us) perhaps you bicycle zealots should direct your energy toward the counties/cities and encourage them to construct safe and separate biking lanes.

Also note that accidents do not occur because of lack of disrespect or enforcement or anything else. They are occurring because cars and bikes simply cannot mix safely at higher speeds. The legs of the above tripod are very shaky.

Posted by C
a resident of Portola Valley: Central Portola Valley
on Jun 18, 2007 at 8:18 pm

I learned to drive in Portola Valley and the first thing I learned once behind the wheel was that cyclists in portola valley pay little attention to their own safety. They do not stop at stop signs or yields, exceed the speed limit going down hills, ride 3 or 4 or 8 abreast down the street. The driver of a car is the one who ultimately is responsible for any accident but we are human and moments of inattention are bound to occur. Cyclists need to pay as much attention to their own safety as possible-- we are taught to drive defensively and must ride so too. For instance this weekend while driving up and then back down Old La Honda Road on a Sunday when I was expecting tons of bycicle traffic and thus driving very slowly and carefully I was still shocked by the behaivor of the cyclists on teh road. I passed 4 or 5 without helmets, many more driving straight through the middle of the road, and when i was on my way down I almost ran into 3 byciclists standing and talking in the middle of my lane right behind a blind turn. As a driver I know that I have to be cautius and careful about cyclists, but there would be a lot less accidents if they practiced safer conduct on the road.

Posted by TwoPedals
a resident of Menlo Park: other
on Jun 19, 2007 at 3:22 pm

The pope agrees with Citizen B. The recently-released commandments for drivers would be unneeded (especially 2,3,5,9,10) if everyone behaved as Angela and safedriver and C claim they do.

Web Link

The "Drivers' Ten Commandments," as listed by the document, are:

1. You shall not kill.

2. The road shall be for you a means of communion between people and not of mortal harm.

3. Courtesy, uprightness and prudence will help you deal with unforeseen events.

4. Be charitable and help your neighbor in need, especially victims of accidents.

5. Cars shall not be for you an expression of power and domination, and an occasion of sin.

6. Charitably convince the young and not so young not to drive when they are not in a fitting condition to do so.

7. Support the families of accident victims.

8. Bring guilty motorists and their victims together, at the appropriate time, so that they can undergo the liberating experience of forgiveness.

9. On the road, protect the more vulnerable party.

10. Feel responsible toward others.

Posted by Citizen B
a resident of another community
on Jun 20, 2007 at 8:28 am

I am tired of hearing sweeping generalizations such as "bicyclists don't stop at stop signs", especially since I know them to be false. Reciting anecdotes about foolish behavior is also unproductive, and only serves to perpetuate stereotypes and foster discrimination. In reality we are all PEOPLE, who happen to be on bikes sometimes and in cars sometimes. Those who bike without helmets might also drive without seatbelts. They might just be risk-takers regardless of where they are, and it has nothing to do with their being "a bicyclist". I know bicyclists who are doctors, lawyers, CEOs, CFOs and policemen. Rodney Smith was a valuable member of his community who did not fit any of the stereotypes listed above.
Next time you see someoene doing something you feel is wrong, rather than get angry and demonize the other person, why not try to 1) find out WHY they are executing the behavior you don't like, 2) find out what it would take to get them to change, and 3) work to make that change happen. Suggestions: get your local schools and recreation departments to offer League of American Bicyclists Effective Cycling classes to all ages, have your insurance company give mature driver seminars in your community, work to provide transportation for those who need to go places but are in no condition to drive safely(e.g. seniors or teens).
I guarantee that the most ineffective thing you can do is to whine and complain in an online forum! You may feel better for venting, but it may actually be counterproductive in the long run if it polarizes people.
Remember the old slogan: If you are not part of the solution you are part of the problem.

Posted by Cody
a resident of another community
on Jun 26, 2007 at 7:58 pm

ok what if your a biker and you dont know how fast your going like i know how fast i'm always goin cause i have a speedometer. But what if you dont have a speedometer can you still get ticketed

Posted by Fed Up
a resident of Woodside: other
on Jun 27, 2007 at 1:25 pm

I can't help but notice that the majority of the pro bike responses are from "other communities".
Why don't you folks just ride where you live?
The obvious problem is that the roads in Woodside and Portola Valley are not suited for sharing. Especially with arrogant packs of bikers who are simply showing alpha type behavior by riding in large packs in order to show that they too, are entitled to the road.
We gave you Canada all to yourselves.

Posted by anon
a resident of Menlo Park: Sharon Heights
on Jun 27, 2007 at 2:24 pm

Stop riding your bikes here and clogging up the roads. Unless you can bike in a way to not interfere with the normal traffic flow, you have no business biking here. The road is for people who can keep up with the traffic flow, whether it be cars or bikes. If you can't bike at 50mph, get off the road. Its as simple as it is. And stop for the stop signs. Bikers are the most dangerous people out there. [Portion removed by Almanac staff.]

Posted by anon
a resident of Portola Valley: Ladera
on Jun 27, 2007 at 4:18 pm

where on any of the aforementioned roads is the speed limit 50mph

Posted by Citizen A
a resident of Woodside: Mountain Home Road
on Jun 27, 2007 at 10:05 pm

Yes, please bike-like-a-jerk in your own neighborhood versus come to Woodside.

The residents of Woodside who respect each other are fed up with the out-of-the-community rude bikers. Please go away! Or face the consequences!

Posted by Driver B
a resident of another community
on Jun 28, 2007 at 1:50 pm

@ Citizen A,

I promise to not ride in Woodside if you likewise agree not to pollute the air with your car in San Francisco.

I'm guessing that you do not fairly represent "esidents of Woodside who respect each other". Try riding your bike sometime and maybe you'll feel less angst for others in and outside your community. I drive a car as well and am most happy to safely share the road with cyclists. Frankly, I wish there were more of them.

Driver B

Posted by Wheeler
a resident of Woodside: Emerald Hills
on Jun 28, 2007 at 3:47 pm

Looking past the lies and incorrect facts in the posts above, it is obvious that the bike safety issue is a proxy for the real battle: Woodside residents versus outsiders. Woodheads wish their community was fenced in and they could lock the gates to keep people out, but allow them to invade other's neighborhoods whenever they feel like it. They get enraged when they see outsiders on Woodside roads who act as if they belong there. It has nothing to do with safety, and everything to do with power and control, as Citizen A said above.

Woodheads have been trying to discourage bicylists from coming to their town for decades, but the numbers have only increased. Their efforts have obviously been failures, but they are too wrapped up in their own sense of entitlement to do anything else. It is really embarassing to see otherwise intelligent people act like this, almost like hearing a family member spew racism.

Posted by anon
a resident of Menlo Park: Sharon Heights
on Jun 28, 2007 at 7:10 pm

to resident of portola valley: the speed limit may be 35 but the traffic flow is 50. Stop being dangerous and biking there.

Posted by anon
a resident of Menlo Park: Sharon Heights
on Jun 28, 2007 at 7:13 pm

to driver B:

cars do not pollute air. today's car emissions are very very clean, especially after they are warmed up.

Bikes, on the other hand, are dangerous. They cause deaths.


No, woodside residents do not want bikers because they are dangerous. The residents don't want road hazards and don't want to accidently kill someone on the road. Isn't that simple to understand? Bikes should be illegal.

Posted by URA**Backwards
a resident of Portola Valley: other
on Jun 28, 2007 at 7:48 pm

Bikes cause deaths but cars are OK????? Motor vehicle crashes are the leading cause of death for ages 3-34 in this country, and have been for decades. Motor vehicle crashes cause more than 40,000 deaths a year, dwarfing 9-11 and the Iraq war combined. More people have died in Woodside and Portola valley from car crashes than bike crashes in the last 10 years. If you want to reduce road hazards, make cars illegal! You are letting emotion rule over logic, and have everything backwards as a result.

Posted by A bicycling resident of Woodside
a resident of Woodside: other
on Jun 29, 2007 at 2:40 pm

All I can say is: Kids, grow up...
That applies to 99% of all the comments above, most of which are insubstantial and irrational.

Posted by anon
a resident of Menlo Park: Sharon Heights
on Jun 30, 2007 at 12:38 am

no, cars are necessary otherwise we can't go anywhere

bikes are for people who want to be macho and wear tights and show their muscles

cars are a form of transportation that everyone knows how to use. unless we have a metro subwawy system in our community, car should remain the only form of transportation allowed.

Posted by Miss Perambulator
a resident of Menlo Park: Downtown
on Jul 2, 2007 at 1:00 pm

Dear God, if this is how you feel about bicyclists, what do you people do to pedestrians?

Posted by walker
a resident of Menlo Park: Belle Haven
on Jul 2, 2007 at 8:44 pm

My experience is that cars are not very polite to most pedestrians. Most drivers seem to be unaware that we have the right of way in crosswalks, whether or not they are marked. Many drivers like to play chicken with pedestrians.

However, we usually do not walk in the middle of busy streets, thereby provoking the ire of drivers. Nor do we try to assert our right to mingle with vehicles far more powerful and less vulnerable than we are.

You aren't likely to see a pedestrian killed in the loop. But then, you aren't likely to see a pedestrian encased in tight fitting lycra covered with brand names. We're not out there to show off or prove anything. We just like to walk.

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