By Dan Shearer, Green Valley News
Published: Tuesday, September 15, 2009 9:10 PM MDT
Burt Featherman misses his brother.
That’s what it all comes down to for the 80-year-old Green Valley man who is meeting each day alone for the first time in his life.
Featherman’s brother Jerome was killed on his bicycle Sept. 3, a month before his 85th birthday.
Jerome was about a mile from the home he shared with his brother when he was struck from behind by a Toyota Camry driven by Dave Armstrong of Green Valley.
Jerome, a cyclist for about 10 years, was in the bike lane wearing a helmet and reflective vest.
Armstrong, who was not impaired, was cited for driving in the bike lane and for not giving a cyclist three feet of space, both civil violations. It’s unlikely he’ll face additional charges.
“He would ride only where there was a big bicycle lane,” Burt Featherman said of his brother, who avoided major intersections and even was careful to stop his bike if he needed a drink of water.
“It’s not understandable,” Featherman said. “It’s completely out of reason that something like that would happen.”
Featherman’s frustration builds as he talks about the senseless accident that took his brother’s life on a wide, lightly traveled road on a clear day. His voice tightens as he talks about laws he says allow careless drivers off too easy.
“As long as they’re going to consider it a misdemeanor, I’m not interested in suing at this point,” he said. “I’m not interested in money.”
Though the final report isn’t yet available, Armstrong submitted to on-scene tests and was cooperative with Pima County Sheriff’s deputies. In the eyes of the law it was just an awful accident.
Featherman isn’t content with that, but hasn’t decided his next step.
“It’s almost futile, because Arizona has no interest in protecting people in that situation.”
But, he says, it’s still too early to be making big decisions.
She’s been there
Jean Gorman understands. Her son Brad was killed on his bicycle 10 years ago this month.
She isn’t a cyclist, but has taken up the cause, serving on several bike-advocacy groups in southern Arizona.
“I know the gentleman didn’t mean to do it, but I’ve always felt you have to take responsibility,” she said. “There is no such thing as ‘just an accident.’ Somebody was not paying attention, and that’s the problem.”
While the citations carry a heavy fine, Gorman said it’s not enough.
“One of the problems is that the three-foot law is not a criminal law, it’s a civil law. You’ve got to be able to prove criminal intent to get a criminal charge.”
She said there are efforts in the works to tighten state laws, but it’s difficult. The driver in her son’s case, who was leaning over to change a CD when he struck him, received a $66 ticket for unsafe passing.
Erik Ryberg, a Tucson attorney who has represented cyclists for five years, says the tool is in place to criminally prosecute in such cases but nobody is willing to use it.
Ryberg says negligent homicide would be a reasonable charge but has never been applied when a cyclist has been killed by a driver.
“They reserve it for more serious cases of negligence than just driving,” he said.
He said that while Arizona doesn’t have a vehicular homicide statute, negligent homicide would cover the case if prosecutors would use it.
“It’s very hard to argue that he did not commit negligent homicide,” Ryberg said. “He doesn’t have a whole lot of defenses.”
But he said it’s unlikely a criminal charge will be seen anytime soon in this type of case, and said of the two citations Armstrong did receive, “That’s more than what happens to most people.”
Be aware out there
Like most avid cyclists, John Pilger finds himself shaking his head when he hears about cases like Jerome Featherman.
“There’s not much else they can do, really,” he said. “Unfortunately, in our society they don’t take away driver’s licenses from people who make mistakes like that.”
Pilger, a member of the Santa Cruz Bicycle Advocacy Committee, said it’s up to cyclists to be aware on the roads.
“When you’re riding your bike, you really, really have to be so aware of your surroundings because … people are texting, talking on their cell phones, talking to their friends…”
A long life
Jerome Featherman never married and he had no children.
He spent two-and-a-half years in the Army during World War II picking up dead and wounded soldiers across Germany and France, some of them booby-trapped, his brother said.
The experience left him bitter, but the Jewish man from Brooklyn didn’t let it beat him.
He and Burt took over the family business in 1947, manufacturing steel tubing. They worked together 25 years.
They moved to Green Valley in 1995 for a lot of the same reasons others do: Climate, cost of living and just 20 minutes from a good hospital. They both were involved in the GVR Computer Club, and that’s where Burt was when he heard the news.
“A neighbor called to say my brother had been in a very bad accident,” he said.
He was with a friend headed for St. Mary’s Hospital when they came across the accident scene.
“There wasn’t much blood but there also were no skid marks,” he said with no emotion in his voice.
A deputy told him there was no need to head to Tucson. His brother was already dead.
“I never went to the hospital, I never went to view the body,” Featherman says. “He’s just going to be cremated like our father was.”
Burt Featherman has two sons out of state and some neighbors who have helped him in the initial days. But he doesn’t have the one person who was there when he woke up every morning; he and his brother spent nearly their entire lives together.
He received a letter from Armstrong, but it doesn’t appear to mean much to him. Not yet, at least.
“He said he was sorry and that he was in shock,” Featherman said matter-of-factly.
His thoughts, as they often do these days, take him back to his brother.
“He enjoyed riding his bicycle and walking,” he said, adding, “I’m the one who bought him his bicycle.”