photo credit hereinmalibu
21 years ago, Rodrigo "Rod" Armas strapped on his helmet, hopped onto his bike and set off on the LA Wheelmen's Grand Tour, an annual cycling event that starts and finishes in Malibu, drawing participants from throughout California as well the surrounding Western States. Grand Tour riders typically have an appetite for distance as is evidenced by the route options which range from the 200 Kilometer, 200 mile, 300 mile and 400 mile routes.
The Grand Tour is a fully supported event meaning that there are abundant pit stops and sag teams that patrol the route, offering everything from encouragement and refreshments to medical and mechanical support. The ride starts early on Saturday morning and riders must complete their selected route within 24 hours.
This past Saturday, Rod again saddled up for the Grand Tour, this time accompanied by Christian, his 14 year-old-son. They were among the last cyclists to check in, picking up numbers 473 and 474. Rod strapped on the same helmet he used 21 years before and the father and son team set off on the Highland Double, a 200 mile route that heads up to Port Hueneme and then turns inland over the rural, quieter and hillier back roads of Ventura County.
At around 9pm on Saturday evening, Brian Meek, a cyclist who had stopped with mechanical difficulties was in the Rincon pit stop when two cyclists rode in, stirring cheers and applause. The cyclists were Rod and Christian and they were the two last riders on the Highland Double route. Bryan reports that as Rod sat down he dropped his helmet in the dirt. "One of the guys at the stop took it from him and said he would clean it for him. The father and son were tired but in great spirits and shared some of their ‘stories’ with all of us. I listened as the father shared that he was wearing the same helmet he used 21 years ago the first time he rode the Grand Tour.
As Saturday turned into Sunday, Rod and Christian had approximately 190 miles behind them including 8500 feet of elevation gain and four very challenging hills. They were riding on the shoulder in ideal conditions. the sky was clear, there was great visibility, the roads were dry and there was a slight off shore breeze. All was well and they were within miles of rolling into the finish line in Malibu.
A SAG driver passed the father and son team on PCH and reported that all was well and that the cyclists were making good progress toward the Malibu finish.
At approximately 1:30 am, the next SAG driver came across an emergency scene with medical and law enforcement personnel at work on the two cyclists who lay on the ground at 34000 PCH. The SAG driver radioed back to the the other support teams in order to coordinate the Triple Century cyclists who would soon be riding south on PCH past the emergency scene.
Rod was pronounced dead at the scene and Christian was airlifted to UCLA Medical Center with severe and comprehensive injuries. Their bodies were crushed, their bikes were destroyed, their blood was on the road and yet there was no sign of the person responsible for the mayhem.
The LA County Sheriff's Department provides law enforcement services for the City of Malibu and they found an abandoned Dodge Ram pickup truck approximately 1 mile farther south on PCH. There was no sign of a driver.
The Ventura County Sheriff's Department deployed a K-9 unit to the scene in an effort to locate the person who drove the truck into Rod and Christian and then left them broken and bleeding on the road.
Two hours later at 3:25 am, a security guard at Zuma Bay called from the guard shack to report that he had found the suspect and the Sheriff's Department arrested Robert Sam Sanchez, 30, of Oxnard. Sanchez was transported to a hospital where a blood test was performed and then he was placed in the Lost Hills Station jail where he was charged with Vehicular Manslaughter (191.5a) vehicular DUI resulting in injury (21153a) and felony hit and run (2991a).
The story thus far is chilling and has had a significant impact on the cycling community, who for the most part, will pause for a moment as the realization that "It could have been me!" sinks in and then go back to life as usual.
But for some, this is more than a moment to mourn the loss of one of our own and the opportunity to offer condolences to the broken family left behind, this is the time to ask some hard questions.
1) Robert Sam Sanchez, the suspect who stands accused of running down Rod and Christian, has already bailed out and is at home enjoying freedom and the assumption of innocence, an assumption that will probably prevail if he has access to any decent legal representation.
Sanchez was not caught behind the wheel of the vehicle, the investigation is taking place by two Deputies who are part of the traffic division of the Sheriff's Department, not the criminal division, and their Supervisor is on medical leave.
What's it going to take for this investigation to be conducted with the full and enthusiastic support of the LA County Sheriff's Department? What's it going to take to get the District Attorney involved now, while the investigation is under way? (btw this is #4 of the Cyclists' Bill of Rights - "cyclists have the right to the full support of our judicial system and the right to expect that those who endanger, injure or kill cyclists be dealt with to the full extent of the law."
2) Lt. Glafkides, the Watch Commander on duty Saturday evening and Sunday morning reports that she has worked this station for 3 and half years but she has never heard of the LA Wheelmen or the Grand Tour. There were 4 Deputies on duty in Malibu that night. There were none on duty in the unincorporated areas around Malibu. The LA Sheriff's Department also handles law enforcement responsibilities for other "contract" communities such as Hidden Hills, Westlake Village, Calabases and Agoura Hills. All totaled, there are approximately 145 square miles in the area that are under the watch of the LASD.
How does the Sheriff's Department not notice the large number of cyclists rolling through the community and how is it that the Watch Commander doesn't know of such a significant event? Lt. Chew relates that he has an email from the LA Wheelmen indicating that an event would be taking place but somehow the Watch Commander never received the message nor noticed in the years prior that the Grand Tour was taking place.
3) PCH has such a horrific record of traffic tragedies and through it all, cyclists find themselves having to argue for their rights on the road. Brad House was hit from behind by a road raging motorist and flipped into the air over the car. The judge found Brad at partial fault, after all, he was in the lane!
Two cyclists, Scott Bleifer and Stanislov Ionov, were hit from behind and killed by the operator of a catering truck. This incident stirred a significant community debate that had many arguing that the cyclists were at fault for riding two abreast and in the lane.
Missing from the discourse is the simple discussion of how pedestrians and cyclists and mass transit passengers and motorists can all use PCH while maintaining some sense of balance based on equality and a guarantee that all modes of transportation will be supported.
After the deaths of Scott and Stanislov, the PCH Task Force was formed and given the mandate of reviewing safety issues for cyclists on PCH, monitoring conditions on PCH and maintaining interagency responsibility for the conditions of PCH. Velo LaGrange and the LACBC and others tout this as one of their accomplishments and yet...the PCH Task Force has gone dormant and cyclists are dying. Why, even the "Share the Road" signs are getting hit by motorists!
The City of Malibu refers to the Sheriff's Department who refer to Caltrans. Meanwhile PCH remains a very busy and congested and conflicted corridor that more closely resembles a traffic sewer than a vital community lifeline.
Through it all, the cycling community has to ask the hard question "What are we going to do about it?"
4) The speed limit on PCH varies from fast to faster to really fast. The exact numbers vary but range from 45 to 50 to 55. Again, the LASD refers to the State's speed trap law and throws up their hands saying, "It's state law, we set the limits based on the 85% rule." (This is the "science" where motorists vote in an opinion poll with their gas pedals)
Do we really live in communities that are so helpless? Are we not adults with some responsibility for our city, our county and our state? How is it that we tolerate such helplessness from our leadership and from out law enforcement offices?
If PCH needs to be slowed down, let's slow it down. There are 28 miles of PCH through Malibu and on this past Saturday night there were 4 Deputies on duty. Engineer a road diet, implement traffic calming technology, do something other than wring hands and wonder why people are dying!
photo credit independentsources
5) The Office of Traffic Safety put the spotlight on Malibu and reported that "Malibu is #1!" Unfortunately the category was for vehicle injuries. Granted, the report from the Office of Traffic Safety is based on statistics from 2005 but unless something dramatic has changed, Malibu is left with the lingering reality that for a City of their size and with the number of miles traveled, they have been recognized by the State of California as:
#1 for vehicle injuries
#2 for alcohol accidents
#1 for alcohol related accidents for the age group 21 to 34
#1 for speed related accidents
#2 for accidents after dark
Granted, there is a motorcycle cop in Malibu who leads the County in tickets issued but unless he is going to escort me every time I ride my bike to the store, he's an anecdotal anomaly. The brutal reality is this: Malibu is a tough place for pedestrians, for cyclists and for mass transit passengers who must navigate some brutal stretches of PCH.
What are we doing to address the significant danger of the speeding motorists and intoxicated motorists that have Malibu one of the most dangerous communities in the State of California?
6) Motorists who run over pedestrians and cyclists choose to run. They do it time after time and then again. The penalty for running is better than the penalty for being drunk. This inequity in the law needs to shift.
Even worse is the simple fact that hitting a pedestrian or cyclist while sober is hardly a crime. After all, "He came out of nowhere!" is a legal defense and "I didn't see him!" is an acceptable explanation for killing and maiming.
The motorist who ran down LA Wheelmen Bobbi Fisher from behind was sober but had a dog in his lap and was distracted, resulting in a broken back for Bobbi. The motorist wasn't even cited.
The motorist who turned left into oncoming LA Wheelmen on a tandem simply said "I didn't see them." Advanced in age and with failing eyesight, the motorist lost his California license, a small inconvenience he overcame by pulling an out of state license using his vacation property as his address. He still drives to the local pub in Malibu while the cyclists slowly heal.
Putting a motor vehicle on the road is a significant responsibility and yet our leadership acts as if it is a basic right and that any effort to hold a motorist accountable is an infringement of their basic human rights.
What is it going to take for us to take the lead and to establish safety and freedom of fear as basic human rights. (btw - this is #1 of the Cyclists' Bill of Rights. Cyclists have the right to travel safely and free of fear.)
7) Ride organizers and Cycling clubs live in fear of LIABILITY. Why? For encouraging people to get off the sofa and go for a ride?
What is it going to take for "We don't need no stinkin' permits!" to become the battle cry of access to the new public space, the streets of our communities?
In fact, what's it going to take for us to shift the fear of liability and to reverse the relationship. Our leadership should be the ones grimacing and cringing and feeling the full fear of liability every time another pedestrian or cyclist is injured or killed on the public streets that they are responsible for maintaining and supervising!
Why are pedestrians and cyclists treated as 2nd class citizens when they want access to our streets? These streets belong to the public and our leadership is responsible for maintaining fair and equitable access.
Why would we tolerate anything less?
As for me, this is far from over. I'll see you on the Streets!