Deaths cast shadow over Sonoma County's status as cycling destination
Published: Sunday, July 8, 2012 at 3:18 p.m.
Last Modified: Monday, July 9, 2012 at 9:07 a.m.
Four cyclists have been killed by cars on Sonoma County roads in five weeks — a spate of deaths that matches the five-year total stretching back to 2007.
SONOMA COUNTY CYCLING DEATHS
2007 — 1
2008 — 2
2009 — none
2010 — none
2011 — 2
2012 — 4
The toll casts a shadow over Sonoma County's rising status as a world-class destination for both competitive and recreational riders. The global exposure that accompanies the Amgen Tour of California, Levi Leipheimer's King Ridge GranFondo and the Vineman triathlon has hastened an increase in cyclists on roads that are praised for their beauty, relative isolation and rigor.
Cyclists and law enforcement say the string of fatalities, beginning with the death of 85-year-old August Bissiri, who was on a club tour of Sonoma County when he attempted to execute a U-turn on Highway 1 May 24, are isolated incidents with unique circumstances and don't point to rising tensions between motorists and bike riders.
Still, the rash of deaths has sparked conversation about how motorists and cyclists co-exist and how collisions are addressed by law enforcement.
“The numbers of overall crashes between vehicles and bicycles are the same; it's just the severity of the ones we have had,” said CHP Officer Jon Sloat. “We have had such a cluster of serious ones in the last 30 days that it's getting everyone's attention.”
“I think it's giving people a false sense that things are getting worse,” he said.
In addition to Bissiri:
“I have lived in many places outside of Sonoma County and ridden in many, many other states ... and drivers in Sonoma County are wonderful, they understand cyclists as a whole,” said Greg Fisher, marketing director of Bike Monkey magazine. He also is an organizer of Levi's GranFondo, one of the largest cycling events inte nation.
Cycling is growing as a recreational sport and people are increasingly using bikes to get around town, he said. That poses a change in scene for everyone on the street.
“Roads are getting used differently and everyone is having to come along,” he said.
The run of deaths has shaken some people.
“I ride that road all of the time,” Christine Logan of Santa Rosa said of Petaluma Hill Road where Norwick was struck from behind.
Logan said she was despondent when she learned Norwick was mortally injured on his regular morning ride and the driver had not stopped, but rather reportedly traveled on to buy milk before then heading to work.
“I was really bummed by it,” she said. “I really remember feeling funky about society.”
She took a break from her bike, but soon was itching to return to the road.
“I don't know why this is happening so much,” she said. “Maybe there are more people bicycling.”
Donn King, president of the 1,600-member Santa Rosa Cycling Club, reinforced that assessment. “Certainly in our county, there are more cyclists every day. The membership of our club increases every month,” he said.
It's not just locals who are taking to two wheels.
The wine-country cycling tour is the most popular domestic vacation package booked by Berkeley-based Backroads travel company. Sales for the six-day tour are up 20 percent over last year, said Lee Micheaux, Backroads' marketing manager.
“I do think there are more people on the roads. There are certainly more events,” said Raissa de la Rosa, Santa Rosa's economic development specialist and key player in bringing the Amgen Tour of California to Sonoma County in six of the race's seven-year history.
Two weeks of Vineman triathlon events this month will put more than 4,100 athletes on the road and in September, about 7,500 riders are slated to take part in one of three courses that make up Levi's GranFondo.
“I think we are in a society that we don't want to have to wait, and drivers have to be patient with cyclists,” said Carmen Sinigiani, co-event director of the Giro Bello. “Sometimes you can't get to your destination as quickly as you would like because there are other people using the same road you are.”
“We are supposed to share the road and every road,” she said. “Generally speaking, I feel safe in Sonoma County. I hope that these incidents don't tarnish Sonoma County's reputation as a destination.”
Bill Sellin, founder of the Bicycle Club of Irvine and a friend of Bissiri's, said he regularly travels from his Orange County home to ride Sonoma County's roads.
He said most cyclists are sympathetic to drivers because they are drivers themselves. In the case of the death of his friend, Sellin believes Bissiri made a bad judgment call at the very end of the day's ride.
“In August's case, it was a relatively short day and he overshot the hotel and our best guess is that ... he executed a U-turn without good hearing, good line of sight,” he said.
David Tryon, the Berkeley man behind the wheel of the car that struck Bissiri, would not comment on the collision other than to say it occurred in “an area I'm very familiar with.”
“People (are) bicycling on what is a highway,” he said. “They lose their context out there in the pastoral scene.”
Peter Madison, a veteran rider who lives in Santa Rosa, called the recent spike in deaths a “statistical anomaly” and that seasoned riders will choose where and when to ride in order to maximize their safety.
“We talk a lot about how we impact roads, how to be good citizens,” he said. “If there is a barrel tasting, as a club we stay out of Alexander Valley.”
Madison, who tackles most roads in Sonoma County but chooses the hours he goes out, said he speaks with riders who are two or three abreast on heavily traveled roads.
“I will correct a cyclist,” he said. “You are alienating people in my community in a place I ride all of the time.”
A successful ride is about legitimately sharing the road and using common sense, he said.
“Be aware of the etiquette, not the laws. Forget the law, what will keep you safe?” he said.
(News Researcher Janet Balicki contributed to this report. Staff Writer Kerry Benefield writes an education blog at extracredit.blogs.pressdemocrat.com. She can be reached at 526-8671 or firstname.lastname@example.org.)
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