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It was every cyclist's worst nightmare.

On June 8, Steve Norwick, 68, a Sonoma State University professor and experienced cyclist, was riding south on Petaluma Hill Road. He rode on the right shoulder of the road and wore a helmet. It was daylight, the weather was clear and the visibility was good.

No mistakes.

And yet, Norwick was struck from behind and fatally injured by a hit-and-run driver. Norwick died June 19 without ever awaking from a coma.

The tragedy made front-page news, sent a shock through the cycling community and raised the profile on the ongoing issue of cyclists and motorists sharing the road, already somewhat sensitive.

"The type of crash that Steve Norwick was in, being hit from behind, is the type of crash that most bicycle riders fear the most, and with good reason. It's the most potentially fatal type of crash," said Sandra Lupien of the Sonoma County Bicycle Coalition.

"It's also the rarest," she said. "It's so unusual, and so tragic, when it occurs."

The CHP, which tracks accident statistics for the unincorporated areas of Sonoma County, reports about 2,500 motor vehicle accidents every year, from fender-benders to fatalities.

So far this year, 17 of those accidents have involved cyclists, and last year the total was 36, said CHP Public Information Officer Jon Sloat.

There were two previous local cycling deaths this year, both in May, and in both cases, the cyclists made serious mistakes, Sloat said.

On May 24, August Bissiri, 85, of Laguna Woods Village in Orange County was struck and killed by a car while riding his bicycle on Highway 1 near Bodega Bay. Reports indicate Bissiri crossed into the opposing lane of traffic, Sloat said.

On May 31, David Lemuel Standley, 34, of Cotati died after his bike crashed head-on into an SUV in the dark on River Road near Forestville.

More recently, Brian Laurie, 68, of Sonoma, was fatally injured June 21 in Sonoma when he attempted a left turn and was struck by a truck on Eighth Street East south of Denmark Road, the CHP reported.

"A very large number of crashes that involve bicycles involve user error," Lupien said. "The first thing you can do to make your time out on the road more enjoyable is to really know how to be a safe, empowered bicycle rider."

The recent tragedies haven't prompted increased attendance at the Bicycle Coalition's monthly bicycle safety courses, Lupien said.

And Jim Keene, co-owner of the Bike Peddler and NorCal Bike Sport shops in Santa Rosa, said sales of helmets haven't gone up after the recent cycling deaths, but helmet sales are generally good. A helmet is required by law for bike riders under 18, and recommended for all riders.

"We sell so many more helmets now than we did back when I started in this business over 30 years ago," Keene said. "Back then, bike shops never even thought to sell a customer a helmet. If anything, they were derisive. It just wasn't cool. Now we have a rock-solid network of experienced, veteran cyclists who use helmets and set an example for other riders."

The cycling community rallied in support of Steve Norwick and his family after the crash, but the mood of cyclists is more shock and sadness than panic, Keene said.

In the Norwick case, Robert Cowart, 68, of Rohnert Park, has been charged with felony hit-and-run driving, and he could face a vehicular manslaughter charge. His early court appearances have raised questions about whether he should have been driving at all, because of health problems.

"This was a situation where there was nothing the cyclist could do," said Martin Clinton, a longtime Sonoma County cycling safety instructor.

While the prospect of a cyclist being struck by a car from behind is terrifying, Clinton explained, it really isn't the greatest threat, because it so rarely happens.

"I have known several cyclists who have been injured, but this was because they were concentrating on whether somebody in a car was about to overtake them, and they failed to observe a pothole or something else in the road that brought them down," Clinton said.

The best way cyclists can respond to the recent tragedies is to ride safely and responsibly, he added.

"It may seem like a strange thing to say, but people should get out and ride their bikes," Clinton said. "One of things which can cause difficulty for motorists and cyclists is when the motorist was simply not expecting to see a bicycle on a piece of road. The more bicyclists you see out there, the more motorists expect to see cyclists."

Sloat of the CHP urges both drivers and bike riders to show patience as well as responsibility.

"Cyclists need to follow the rules of the road, and be aware of the laws of physics. You're not going to win a dispute with a car. Yes, you have every right to share the road. A bicycle is a vehicle, and you follow the same rules as a car, but you need to ride like nobody sees you, because nine times out of 10, they don't. You need to ride defensively," Sloat said.

"Motorists need to understand that this is a major destination for cycling events, for amateur and professional cyclists," he added. "It's a temporary inconvenience, so a little patience on the motorists' part will go a long way. A little impatience can lead to vehicular manslaughter if you're driving a car."

You can reach Staff Writer Dan Taylor at 521-5243 or dan.taylor@pressdemocrat.com. See his ARTS blog at http://arts.blogs.pressdemocrat.com.