Bicycling News in Local Paper – March 16, 2008

Imagine that, bicycling makes it on the front page two days in a row in the San Jose Mercury News. Bicycling stories typically go in the Local News section, with exceptions. One exception is the Tour of California.

Another exception is death. On March 10 a sheriff’s officer reportedly fell asleep at the wheel, crossed the double-yellow line and plowed into three cyclists, killing two.

Since the accident, the newspaper has had front-page news articles on numerous occasions. Reporters are following up on the accident, recounting lives of the victims, writing about the memorial ride on Saturday that brought out about 1,000 cyclists.

As bad as this accident was, there has been worse. On October 5, 1986, an 18-year-old girl, driving on a rural road near Gilroy, reached down to search for a cassette tape, took her eyes off the road and drifted into a bike lane, killing four riders.

While the March 10 accident on Stevens Canyon Road remains under investigation, all accounts point to the officer falling asleep at the wheel. He had worked a 12-hour shift the previous day. The night before the accident, reportedly, he was at his family’s Santa Clara home, where he lives, watching TV.

Falling asleep while driving
I’ve seen the results of someone falling asleep at the wheel. While driving west on Pruneridge Avenue early morning the day after Thanksgiving, I got behind a white pickup whose driver was speeding up and slowing down erratically. He veered left and right as well. I figured he was “messed up.”

I stayed well back. After a quarter-mile his vehicle suddenly sped up and plowed into a parked car on the right side of the road. I stopped and went over to the driver. He got out and, short of a cut tongue and bloodshot eyes, was OK. His airbag deployed and that saved him.

I’ve nearly fallen asleep at the wheel too, while driving across Nevada one hot summer day in my 1974 VW Beetle. It’s a mind-numbing experience driving on Interstate 80. I finally had to pull over and take a nap. People fall asleep at the wheel all the time, sadly.

Certainly there’s a degree of negligence on the part of the sheriff’s officer. The courts will have to sort it out and decide on a punishment.

Drunk motorist gets sentence
What upsets me most is another bicycle article that appeared in the San Jose Mercury News on March 8, 2008. This only made Local News, next to the obituaries. MaryAnn Levenson of Menlo Park, mother of three, was struck and nearly killed by a drunk motorist on Dec. 23, 2006, on Sand Hill Road.

The 77-year-old driver dragged Levenson 60 feet before his truck stalled on a curb and a motorist kept him from continuing, according to the newspaper.

His sentence: 8 months in jail, five years probation and 300 hours of community service to speak to seniors about his crime. Levenson attended the trial and saw justice done.

Driving drunk and nearly killing a bicyclist and even attempting to flee the scene of the accident calls for a stiff sentence. Eight months may not be enough for some, but my concern is that the driver should have done community service that directly benefits bicyclists.

I’d like to see him out picking up garbage on popular bicycle routes, repairing flat tires, working at Bike to Work Day, and so on. He needs to be reminded of his crime against bicyclists for years to come.

Driving vs. riding makes for fun read
As I mentioned, the Mercury News has been giving bicycling a lot of news coverage lately. I’m not sure why. Maybe we’re all coming to the realization that as gas prices rise to $4 a gallon, a lot more of us will be riding bikes to work one day.

On March 9, the newspaper posted a front-page story in its Sunday edition, humorously pitting Mr. Roadshow’s Gary Richards against columnist Joe Rodriquez, “Why I drive, Why I ride.” Gary, of course, lists all the joys of driving, and Joe writes about living without a car.

Both writers give excellent reasons for loving their mode of transportation. I agree with everything they wrote. It’s a healthy dialogue and I hope we see more of it in our local paper. It might even sell more copies. They can sure use it.

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