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Driver not at fault

The Packet and Times: Driver not at fault

HIGHWAY 11: Cyclist Casey Witteman hit in head by truck’s load

Posted By COLIN MCKIM, THE PACKET AND TIMES

Tragic circumstances led to cyclist’s death
The Crown’s decision not to charge the driver of a tractor trailer that struck and killed cyclist Casey Witteman on Highway 11 last summer is a sad injustice, says a long time friend of the victim.

"Someone should be responsible," said Gene Wood, who hoped the death of the 59-year-old Severn Township man would prompt a full inquest.

"It shouldn’t be legal for them to kill Casey," she said.

Anthony Humphreys, a director of the Toronto Cyclists Union and former Orillia resident, has been following the case and agrees with Wood that justice has not been served.

"You’re giving motorists a licence to kill if you don’t press charges," said Humphreys.

"The Crown has an obligation to bring the matter to court if it’s in the public interest to do so."

Otherwise people injured or killed while cycling on highways have no protection under the law, said Humphreys.

"Big deal, nobody cares."

But Grant Gibbons, owner of Phoenix Building Components in Barrie said he doesn’t believe his driver was at fault in the fatal accident that occurred on a busy Saturday afternoon in July.

It was more a matter of an unfortunate combination of circumstances, said Gibbons, whose company has six trucks on the road and boasts a perfectly clean driving record.

"We’ve never been charged -- not even for rolling through a stop sign."

Witteman was riding his mountain bike northbound along Highway 11 on the afternoon of July 11.

The 59-year-old Severn Township resident was biking from his home on South Sparrow Lake Road to Washago to clean St Francis of Assisi Roman Catholic Church.

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About five kilometres between the South Sparrow Lake overpass and the exit at Washago he was pedaling along the highway on the same side of the highway as the northbound traffic.

Wood said Witteman preferred to ride on the shoulder for his own protection.

But the accident occurred where the shoulder narrows as the highway crosses the Severn River.

The truck that hit him from behind was carrying a load of roof trusses that extended four feet out the right side of the trailer bed.

The lead edge of the trusses clobbered Witteman at head height, shattering his helmet and flinging him to the side of the highway.

He lay motionless on the ground with his bike between his legs and never regained consciousness.

He was pronounced dead the next day at Toronto’s Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre.

While it is legal to cycle on Highway 11, it is extremely risky, particularly on a busy summer weekend, Gibbons said.

The driver of the truck was following a motor home as he approached the bridge where the shoulder disappears, Gibbons said.

He didn’t realize there was a cyclist ahead until the motor home swerved, Gibbons said.

"There wasn’t time and space to stop or slow down and if he changed lanes he’d have taken out two cars."

The driver was devastated by the accident and took several weeks off as a result of the emotional impact, Gibbons said.

But Wood and Humphreys say there was an onus on the driver to be take all precautions to protect others using the highway.

"With a wide load, they should have had a spotter on the passenger side," Wood said.

The Highway Traffic Act is clear that vehicles overtaking cyclists must allow sufficient room when passing, Humphreys said.

"If he couldn’t stop and couldn’t move to the left, he was going too fast. In an oversized vehicle there is an obligation and duty to take more care."

Regardless of the protections the law provides or how much care motorists take, the mix of bicycles and trucks on such a busy highway is a recipe for disaster, Gibbons said.

"I don’t believe pedestrians or cyclists should be on that highway."

Witteman himself was concerned about the dangers of cycling along Highway 11.

"Just a few months before he died, he said the highway was getting so busy he wouldn’t ride on it anymore," Wood said.

"He told me people don’t look out for cyclists anymore."

Witteman was unable to drive a car because of brain damage he sustained as a university student. He was struck head-on by a hit-and-run driver while cycling on South Sparrow Lake Road.

"They didn’t think he would live or walk again," said Wood.

After the first cycling accident, he suffered from severe epileptic seizures that prevented him from operating a motor vehicle the rest of his life.

He lived on a disability pension which he supplemented with odd jobs.

His bicycle gave him independence, though he did accept car rides to Orillia and Barrie, Wood said.

Witteman lived on 35 acres backing on to Grass Lake where he kept honey bees and chickens. He loved working in his perennial garden and filled his small house with religious icons.

Wood was Witteman’s visiting nurse after his accident and remained his friend after he recovered.

"He was so full of life -- a hardworking, beautiful person. Why did he have to go like that?"

Humphreys said he is lobbying the province through his local MPP to have more information included in the drivers handbook regarding cyclists.

The OPP are doing a great job cracking down on speeders and drunk drivers and making the roads safer for motorists, Humphreys said.

But cyclists are getting short shrift, especially if the Crown doesn’t follow up a police investigation of a fatal accident by laying charges.

The design of roads and highways in Ontario with few dedicated bike lanes also makes cycling hazardous, Humphreys said.

"You can’t cycle anywhere safely and that has to do with the attitude being perpetuated by no charges being laid."

Gibbons says bicycles should not be allowed on the stretch of Highway 11 where Witteman was killed.

"They should be prohibited. It’s just too dangerous."

The Crown Attorney’s office was not able to comment yesterday.