Monday, April 21, 2014

A preventable and tragic death: Some Lessons

Google maps view. 
Black line is the route of a cyclist riding the 
rail-trail, south to north. Ms. LeBeau was riding
 north and crossed the tracks 
at the crossing just S. of Zia.

On Saturday morning, April 19th, Suzanne LeBeau, an avid cyclist, was killed when she rode her bicycle directly into the path of the southbound Rail Runner train at the point where the Santa Fe Rail Trail crosses the tracks just south of the Zia Road rail crossing. According to discussions with a Journal reporter, she was travelling northbound on the rail trail, which jogs briefly east to cross the tracks and then continues north on the west side of South St. Francis.

Commenters to a local TV outlet claim she was wearing some sort of headphones or earphones. This has not been confirmed by the ongoing police investigation. Presumably if earphones were present, they will be discovered.

Also relevant is that rail trail runs parallel to S. St. Francis at that location and approaches from behind the train station. A cyclist riding north at that point will be screened for a while and then looking at the sides of the lights and crossing arms in a large and busy intersection. The cyclist will also be looking directly towards the southbound train. Although we are told "...the (Santa Fe Police) department stated that the railroad barrier arms, safety lights, warning sirens and the train’s horn were all activated and working properly..." readers must note that there are in fact no barriers or safety lights whatsoever at the actual rail trail crossing used by cyclists!

We will never know everything that happened on Saturday to cause this tragedy, as Suzanne is not here to explain it. My condolences go out to her family and to the train engineer, who was powerless to stop events.

Are there lessons here for cyclists, municipal planners, and facility designers?

First, the cyclist must always maintain his or her situational awareness and anticipate hazards. We must constantly be asking "what can happen at this intersection or crossing and what will I do about it". Whether the cyclist was wearing headphones is less relevant than how a cyclist compensates for the loss of critical sensory information under potentially adverse conditions. Darkness, cold (requiring headgear), high winds, and other inclement situations can compromise one's sensory safety envelope and require adjustment. Distracted riding, or riding with a lot on your mind can be perilous as it takes away your ability to sense and evaluate danger.

Secondly, the design standards we require for trails should be comparable to those for an immediately adjacent roadway -- if there are barriers and lights for a busy roadway, why not for a key rail trail crossing at that very busy intersection and for the same reasons: we anticipate people will need advance warning of conditions at a busy intersection or crossing. Indeed, this is not just any trail, but a major part of Santa Fe's offroad bicycle network, made necessary because many of its major roads (and especially its state-managed highways such as St. Francis Drive) are decidedly bicyclist-unfriendly, thus requiring off road workarounds. In this context, it is not clear to me why a cyclist should fail to benefit from some sort of warning light or barrier system similar to that enjoyed by motorists. This is especially true because a cyclist arriving via the Rail Trail is riding at right angles to the barriers and warning lights. Is it possible that this reduced visibility coupled with background visual clutter did not give the warning that the designers assumed?

Some of this discussion goes to the very heart of defining the roles of the cyclist and the government in maintaining roadway safety. We have to balance personal responsibility with an appropriate government role in building safe, well-engineered facilities. Let's reexamine these roles today, and not let Suzanne LeBeau die in vain.

The author, me, has been heavily involved in cycling advocacy for a quarter century. I am a League Cycling Instructor, board member of the Bicycle Coalition of New Mexico, a member of the Los Alamos County Transportation Board and while a member have contributed to the 2005 Los Alamos Bike Plan and 2010 Complete Streets ordinance. I am currently chair of the LANL Traffic Safety Committee, While president of the Hawaii Bicycling League, I assisted in the creation of the Honolulu Bicycle Master Plan (1999).  Having said that, the comments above are mine alone and are not endorsed or blessed by any of those entities. 

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