By Janelle Wetzstein
Published: Thursday, June 14, 2012
The lengths that retired Sonoma State University professor Steve Norwick went to be safe while bicycling has made the hit-and-run accident that occurred Friday morning in Penngrove — leaving him in critical condition at Santa Rosa Memorial Hospital — all the more frightening for a community full of bicycle enthusiasts.
According to his former students, Norwick is an avid bicyclist who rode his bike to work every single day, rain or shine.
“He was one of the most careful cyclists I’ve ever known,” said Gary Helfrich, executive director of the Sonoma County Bicycle Coalition and longtime friend of Norwick’s. “He would be covered in reflective gear, lights, the whole nine yards, and it was kind of funny to see him rolling into school with all that gear.”
It’s just horrifying that someone like that would be hit on a straight, wide road with large shoulders and excellent sight-distance, added Helfrich.
Helfrich said that Norwick would want people to continue riding bikes, despite what has happened to him.
“Steve would want people out here riding,” he said. “He would be really hurt if people stopped because of this freak accident.”
For Helfrich, the situation has highlighted a much bigger concern in the bicyclist community — distracted drivers. He said that even though this type of collision is rare, his coalition has seen an increase in the amount of distracted drivers on the road in recent years.
“People are doing everything but driving these days,” said Helfrich. “That puts everyone in our area at risk.”
Helfrich added that while he doesn’t know the reasons why Cowart swerved and hit Norwick, he and the coalition will be following the case closely.
The collision that left Norwick severely injured occurred Friday morning at approximately 8:30 a.m. The California Highway Patrol said that Norwick, 68, and a companion were riding their bikes south on Petaluma Hill Road. As they approached East Railroad Avenue, a Dodge Ram pickup driven by Rohnert Park resident Robert Cowart, also 68, struck Norwick from behind.
The impact sliced the truck’s right side mirror off and knocked out its front right headlight, leaving evidence at the scene that investigators used to calculate the vehicle’s description.
Instead of stopping to check on Norwick, Cowart fled the scene, telling the CHP once he was apprehended that he knew he had been involved in a collision with a bicyclist, but that he didn’t stop because he was late for work. Cowart owns Cowart Well Drilling on Fair Street in Petaluma and also told police that he didn’t think Norwick was injured.
Cowart told officers the cyclist was in the middle of the road, but witnesses said the truck drifted onto the shoulder and struck Norwick, which CHP Officer Eric Hill said is consistent with physical evidence at the scene.
At approximately 4:30 p.m. Friday afternoon, two off-duty neighboring Rohnert Park police officers noticed Cowart pull into his driveway and saw the damage to his truck. Upon questioning, Cowart admitted he had been involved in a crash with a bicyclist.
CHP officers arrived and arrested Cowart on suspicion of felony hit and run. He was booked into Sonoma County Jail in lieu of $30,000 bail and was released after he posted a bond worth 10 percent of that amount.
Cowart made his first court appearance Wednesday, pushed in a wheel chair by one of several lawyers. He appeared unsteady and unsure as the judge and attorneys discussed his case.
Among some unexpected disclosures were three prior drunken driving convictions, two in 1989 and one in 2005, as well as a recent stroke and an aneurysm that may be impairing blood flow in his brain, said defense attorney George Boisseau.
Cowart’s infirmity was a shock to the dozens of local cyclists and friends who converged on the courthouse in support of Norwick.
Norwick joined the faculty at SSU in 1974 and was well-loved by his students. Petaluma resident Emily Allen graduated from SSU in 2004 and remembers Norwick fondly. “He was really dedicated to teaching his students,” she said. “He had a way of connecting students to the local environment that was incredible. He was joyful and always in a good mood. I just hope that he can pull through and return to his normal life.”
Allen added that she now works for a local environmental nonprofit and that Norwick had volunteered his time, even after retirement, to continue teaching others. He recently spoke to a group of teachers on environmental studies and how to make the information relevant for kids today, she said.
“He just did it because he liked to share knowledge,” she said.
(This story has been updated from the print version to reflect new information learned after the paper went to press.)