An eye for an eye …

July 22, 2014 § 72 Comments

… makes the whole world blind.

Of course, if you saw the video put up by Santa Paula reserve police officer Laura Weintraub, you might well have gone blind with rage. Her “satire” included a diatribe against cyclists that openly condoned hitting them, and concluded with an image of one of the most horrible bike-car accidents ever photographed. She captioned the photo, “Like you never thought about it.”

The terrible swift sword of justice was quick. Santa Paula’s police chief, Steve McLean, immediately repudiated the video and placed Weintraub on administrative leave. She resigned the next day, but not before NBC News, the LA Times, Facebook, Twitter, and the Internet blew up. Outraged cyclists tracked down her phone number and threatened to kill her and dismember her body.

Whew. Ugh.

At 4:30 AM on Monday I woke up and checked the LA Bike Blog. Ted Rogers, who had been on top of the story from its inception, penned an insightful piece wondering if, perhaps, we’d squandered the “teachable moment” for the blood lust of watching Weintraub’s head roll. Wasn’t this, Rogers wondered, in actuality an opportunity to forge understanding?

I thought about that and emailed Chief McLean. Here’s what I said:

Hi, Chief McLean

I’m a lawyer and cycling advocate in LA, and have been working with Captain Devoren over at the Lost Hills Substation and with CHP regarding cycling safety issues on PCH.

I’ve followed the matter regarding Laura Weintraub closely, and appreciated her apology as well as your department’s swift response.

I think this matter has created a great opportunity for outreach and education. Although the video clearly offended many people, it has brought attention to the conflict between cyclists and motorists in Ventura County and the need for better relationships on all sides.

If you have some time today I’d be more than happy to call and talk about some ways that we can turn this into a win-win situation for your department, for cyclists, and for motorists in Santa Paula.

Best regards,
Seth Davidson

Later that morning I phoned Chief McLean, and was surprised when he took the call personally. I’ve dealt with law enforcement in many adversarial situations, and fully expected McLean to be defensive and skeptical regarding my motives. He was nothing of the kind. To the contrary, when I suggested a meeting with representatives from LA County Bicycle Coalition and Ventura County cycling advocates in order to explore ways that we could provide outreach and education opportunities to the police department, he said this: “I would very much like to have such a meeting, and sooner rather than later.”

After a phone call to Eric Bruins of LACBC, we were able to set up a meeting for this coming Friday. The idea is to bring cycling safety issues to the forefront and to combat some of the most common motorist prejudices as expressed by Weintraub in her video: that cyclists are a nuisance, that their lives don’t really “count,” that people who look different deserve persecution, and that cyclists don’t really belong on the roads.

My conversation with Chief McLean convinced me that the views of Weintraub are not the views of the department. It is regularly involved with pro-cyclist activities, not least of which included acting as a host city for the 2014 Amgen Tour of California. With regard to education regarding cyclist safety issues, the new 3-foot passing law that goes into effect in September, and some of the more technical aspects of cycling law such as CVC 21202, we now have a great opportunity to provide education and outreach to law enforcement in an area heavily frequented by cyclists.

Our biggest challenge in Southern California, which is the epicenter of American car culture, isn’t how to demonize our opponents, although I’ve been known to lob my fair share of Molotovs at aggressive cagers. Our real challenge is getting law enforcement and the community to recognize and accept our right to be on the road. The city of Santa Paula’s police department seems ready to meet that challenge head on, and for that they deserve our respect.

———

Do you support advocacy for cyclist rights? For safer streets? For better relationships between law enforcement, the community, and bikers? Here are some ways you can have an impact:

  1. Subscribe to this blog: Your donation helps me advocate for cyclists.
  2. Join California Association of Bicycling Organizations. $10, cheap.
  3. Join LA County Bicycle Coalition.
  4. Sign up as an activist by emailing me your contact info at fsethd@gmail.com
  5. Get out on your bike and take the lane; learn CVC 21202 by heart!

Progress

July 13, 2014 § 43 Comments

As a result of the rants posted on this blog, the videos taken by Big Orange, the letter sent by LA County Bicycle Coalition, the voices of individual cyclsts, and Gary’s green wrinkled shirt with the tomato stains in front, a small step forward has been made with regard to riding 2×2 in the lane on PCH north of Temescal up to LA’s county line.

Captain Pat Devoren, who runs the Lost Hills substation, reached out and suggested a meeting to further discuss the issue of cyclists on PCH. Eric Bruins of LACBC, Greg Seyranian and Dave Kramer of Big Orange Cycling, cycling instructor Gary Cziko, and I met on Thursday with the captain, three of his officers, and two traffic officers who work for California Highway Patrol.

After about two hours of discussion, we learned that there is resistance on the part of all law enforcement to allowing bicyclists to control the lane by riding 2×2 all the way up PCH. The resistance is based on disagreement regarding where on PCH the CVC 21202 exceptions apply, and because of the concern that so many cyclists will begin using lane control that the right-hand lane becomes, at certain times, so filled with bicycles that it impedes traffic. Impeding traffic involves a separate section of the vehicle code.

What we were all able to agree on is that there are some sections of the roadway on which it is legal for cyclists to ride 2×2 and to fully control the lane. The disagreement is where we cannot. Rather than engage in an theoretical legal dispute about exactly where the lane is either of substandard width or where it is reasonably necessary to avoid conditions that make it unsafe to continue along the right-hand curb or edge, Captain Devoren make a great suggestion which we immediately agreed to: Let’s do a ride-along with law enforcement on PCH so that we, the cyclists, can point out the points of the roadway that make riding as far to the right as practicable … impracticable and unsafe.

We improved on the suggesting by agreeing that we’d do part of the ride-along following a group of cyclists so that law enforcement can see the difference with regard to traffic safety when you have riders switching from gutter to lane versus controlling the lane in a 2×2 formation. The date for the ride-along has not been confirmed, but it will likely be the latter part of this month. In the meantime we were asssured by Captain Devoren that there would not be additional citations written under the same conditions as the two that were written in the past couple of weeks.

The goodwill and sincerity of LA Sheriff’s Department and the California Highway Patrol was undeniable. They want this to work and they want all users of the roadway to be able to safely and legally use the road. The dialogue was fantastic and I’m optimistic that after a ride-along, law enforcement will see this stretch of roadway differently.

Captain Devoren also invited LACBC to work together by providing education to his deputies regarding application of 21202 and cycling law.

We’ve spent a lot of time and a lot of effort by trying to find a collaborative solution, and we’re not there yet, but it would never have occurred without the support and assistance of so many riders out there, and readers of this blog. I’ve received over $600 in donations as of today, money I’m using to show my wife when she asks why I’m not doing “real work.” Much of that money has come in the form of small monthly $2.99 donations to this blog — are recurring in nature and they add up. Thank you to everyone who has also offered vocal support and who has asked to be put on the list of people who are willing to write letters, make phone calls, and engage in other outreach as it becomes necessary.

Here’s the info about how you can contribute:

  1. Click here and select the “subscribe” link in the upper right-hand corner. Your monthly $2.99 donation will be used to defray the legal expenses of defending David and Scott and to promote activities that help secure the right of cyclists to ride on PCH.
  2. Email me at fsethd@gmail.com if you are willing to actively support these efforts. Activities will include letter-writing, phone calls, organized full-lane rides on PCH.
  3. Notify me if you or someone you know has been cited for a CVC 21202 violation so that I can try to arrange pro bono representation in defending their citation.

Intersection

February 7, 2014 § 82 Comments

When Joe Robinson got up on Sunday morning he was excited. Even though his riding partner had bailed on him — funny how the optimism of Saturday afternoon so often fails to carry through at 6:00 AM on Sunday morning — he awoke with ease. Shortly before seven, with the sun not yet risen above the hills outside Irvine, he rolled down the drive. By the time he got to Santiago Canyon Road the muscles in his lean, 21-year-old legs were flush with blood and his youthful lungs were sucking in the fresh morning air. The whole road was going to be his because of all the days in the year, none is more peaceful for cyclists than the morning of Super Bowl Sunday.

His excitement came from the intersection of several puzzle pieces in his life. Joe was excited to be on his bike because it had been three days since he’d ridden. His mother had a broken foot and he’d been helping her get around, run errands, and make the short-term accommodations you have to make with a foot injury. Being off his bike for three days had left him pent up and eager to pedal. He was excited because this early morning ride was the only chance he’d have to cycle before work. His job selling bikes at Jax’s in Irvine was hectic, and his Sunday shift would start at ten and last the entire day.

And he was excited because of the power meter. He’d just built up a power tap hub and couldn’t wait to see how his growing strength, and especially his climbing strength, translated into watts. He’d been cycling for a short time, but was already fully smitten, and his combination of enthusiasm, youth, long legs, and a rail-like build meant that he was gaining in leaps and bounds. He hadn’t said much about it, but any experienced observer could tell that it wouldn’t be long before Joe started racing his bike.

As it has for so many others, the discovery of cycling had begun the progress of putting structure, discipline, and confidence into the life of a young man who, like virtually every other 21-year-old, was still trying to make his way in the world. Since he’d begun cycling he had re-enrolled in college. The once sporadic scholar was now bringing home A’s with only the occasional B. He was a semester away from leaving business administration, a dull subject, for computer science, the area that he secretly loved more than any other.

Joe turned onto Santiago Canyon, having now climbed the rollers on Jamboree for a few minutes, and he breathed harder as his legs jammed the bike up the climb. He breathed with the freshness and strength you only have once, when your body is as young and resilient as it will ever be. Joe Robinson had the day and his entire life ahead of him, and it was good.

The villain

We’ll never really know exactly what happened, but one possible version of reality is this: The girl was scared. She and her friends had been partying hard at the pre-Super Bowl party. They had hit the beer and vodka and tequila until the wee hours, and even though she had stopped drinking long before sunrise, she was still drunk. A friend had offered her something to “pick her up,” and she’d taken it. It might have been meth, but she didn’t care. She took it and enjoyed the rough buzz that beat back, then overpowered, then comfortably mixed with the booze. She wasn’t scared anymore.

What she still cared about, though, was how she was going to get home. She knew that at age eighteen she couldn’t afford a DUI for a long list of reasons, but her route home took her directly through Irvine, a city that’s notoriously hard on drunks. She too had a full day ahead of her and the party was over and she had to get home. If she hurried she might make it before her parents were even up.

In her stoned and drunken state she figured it like this: Her biggest chance of getting nailed was on the highway. The CHP would be out looking for leftover drunks from last night, so better to take the surface streets. She did, and was pleased at her strategy. No cops anywhere. Best of all, she could avoid the freeway entirely by taking Santiago Canyon, which ran parallel to the highway but never had any traffic because cars preferred to take the faster freeway next to it. She pressed on the accelerator, bringing the car up to 55 mph on the narrow road.

It was 7:30. The sun had now crested the hills and was shining directly into her drunken, addled eyes. She could barely make out the edges of her narrow lane. “Fuck it,” she thought. “Why didn’t I put on my sunglasses?” She mashed harder on the gas, rushing towards her rendezvous.

The soul mate

Those of us who are old and who grew up before computers don’t really understand anything about  youth, least of all young love. While we stare grumpily at our beer and complain to our friends about how “those damned video games have ruined this younger generation,” the younger generation is doing just fine, thanks very much. Sydnee Hyman was Joe’s girlfriend and they already recognized that they had found in each other a life partner.

It came about in the most 21st Century way you can imagine. Sydnee had been buried in a game of World of Warcraft as a high school student when Joe entered the fray. He was good, beyond good, and she sucked in her breath as the game unfolded. Then something odd happened. When two new, plainly inexperienced players entered the game, Joe did what expert video gamers never do. He started helping them.

In video gaming, as in road cycling, the new face often endures what can only be described as bullying. Locked behind her computer screen, Sydnee watched this expert player gently and with skill help a mom and her daughter learn the ropes. His warmth and his character were right there, for the entire world to see. Was she the only one who could see it? Sydnee had to know more about this guy. The spark from his gentle character had turned a remote video game player in Southern California into a person, and the spark did what it has been doing since the beginning of time. It brought together two strangers, a boy and a girl, and it transformed itself from a spark of curiosity into a cascade of love.

Sydnee was now majoring in biomedical engineering, and even though it was early in her academic career, she was a straight A student who knew she wanted to pursue a masters degree at Purdue once she finished her undergraduate studies, and ultimately a Ph.D. somewhere on the West Coast, closer to her family outside San Francisco. She and Joe were completely in love, and her trips from Indiana back home took on a new pattern. Rather than going straight across, her flights somehow detoured to John Wayne Airport in Costa Mesa. She’d spend time with her life partner, usually a few days, before continuing on home to her family in Northern California.

It was Super Bowl Sunday, and while the other students were still in bed, Sydnee was already up, studying. It was cold and miserable outside, and she knew Joe was out riding in the warm California winter. She looked forward with warm anticipation to the phone conversation they’d have later that morning.

The boss

Brian got up early and headed in to work. The shop was going to be busy and they were short handed. He was glad that Joe, his star salesman, was coming in. Even though he normally worked three days a week during school, at Brian’s request he had agreed to log some extra hours. Brian thought about how lucky he was to have hired Joe, and he grinned as he remembered the day they’d met. Joe had come in and asked for a job. When Brian asked him about his qualifications for job in bicycle retail, Joe had smiled his characteristic smile and handed Brian a sales printout from the previous shop he worked at. “Wow,” said Brian. Joe’s best month had brought in $70,000 in sales. “You’re hired.”

Joe had only been with the shop since November, but he was already a fixture. The shop loved him because he sold bikes. The customers loved him because he didn’t “sell” bikes, he just talked with them about cycling and helped them get what they needed. He had a direct, honest gentleness about him that people instinctively trusted. These were the kind of employees you lucked out with, the rare gems who were dependable, hardworking, honest, friendly, and effective at what they did. As the clock got closer and closer to 8:00, Brian worked harder, mentally checking off all the tasks he had to finish before the doors opened at ten.

Things were moving quickly, but they were coming together, too.

The hero

Battalion Chief Mark Stone was mulling over the work that lay ahead as he drove towards Westminster and his Sunday shift. The career fireman reflexively scanned the hillside, noting the dry landscape. “We need rain,” he said to himself. That habit of seeing everything at once had been with him for as long as he could remember, and it showed itself in little ways, like when he took his family to the movies and, without thinking, noted the location of every single exit, noted any strange looking patrons, noted anything that stood out. His eyes glanced at the approaching car in the opposite lane. He had an instinct for finding whatever didn’t fit.

The oncoming car’s windshield was violently smashed on one side and the driver was hauling by at well over 60 mph. “She must have hit a deer,” he thought, wondering why the car hadn’t pulled over to call a tow truck. Now he was on alert, checking the roadside for an injured animal that might stagger out in front of his truck. At the same time, the hair stood up on the back of his neck. At the beginning of his commute he had seen several groups of cyclists. “I wonder if she hit someone?” he wondered. “Not possible. She would have stopped.”

His eye caught a shoe on the edge of the road, almost invisible in the dry grass. He swung over. “Not possible,” he thought again. There was nothing near the shoe, but he waded off the roadside into the scrub. First he saw the bike, then further, completely invisible from the road, he saw Joe. Mark touched the young man’s neck where his pulse should have been.

He set his jaw and raced back to his truck. Mark’s mental impression of the car with the broken windshield was one of complete recall. He got on his radio, and the CHP put out an all points bulletin. Shortly thereafter a police officer saw the car with the broken windshield in a parking lot, deserted except for two women, one of whom was frantically taking her things out of the damaged car and throwing them into the other car in an attempt, perhaps, to vanish, to claim the car had been stolen, and to place the blame for Joe’s death on a phantom “thief.”

“You have the right to remain silent,” he said.

Through the haze of drugs and alcohol, the owner of the smashed car started to sob.

The mother

Valerie Dubois didn’t know what to do, exactly. There was no way to rehearse, to practice, to prepare yourself for this. The third day after Joe’s death she stood in front of Jax’s Bike Shop, watching the assembled riders. She had been humbled by the thought that the shop was putting on a memorial ride for her son, and she’d expected a dozen or so riders to show up there at 6:00 in the morning in the middle of a work week. Now she looked out on a group of close to two hundred, a group that would swell once the ride began and riders joined en route to Joe’s ghost bike.

The CHP, the Irvine police, and the Orange police shut down every intersection as the group made its way out to the point on Santiago Canyon where Joe had been killed. Valerie could hardly believe the rolling police enclosure as the mass of cyclists rolled through the early morning commuter traffic. At 7:30, approximately the time that Joe had been hit, they reached the site of the ghost bike. Valerie made a brief speech to the massive crowd. Her voice shook as she thanked them. The warm morning light poured over the hilltop just as it had a few days ago. Most of the people there had never met Joe. They listened in silence, thinking the same thing: “That could have been my son, that could have been me.”

Valerie thought about other things above and beyond the things she said. Joe had been her youngest, and he had meant everything to her. His gentleness, his kindness, his joyful approach to life, his passion for cycling, all of these things washed over her. The unwritten rule of parents had been broken, of course: Thou shall not live to bury your children. But even that couldn’t erase in her mind what Joe had left behind: His reminder that a smile to someone having a rotten day matters. That the way we intersect with strangers gives the truest picture of who we really are. That Joe was her angel, and if he could see the people he’d touched standing in the morning sunlight, people he knew and people he’d never met, he’d smile his gentle smile and say “Remember me for this.”

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