A popular Wisconsin cyclist was killed when the sun blocked a driver’s view.
By Bob Mionske
In the 1990s, one team dominated the Master’s category at races throughout the Midwest: the Vic Tanny team, sponsored by Jeff Littman, who held the Mr. Wisconsin title, but was making a transition from bodybuilding to bicycle racing. In 1994, when Littman opened his own health club, the Vic Tanny team he had been sponsoring became Team Wisconsin, which still races today. Through Team Wisconsin’s junior team, Littman was also behind the development of future racing professionals. Jeff and I raced in many of the same events throughout the Midwest, and so I knew who he was; in fact, everybody who raced in the Midwest did, because his team consistently crushed the other teams in the Master’s category.
That is why I immediately recognized his name when I heard it again last week. On October 1, Littman was out on a training ride when a motorist rear-ended and critically injured him. Four days later, on October 5, Littman succumbed to his injuries. Wisconsin cyclists were stunned; in addition to his reputation as a powerhouse of a racer, Jeff Littman was also the President of the Wisconsin Cycling Association.
As is so often the case, the driver who hit Littman never even saw him. But this wasn’t just another case of driver inattention; the driver never saw Littman because he was blinded by the morning sun in his eyes. As he reported to investigating officers, he had been on the road for less than a minute, and he couldn’t see because the sun was “too bright”:
“The sun was very bright and glaring on my windshield. I was wearing sunglasses, my visor was down and my windshield wipers I just turned off because the dew was clearing. I was going under the speed limit about 40 mph because it was very hard to see. I made sure to be in my lane because I couldn’t see oncoming traffic or anything much more than about 10 feet on front of me. I didn’t see anyone then all of a sudden boom I hit two bicyclists.”
Littman’s riding partner, who was also hit, reported that she had been riding in the center of the shoulder, and that Littman had been hugging the fog line. The driver, who said that he was trying to stay in his lane to avoid oncoming traffic, actually veered onto the shoulder.
Cyclists are often reminded of the necessity of making themselves visible to drivers. When we assume that a driver can see us because we can see the driver, we make what I call an error of mutual recognition. While a motorist might be readily seen, a cyclist, who is only one-seventh the size of an automobile, might be overlooked—particularly if the motorist is subconsciously only scanning for other motorists. For this reason, many cyclists attempt to enhance their their ability to be seen with brightly colored or reflective clothing, and lights.
But even with enhanced conspicuity, there is still the chance that the driver just doesn’t see the cyclist. On the morning of October 1, the driver who was unwittingly bearing down upon Jeff Littman was facing directly into the morning sun, and whatever conspicuity-enhancing efforts the two cyclists may have made were completely lost in the deadly mix of blinding glare and excessive speed.
Could the driver have avoided this collision? Sure. He could have slowed to a speed that was “reasonable and prudent under the conditions,” as Wisconsin law requires—but he didn’t. When drivers fail to observe their legal duty to adjust their speed for conditions, collisions, sometimes tragic, are often the result, as was the case with Jeff Littman. And all too often, the driver, and the driver’s insurance company, fail to see that it was the motorist’s failure to observe the law that led to the collision. I once had a case in which a motorist had hit and injured a cyclist, but the insurance company refused to pay. The insurance company claimed that it was not the drivers fault that the sun was setting in the direction he was traveling, and that the cyclist should have known that he was in danger. Fortunately for my client, the jury “saw” things differently.
Although the driver who collided with Jeff Littman and his riding partner could have taken action to avoid this collision, it may be that there was nothing that the two cyclists could have done. They were both riding on the shoulder, and the driver drifted out of his lane. The driver was unable to see anything in front of his vehicle, and was driving too fast for conditions, so conspicuity was not a factor in the collision.
Did they even realize the danger they were in? Would you realize the danger? If there’s anything positive we can take away from this tragedy, it may be the lessons we can all learn. The sun is a factor that is predictable, and therefore foreseeable, and that should be taken into account by both drivers and cyclists.
First, as a cyclist, if you are riding into the sun and it is difficult to see, you are in a very dangerous situation, because you are positioned between the sun and the eyes of any approaching drivers, and they may not be able to see you there. Similarly, if you are riding with the sun to your back, oncoming drivers may not be able to see you. In either situation, you are in a very dangerous situation, and you should be aware of that. To mitigate the danger, you should consider waiting for the sun conditions to change. Alternatively, you might consider choosing another route. You might also consider adjusting your road position further to the right.
Second, if you are out riding and the sun is impairing your vision, you must be certain that it is safe for you to proceed before crossing through an intersection. John Stenner was a National Time Trials Champion, and one of my cycling teammates in the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona. On May 16, 2004, John Stenner was riding home from work when he was hit and killed by a driver. One of the factors that played a role in this collision was the blinding sun. However, it wasn’t the driver who was blinded; instead, it was speculated that with the sun setting low in the sky, the approaching car was lost in the glare of the sun, and John just didn’t see it as he crossed an intersection. John got his start in collegiate racing, and was one of the founding members of the National Collegiate Cycling Association. Today, John’s memory lives on in the John Stenner Collegiate Cycling Scholarship. But even if you’re not a collegiate racer, John’s memory can live on in you, too, every time you remember to proceed with caution when the sun is in your eyes.
Third, if you are driving, and are blinded by the glare of the sun, you must adjust your driving to mitigate this impairment of your vision. This is not just a “safety suggestion,” it’s a legal duty that you are obligated to observe; the basic speed law of every state requires you to lower your speed to a reasonable and prudent speed, regardless of the posted speed limit, when conditions require a reduced speed. If visibility conditions are such that you can’t see, then reduce your speed to one that is safe—or even stop, if safety requires it—until you can see. At other times, when you can see, but glare may be present, consider wearing sunglasses with polarized lenses to cut glare.
We can’t eliminate all risk from every ride, but the risks of serious injury are already quite low, and with these simple precautions, we can further reduce the risk of being hit by a driver who never even saw us.
Research and drafting provided by Rick Bernardi, J.D.