No reason for cyclists to die on city streets By L.A. Chung, Mercury News Staff Columnist San Jose Mercury News | Thursday, 30-Nov-2000 If there is any comfort that Lauren Robertson can take, it might be that her big brother Chris died doing what he loved, surrounded by friends. But I doubt she feels much comfort at all. Not for the world would anyone want her brother to go that way, that night, that occasion. It was too senseless. Too unnecessary. He was, after all, only 30. And he still had scripts he wanted to write. Chris Robertson died after being run over by a big rig Nov. 17 on Fourth Street, not far from the new ballpark and the Caltrain station. He was part of a large group of cyclists traveling in a bunch in the roadway as they returned from a funeral. Early on, published reports speculated it was a case of road rage. Cyclists physically restrained the driver of the truck from leaving the scene. Chris Robertson's considerable circle of friends -- bike messengers, recreational cyclists, bicycle commuters, customers of Rainbow Grocery where he worked -- have been trying to make sure that his death is not chalked up as just another unfortunate ``accident'' in the war between cars and anything smaller and slower -- like bikers and pedestrians. In this city, tensions between bicyclists and drivers in a hurry have been ever-present since the Critical Mass bicycle movement began taking up city streets a day each month during rush hour. Plenty of tempers flare when masses of cars are blocked at 5 p.m. on Market Street, but this particular ride was no muscle flex of pedal power, no act of protest. It was a funeral procession of cyclists at night, in a lightly traveled part of town that is an in-between land between Potrero Hill and the bustling part of the South of Market district. The police report remains, strangely, lost in the system, but the sketchy police version is that Reuben Espinoza, the driver of tractor-trailer, apparently became annoyed that the procession of some 40 cyclists had ``taken the lane,'' as it's called in public safety parlance, and threw a block of wood at them. Words were exchanged. And in the end, Chris Robertson had been run over. ``How stupid can you be to put your 150-pound body in front of a tractor-trailer?'' Lauren Robertson asked, the day after she and her parents had returned to New Orleans from her brother's funeral in San Francisco. She is sure that the answer is that he wasn't, and he didn't. ``We will never, ever know that driver's intent. But I know Chris was a very safe bicyclist, and he wasn't stupid.'' This column isn't about intent right now. That's up to the district attorney's office and the police to determine, now that they're acting with some alacrity. It's about stopping this madness. District Attorney Terence Hallinan has a chance to step up and be a leader. He can do his job with the investigation, and he can do what DA Paula Kamena did in Marin after two cyclists were killed by cars last year: start a bike-car safety task force with law enforcement and cyclists and endorse its educational efforts. Kamena's been meeting with the group once a month since last winter. And you can see the difference. Marin's Share the Road campaign began last June and has turned into a full-blown campaign in its six short months. All the major police departments, the California Highway Patrol, the Marin County Sheriff's Department and the district attorney's office support the campaign. Signs saying ``Share the Road,'' indicating a bicycle and a car, have gone up in 23 locations in the county. ``When you're out there bicycling on the road every day, there's a general mood out there,'' said Debbie Hubsmith, executive director of the Marin Bicycle Coalition. ``In general, people have been more respectful.'' And what's that? Drivers need to understand -- really understand -- that bicyclers are legally on our streets whether it's convenient for cars or not. (Please see page 48 of this year's California Driver Handbook; it's the same laws for bikes and cars, and they've been on the books all these years.) And cyclists need to assert their rights in a fashion that's not confrontational. The bottom line is that I've never known the car driver to come out dead in a car-vs.-bike collision. We could be talking about this anywhere you find bikes and cars on the same roadway -- Santa Cruz, Fremont, Palo Alto, Berkeley -- but this happens to be San Francisco, thank God. Because it's an activist community. And that's what you need right now. Enforcing safety rules Hubsmith said the Marin County bicycle coalition had been working on a Share the Road effort, but it only took off because Malcolm Foster, a friend of Cecy Krone, one of the dead cyclists, turned it into a real campaign with bumper stickers, water bottles, and road signs under an ``adopt-a-sign'' program. The Marin program hinges on courtesy, cooperation and safety. But it also contains some teeth: enforcement. `Accidents' are avoidable ``One of the most important aspects of the `Share the Road' Program,' '' Hubsmith wrote in a letter faxed to Hallinan on Wednesday requesting a full investigation and prosecution in Chris Robertson's case, ``is the knowledge that law enforcement agencies in Marin will uphold bicyclists' and pedestrians' rights to our public roadways and they will prosecute when drivers are negligent or intentionally harass bicyclists and pedestrians.'' Lauren Robertson just wants to see appropriate charges brought against the driver who ran over her brother. It won't change the fact that her brother is gone, but it may help change the tone in this city that these ``accidents'' are unavoidable and acceptable. ``Nothing that happens to this man is going to bring him back,'' she said. ``But my brother isn't the first and he won't be the last killed in this manner.''
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