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Answers sought in cyclists' death

The San Antonio Express-News: Answers sought in cyclists’ deaths

By Vianna Davila - Express-News

A day after the Bexar County Sheriff’s Office said charges would not likely be filed in a bicycle crash that killed the parents of a 7-year-old girl, it announced it would leave that decision up to the district attorney’s office.

Deputy Ino Badillo, spokesman for the Sheriff’s Office, said investigators plan to forward all findings of Thursday morning’s accident to prosecutors to determine if the truck’s driver, 40-year-old Gilbert John Sullaway Jr., would be charged with any wrongdoing.

Sullaway hasn’t been charged with any crime, nor was he cited for any traffic violations.

On Thursday, Badillo said it appeared the collision that killed Gregory and Alexandra Bruehler was a tragic accident.

According to investigators, the Bruehlers had taken off from their home near Braun and Tezel roads in San Antonio and were cycling north of Helotes on Texas 16 when Sullaway’s truck, going about 5 mph over the 65-mph speed limit, came up behind them. The pickup veered off the road and then Sullaway overcorrected, striking the cyclists, who were riding on the shoulder. The truck dragged their tandem bicycle about 200 feet.

Badillo said investigators found no evidence that Sullaway was intoxicated or taking illegal substances. What is unknown is if Sullaway was distracted. Authorities are looking at phone records to determine if he was using his cell phone at the time.

Still, authorities said for Sullaway to have been arrested, he would have had to intentionally strike the Bruehlers or be under the influence.

But recklessness and negligence are trickier to determine, said Alejandro Ballesteros, an assistant district attorney with Bexar County’s DWI Task Force. In simple terms, the legal definition involves “a gross deviation” from normal behavior, Ballesteros said.

A clear example would be a driver who unbuckled his seat belt, reached into the back seat and drove with his foot — that, he said, is a gross deviation.

Bicycle rights and safety advocate Robin Stallings said the incident was just one more reason bicycle laws need to be updated and clarified.

“It’s just called an accident. And it’s not an accident,” Stallings said. “It’s a crash, and somebody’s responsible.”

He decried Gov. Rick Perry’s veto of Senate Bill 488 earlier this year that would have required motorists to give vulnerable road users including cyclists at least 3 feet of clearance when they pass. Commercial vehicles would have to give more, at least 6 feet of clearance.

The law only requires that one vehicle pass another vehicle safely, a definition Stallings said is too vague. Under Texas law, a bicycle is considered a vehicle.

This year, at least two other bicyclists have been killed on area roads. In June, 27-year-old Anthony Cruz was killed while cycling on FM 476 in Atascosa County. The driver of a pickup that clipped the rear of the bike, sending Cruz flying, was not charged. In February, Enriquez Castillo, 47, was killed when his bicycle was hit on Nacogdoches Road by a distracted motorist who looked down to change the radio. The driver was not charged.

Department of Public Safety Trooper Travis Hall said drivers can be cited for hitting a cyclist, even if the cyclist isn’t seriously injured. If a driver were to strike a cyclist riding on an improved shoulder of a road, that driver could be ticketed and face a Class C misdemeanor, he said.

Whatever the outcome of Sullaway’s case, the crash likely affected attitudes toward cycling. Tragedies like this one can mobilize advocates but also reinforce fears that the roads are unfriendly to cyclists.

“The people who are nervous in the first place are gonna go, ‘Heck no, I’m not gonna get on a bike anytime soon,’” said Julia Diana, who deals with bicycle issues for the city of San Antonio’s Office of Environmental Policies.

The Bruehlers were known to take their safety seriously — each was wearing a helmet Thursday.

They had experienced a brush with death in August 2007, when a truck struck the family’s vehicle, killing Gregory Bruehler’s mother and seriously injuring him and Alexandra.

That crash put Alexandra Bruehler in a wheelchair temporarily, according to one neighbor. Alexandra and Gregory Bruehler had a grueling recovery and eventually returned to their active lifestyle that included swimming, running and cycling.

Neighbor Melody Harper saw Gregory Thursday morning, washing down one of his bicycles in the driveway of their home on Wuthering Heights, a house with a front yard full of flowers as bright as the family’s spirits. Halloween decorations already hung from the front door; a gingerbreadlike playhouse Bruehler built for his daughter stood empty in their shaded backyard.

“The thing that needs to be known and put out is what beautiful people they were, what good people they were,” Tina Jorgensen, another neighbor, said.

The day after the Bruehlers’ deaths, Harper mourned the couple, but also thought of Sullaway, and all that he must be experiencing now.

She smiled when she thought of Gregory helping daughter Kylie ride earlier this week, setting up orange traffic cones in the cul-de-sac of their street so she could practice riding between them.

“They were a family that lived and loved life,” Harper said.

But, like always, the Bruehlers took caution. Even pedaling in the cul-de-sac, Kylie wore a helmet.