By Eric S. Peterson
AUGUST 16,2011 –
On June 7, cyclist Brynn Barton, 24, was killed by a hit-and-run driver, and her case is still a mystery for Salt Lake City Police. Evidence from the crime scene shows Barton was not running a red light or a stop sign, and she had flashers on her bicycle to let motorists know she was there. Investigators think it possible she had stopped to fix something on her bicycle or had even fallen off of her bike before she was hit. But what’s not a mystery about her case is the fact that her killer sped off, removing the biggest piece of evidence from the scene of the crime.
“Probably the biggest challenge is the size of a bike versus the size of car,” says Salt Lake City Police Detective Lisa Pascadlo, who has spent nine of her 18 years on the force in accident investigations. “There’s not a whole lot left behind, so we rely heavily on witness statements.” In the Barton case, a witness only heard the accident before being able to briefly see a fleeing car. This challenge is what it makes it so that hit-and-run crimes often sit inactive in police case files.
According to a records request, from 2009 to the first half of 2011, there were 493 hit-and-run crimes involving bicyclists and pedestrians that are classified as inactive, meaning they’ve gone cold and are getting colder.
Statewide, the Utah Department of Transportation announced as part of its Road Respect campaign that, on average, six cyclists die per year as a result of hit-and-run accidents.
Pascadlo says in 2010 the department used grant money to launch its “Respect: It’s a two-way street” awareness campaign about motorist and bicycle safety. The campaign used billboards, radio ads and brochures to educate both motorists and bicyclists about sharing the road. It was a good opportunity, she says, to educate drivers that not giving bicyclists three feet of roadway could get them a $90 ticket. It was also an opportunity to remind bicyclists of how dangerous it is to run lights and stop signs.
“[The campaign] tries to gain some sort of respect from both sides,” Pascadlo says.
Pascadlo says she speculates the uptick the department has seen in hit and runs recently is tied to the downturn in the economy, which is forcing more people to consider bicycling as a cheaper commuting option.
“Once the economy started going down, and when gas spiked above $3.50 a gallon, is when people got back onto their bicycles—cyclists who may not have ever ridden on roadways,” Pascadlo says. “Motorists, by the same token, didn’t understand what they were seeing and how to act around bicyclists.”
Pascadlo says public education needs to remain the focus in deterring these crimes simply because they are so hard to investigate and resolve successfully.
Barbara Cushing, Barton’s aunt, says the suspect may never know the person he or she killed. Cushing describes Barton as an adventurer who volunteered to do humanitarian work in Haiti and India and who loved her family and friends.
“That was the hard thing for the family,” Cushing says. “They had spent the day with her, said goodbye for the day and she went on a bike ride. Who would have thought that’s the last time they’d see her. But yet she lived life to the fullest; she really made every minute count.”
The family and the police department are offering a $7,000 reward to anyone who can bring forward new information about the crime.
Another individual left confused and frustrated by a hit-and-run is Fox 13’s Good Day Utah anchor Kerri Cronk, who herself became the subject of a news story when she recently was injured in a hit-and-run accident.
An avid cyclist, Cronk says she regularly makes two to three 15-mile rides a week. Her ride on Aug. 5 was no different, except that as she rode downhill next to Hogle Zoo on 2600 East and Wasatch Boulevard, a white car pulled out in front of her with “no hesitation,” she says.
“I felt the thud against the car and that’s it,” Cronk says. She was found unconscious by a passerby in the middle of the road and taken to the hospital. She suffered a concussion, a broken neck and road rash. She says that because of the road rash on her knuckles, she can tell that the impact was sudden enough that she never had time to put her hand out before she hit the ground.
“I feel like I want to give the driver the benefit of the doubt,” Cronk says. “That there is some legitimate reason as to why they left, because if not, then they left not knowing whether I was dead or alive, and that’s heartbreaking that another human being could do that.”
Cronk hopes for more respect between drivers and cyclists, understanding as a driver the nuisance it can be when cyclists don’t ride single file, and, when she’s riding, when drivers don’t share the road.
“I wish there was an easy answer,” Cronk says. “But this is just a crime that’s easy to get away with.”
Jonathan Morrison, executive director of Salt Lake City’s nonprofit Bicycle Collective, agrees that more hit-and-runs are happening because more people are bicycling. He hopes that will also be the factor that will eventually curb the crimes and injuries.
“The reality is the more bikes we can put on the street, the safer we will be, because everyone will expect them to be there,” Morrison says. He also says people need to recognize bicyclists are also motorists and vice versa.
“Most people have a car and most people also have bike,” Morrison says. “By creating labels, you create factions that just divide people.”