Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Vicious Cycle

My brother has already touched on the topic of the three cyclists hit by a Santa Clara County sheriff’s deputy in the first part of his shift this weekend. The deputy allegedly told witnesses he had fallen asleep at the wheel when he crossed the center line and hit the riders head on, killing one immediately. Another died after being flown to a hospital.

There’s just nothing positive to extract from this tale, and yet I feel I can’t leave it unremarked.

As my brother points out, that’s a road we both know from our childhood. I personally have not taken it on a bicycle in many years, but it could just as well have been any number of roads I do ride through the foothills when I’m in town. Some see more car traffic and some less; some have more twists and turns and some fewer. They all make for beautiful, challenging rides, with sun-dappled slopes that draw cyclists from all over the region.

The deputy would have killed anyone he drove into—possibly even a car driver or passenger—but these riders were amateur champions, one seriously considering this year’s Olympics, another coming fresh from a victory he’d trained years to savor. They weren’t casual Sunday hobbyists; they had traveled miles to ride this particular road that morning. Not that their skill level makes it any better or worse.

I ride for fun and for my health; getting hit by a car doesn’t do so much for your health. And there’s nothing special about a deputy’s car. I’ve read stories about folks who were drug-addled hitting riders, and I still remember the poor teenager who mowed down a family on a similar mountain road about two minutes from her driveway. She had just pulled out onto the road on her way somewhere, and she was fiddling with her car stereo when she plowed into the cyclists, killing I forget how many.

The judge drily observed at her sentencing that living the rest of her life in the knowledge that she had snuffed out innocent people’s lives for such a petty distraction would be a worse and more lasting punishment than anything he might throw at her.

It’s easy to regret stupidity after the fact, to wish you had stopped for the extra cup of coffee, to wish you’d had the brakes repaired a week ago. I’m sure the sheriff’s deputy in this case has had his emotional life wrecked. (He got out immediately and started administering CPR.) But that’s not bringing back the riders whose lives and careers were snapped off midstream.

I’m no saint when it comes to driving. I talk on the phone; I send text messages; I take pictures out the window while I travel at high speed. A story like this leaves me with a keen sense of “There but for the grace of God . . . ” both as a bicycle rider and as a driver. I’m not going to quit riding or driving, though occasionally a sobering account like this convinces me to ease back from some particularly asinine behavior on the road.

Most riders don’t get killed; when you consider how many riders are out on Bay Area roads on a typical weekend afternoon, it’s amazing more collisions aren’t reported. Road design can make a big difference in safety, but not every road can be redesigned to keep bikes safe. I’m sure punishment is appropriate after an egregiously stupid piece of driving, but I don’t think most people are going to drive more safely for fear of punishment. What’s in our forebrains when we’re driving is the egg salad from that bagel that just fell down our fronts.

We are fragile vessels all of us, and everybody’s got to go sometime. Not everyone will get to reach the pinnacles these riders conquered; they died doing something they loved—on a beautiful day for riding—and we should celebrate the blessings that filled their lives.

But that all rings hollow in the face of such a senseless loss.


Kangamoo said...

I take it your orchids are in bloom!! Now I will have to read your brother's blog. I am sure it will be juicy. He is a bit opinionated (as he should be) about such things.

mrjumbo said...

Technically those aren't orchids, but yes, they were in bloom. (Those are flowers from bulbs your sister gave as Christmas gifts several years ago, back when I lived in New York.)

But one of the orchids is blooming now too, as you can see here.