News - December 29, 2010

Wrongful death alleged in Alpine Road bike fatality

by Dave Boyce

A wrongful death lawsuit is now in process in San Mateo County Superior Court over the case of a 47-year-old Los Altos Hills bicyclist who died after colliding with a tractor-trailer truck at the Alpine Road/Interstate 280 interchange on Nov. 4.

After an investigation of the incident, the California Highway Patrol concluded that the cyclist Lauren Perdriau Ward was at fault for having made "an unsafe turning movement" into the left side of the truck, CHP Officer Art Montiel said in an interview.

A separate investigation initiated by Ms. Ward's family and the San Francisco law firm of Rouda, Feder, Tietjen & McGuinn sees it differently. An investigative team of "scientists and other experts" disagrees with the CHP's conclusions "as to the cause," attorney John Feder said in a statement.

In the civil complaint filed Dec. 20, Mr. Feder alleges negligence on the part of truck driver Gabriel Manzur Vera and his employer, demolition contractor Randazzo Enterprises of Castroville.

Mr. Vera, 44, "suddenly and without warning" drove the big rig "directly into the path" of Ms. Ward's bike, the complaint says.

The CHP's conclusion is based on interviews with Mr. Vera and an examination of the physical evidence, including Ms. Ward's wrecked bicycle, the marks on the left side of Mr. Vera's rig near the second axle, and the locations of the two vehicles when they came to rest, Officer Montiel said.

While Mr. Vera has been in three fatal accidents since 2003 involving his truck, in none of them was he found to be at fault and there have been no consequences as to his right to continue driving, Mr. Montiel said.

A tricky maneuver

Westbound bicyclists pass through this interchange in great numbers, but if there is a consideration for them, it is not obvious. The interchange begins at a stop sign with two lanes: one into Ladera and the other to the southbound freeway. There are no bike lanes.

Freeway traffic at this stop sign can be significant during the evening commute and can take up both lanes. Perhaps in view of this, Alpine Road morphs into two and a half lanes past the stop sign, thereby allowing freeway bound vehicles who find themselves in the Ladera lane to make a correction.

Meanwhile bicyclists heading into this interchange on the right edge have to negotiate two on-ramps. The northbound ramp is uncomplicated but in the case of the southbound ramp, they must merge with and cross the path of sometimes impatient freeway-bound vehicle traffic in order to get to the relative safety of the lane into Ladera.

Ms. Ward collided and died in the merging section of the road.

How can a cyclist safely negotiate such an interchange? "(It) depends on the skill level of the cyclists, road conditions, traffic volumes (and) road design," California Department of Transportation spokeswoman Gidget Navarro told The Almanac.

Asked to comment on the CHP's conclusion of finding Ms. Ward at fault, bicycling advocate and Menlo Park resident Steve Schmidt noted that "in the absence of other witnesses, I guess they did the best they could."

There is a hint that another vehicle — a "side zoomer," Mr. Schmidt said — may have been in the Ladera lane and trying to get to the freeway by speeding around the truck and/or Ms. Ward. Such a driver would have approached Ms. Ward from her left side and could have scared her so that she fell or turned into the truck. "We don't know," he added. "It's all speculation."

There is conceptual agreement among the stakeholders on a striping change at this intersection to improve safety for bicyclists, Mr. Schmidt said.

Among the alternatives expected to be presented early next year from the county Public Works Department, one option is likely to be a dedicated bike lane, Mr. Schmidt said.

This scenario would specifically encourage traffic headed to the freeway to stay to the right and Ladera traffic to stay to the left, Mr. Schmidt said, while bicyclists would travel in between via a clearly marked bike lane.

Bay City News Service contributed to this report.


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