Bicycles on Fallbrook, Bonsall roads call for caution
Last updated 8/16/2007 at Noon
You’re pushing the speed limit down Mission to Bonsall at 7:30 in the morning, late for work. With one hand draped over the top of your steering wheel and the other juggling a coffee drink and your cell phone and cueing up a CD, you’re thinking about that guy in your office kissing up to the boss.
The light changes to red and you swerve to avoid hitting the Mercedes in front of you. You hear a thud and out of the corner of your eye you see the front wheel of a bicycle and a red backpack fly past your front windshield. You’ve hit a boy pedaling to school with the strap on his bike helmet hanging loose, deep in thought, too. He feels invincible because he’s 13 and he’s in the bike lane where he is supposed to be, yet in a split second of preoccupation you change that boy’s life and yours forever.
Fallbrook veterinarian Steve Jones knows how life-changing a moment like this can be. In March he buried his brother, Captain Robert McDowell Jones, the victim of a driver like the one fictionalized in this story. But Robert wasn’t a young student, he was an experienced bike rider, fully protected by a helmet and all the gear, says Steve. In fact, Robert was the bike safety coordinator and assistant police chief at University of California at Santa Cruz.
Age does have a bearing on the number of bicycle accidents, though. The California Highway Patrol reports that from 2001 to 2005 people aged 5 to 24 experienced the greatest number of bicycle accidents. More sobering statistics are the results. In the same time period there were 54,529 bike injuries and 622 fatalities. One of those injuries was Robert. He wasn’t a fatality – yet.
The Greater Fallbrook area has 25 miles of bike lanes, adjacent to some of the busiest road traffic in the area. During daylight hours bike riders are spotted traveling from home to school, or to jobs, or out for exercise like Robert was, along Highway 1 in Santa Cruz when a 19-year-old woman working as a nanny and reportedly driving erratically hit him.
On that day Robert became a statistic like the others, but he was much more than that: a man’s man, beloved brother and son – a guy people respected. Warm, funny, with lots of friends. Bicycle racing was one of the pastimes he sought to feed the passion for excitement that pushed his life forward. First, he traveled the world with an airline, then chose a second career in law enforcement – SWAT trained. He surfed with his kids and held a black belt in martial arts. Yet for all the danger inherent with these pursuits, it took a moment of distraction by a careless driver to end his enjoyment of them forever.
While bike lanes in areas where never-ending straightaways provide drivers with a clear line of sight, Fallbrook’s bike lanes don’t. Narrow, winding roads prevail here, and in some areas the width of the bike lanes grow smaller because of storm runoff, zoning changes or roadwork. What’s left is a precarious path for expert riders, let alone students traveling to and from school weighted down by a backpacks and bewildering homework assignments.
The ripple affect of a moment of distraction can change the lives of families forever. Although for Robert it meant three and a half years of crippling injury to his body and brain, for his wife and children it meant his 24-hour care and a monthly expense of $18,000. Robert’s extended family suffered, too. His sister Kathy, an occupational therapist, spent three years of Sundays giving Robert’s hired therapist a break. Ultimately, she had a physical and nervous breakdown.
“Our parents took it hard,” Steve said. “Particularly our father, who would cry when he visited. It’s hard to sit and watch someone die.”
According to research, “Half of all traumatic brain injuries are the result of traffic or transportation accidents involving pedestrians, vehicles, bicycles or motorcycles. These accidents are leading causes of traumatic brain injury in people under 75 years old.”
Degrees of traumatic brain damage are measured in levels: 1 through 8. Depending on the severity of the injury, traumatic brain injury symptoms vary. Robert’s diagnosis at level 4 was excruciating to watch, Steve says. “He had seizures <and> sporadic paralysis, and because he couldn’t speak, he screamed.”
John Buchanan, the public education officer for North County Fire Protection District, is an avid bicyclist who has been in two accidents himself. He knows what it feels like to fly over the hood of a car onto the asphalt. Both times, a driver turned right in front of him.
If a driver passes a bicyclist, it’s often “out of sight, out of mind,” not realizing the rider is still there, but drivers underestimate the speed of a bike rider, which can often exceed 25 to 30 miles an hour. “Sometimes a driver will see you and try to accelerate to get ahead for a right turn,” Buchanan says. A rider was recently killed on Old Highway 395 near Deer Springs in just this manner.
Buchanan says riders as well as drivers need to be cautious. “Motorists aren’t always responsible,” he adds, referring to the streams of bicyclists who ride single file and sometime take over a complete lane on a roadway. He’s opposed to riders with headphones, too. Buchanan takes his responsible bicycling message seriously and by the end of September will have scheduled his annual bike safety programs at Fallbrook schools. Last year 7,000 students heard his message.
Although little is known about the young woman who hit Robert, her life is changed too. She was advised by her attorney not to contact Robert’s family, and she didn’t. It’s guaranteed she will never forget, but will she drive more carefully now, with an eye out for bike riders?
Will you make sure your child wears a helmet buckled safely? And, on your way to work with upcoming events of the day tumbling through your mind, will you watch for the bicyclist and give him traveling space?