By Michael Moore
Recreational cyclists are known to swarm Morgan Hill’s hilly, curvy roads during nice weather. Sometimes the bicyclists compete with local motorists for the same route, even though state and local traffic laws, as well as recent fatal accidents, suggest an observant sharing of the road by both groups is the safe option.
In the past 15 months, two cyclists have died after colliding with moving vehicles on local roads. On Oct. 23, 2009, Rory Tomasello, 22, was riding his bicycle through a mid-block crosswalk on West Edmundson Avenue when he was struck by a 2004 Cadillac sport-utility vehicle driven by Morgan Hill resident Sandra Arlia. Tomasello lost consciousness in the ambulance that picked him up at the scene. He was pronounced brain dead Nov. 2.
More than a year earlier, Bruce Finch, an avid recreational cyclist from Gilroy, died almost instantly when he collided with a 1997 Honda Civic on Uvas Road Oct. 8, 2008. The driver of the Honda, Rita Campos, was pulling out of Little Uvas Road to make a turn that Sunday morning when Finch and his bicycle hit the front fender of the car. Paramedics pronounced him dead at the scene.
The motorists were found to be at fault in both accidents, and have each been charged with vehicular manslaughter without gross negligence, a misdemeanor. Arlia, 66, pleaded not guilty to the charge at her arraignment Tuesday. Campos, also of Morgan Hill, pleaded not guilty last year and faces a jury trial that will start Monday.
Local cyclists have clearly noticed a tension between themselves and motorists.
“There are instances where tempers flare,” said Sean McLaughlin of Morgan Hill-based Specialized Bicycle Components. “Both cyclists and motorists often have a limited understanding of the law. Regardless of where legal matters stand, motorists should remember they’re in a 4,000-pound vehicle traveling at a high rate of speed, and cyclists are vulnerable. A little bit of patience can go a long way, and save a life.”
He added that most users of the road – both motorists and cyclists – are “considerate and law-abiding.”
Local cyclists have been frequent targets of road rage, leveled by angry motorists who think the slower bicycle riders are in their way. McLaughlin, who often participates in Specialized employees’ daily lunchtime rides, said he has never been injured, but he has been brushed by side-view mirrors, and had items such as cans and bottles thrown at him from speeding vehicles as he pedaled on the shoulder. He has also been the target of verbal assaults from passing car drivers.
And the law-abiding cyclists are also aware that a few rule breakers can give the group a bad name. Cyclists, especially those who are familiar with the recent accidents, urge all two-wheelers to follow traffic laws as they are supposed to.
“Bicyclists are asking for trouble sometimes by breaking laws,” said Charlie Wilson, a San Jose cyclist who worked with Bruce Finch in Morgan Hill. He said it is common to see bicyclists run stop signs and red lights, ride on the wrong side of streets, and kids on bicycles without helmets. At the same time, he often sees motorists cut quickly in front of a group of cyclists after passing them, or pass too closely.
“I’d want car riders and bicycle riders to be predictable. There would be fewer accidents,” Wilson said.
Bicyclists are required to follow the same traffic laws that motorists are subject to, according to Morgan Hill Police Sgt. Jerry Neumayer. That includes staying in the bicycle lane on the right shoulder, if there is one, and ensuring both front and rear lights are lit at night.
“Juveniles have to wear a helmet, but we recommend everyone (including adults) wear helmets,” Neumayer said. He said authorities also suggest that cyclists ride single file rather than abreast.
“Motorists have to share the roadway as well, and make sure it’s safe when they pass,” he added.
Morgan Hill police respond to about “one or two” motorist-versus-cyclist accidents each year, Neumayer said. The accident involving Tomasello was the first fatality in such an accident that he recalls in his 12 years at MHPD.
Rita Campos’ and Bruce Finch’s accident was handled by the California Highway Patrol. In 2009, the CHP responded to four accidents involving a motorist and a cyclist in south Santa Clara County, and all of them resulted in injuries, according to officer Jaime Rios. No fatalities occurred in any of last year’s accidents.
Rural Uvas and Little Uvas roads are popular among recreational cyclists due to their hilly terrain. Campos, who lives off Little Uvas Road, said she often encounters groups of cyclists while she is driving.
“You just about have to stop to let them go through,” Campos said. “There’s a lot of blind spots, and it’s very dangerous.”
The investigation of the accident was complicated by conflicting witness statements, according to CHP reports.
Campos said as she was turning north from Little Uvas onto Uvas Road, she slowly pulled into the intersection in order to see around a “mess” of advertising signs and a utility pole on the shoulder that blocked her view onto Uvas. She was looking south when she heard Finch’s bicycle strike her car, then she saw the cyclist’s body sliding across her hood.
She said she was stopped at the time of the impact, but the CHP investigation concluded the car was moving and Campos did not yield to Finch, who had the right-of-way. Campos remained at the scene and tried to help Finch by covering him with a blanket and placing a pillow under his head before paramedics arrived.
The surviving members of Finch’s family – his wife and daughter – filed a lawsuit seeking damages from Campos shortly after his death. Also named in the lawsuit are the owners of the signs and utility pole that allegedly obstructed her view as she attempted to turn – Alain Pinel Realtors, PG&E, and unspecified landowners.
Campos said Finch’s family has tentatively agreed to settle for the maximum amount of damages allowed by her auto insurance – $15,000. The family’s attorney, Michael Shea, Sr., did not return phone calls.
The maximum sentence for a criminal conviction for vehicular manslaughter without gross negligence is one year in county jail. At least one cyclist doesn’t think such a punishment would help prevent future fatalities.
“The best way to fix these kind of things, is to make a person pay for public awareness efforts, or install flashing signs to remind motorists (that cyclists are on the road),” said Bobbie Morrison, an avid San Jose cyclist who did not know Finch, but closely follows the investigations of accidents involving cyclists in the Bay Area.
Most recreational cyclists are motorists, too, McLaughlin noted.
“If I get aggressive or impatient (in a car), I’m putting somebody’s life at risk,” he said.