Viewpoint - December 29, 2010

Editorial: Unclear conclusion in cyclist's death

Like many fatal bicycle-car accidents, it is often difficult to determine the exact sequence of events because the rider is not around to talk about it.

That is definitely the case in the Nov. 4 death of cyclist Lauren Ward at Alpine Road and Interstate 280. The CHP said last week that she inexplicably made a right turn that swept her under the wheels of a big-rig trailer that was headed west toward the on-ramp of Interstate 280.

The CHP said its conclusion was drawn from examination of the physical evidence from the truck and the bicycle and interviews with Gabriel Vera, 44, the truck driver.

As a result of Ms. Ward's "unsafe turning movement," the bicycle "... basically fell into the pathway of the moving truck," a CHP spokesman told The Almanac.

The problem with this finding is that it doesn't answer the question of why she turned at that moment, and there are no eyewitnesses, so far, to help answer that question.

"In the absence of other witnesses, I guess they did the best they could," said longtime cyclist and former Menlo Park mayor Steve Schmidt in responding to the CHP's conclusion. Mr. Schmidt has proposed that the Alpine Road/Interstate 280 intersection be re-striped with a dedicated bike lane.

Certainly, Ms. Ward could have lost her balance and turned into the big rig, but her family and friends and local cyclists tend to doubt that conclusion.

Mr. Schmidt said there is a long-shot explanation that a "side zoomer" auto could have been trying to race around the truck and onto the freeway on Ms. Ward's left side, scaring her and possibly contributing to her fatal right turn.

But the CHP has not heard from witnesses so it is "all speculation," Mr. Schmidt said.

Although the CHP now says Ms. Ward is to blame in this tragic accident, there is no corroborating evidence to support the assertion that she simply made a mistake and turned into the truck. A much more logical explanation would be that something — probably another vehicle — caused Ms. Ward to move to the right. But unless a new witness comes forward, we will never know.

A fitting legacy from this accident would be a safer, dedicated bike lane through the intersection. The route would be clearly marked and split traffic as suggested by one of the options likely to be on offer by the county Public Works Department next month. The lane would be similar to what is in place now at westbound Sand Hill Road and Interstate 280. Through traffic on Alpine Road would stay on the left and freeway-bound traffic on the right, with the bike lane in between.

We urge county planners to quickly approve this proposal, or a better one if it comes along, and get it done as soon as possible, before another tragic accident occurs at this sometimes deadly intersection.


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