Two people killed riding bicycles in two weeks

Saturday afternoon Robert Gunderson, 62, was killed while riding his bicycle on Woods Road in Muskego when he was hit by a car driven by a 20-year-old man. A little more than a week earlier in Eau Claire, a 90-year-old man drove his car onto a bike trail and killed Kirk Cartwright, 51, bringing Wisconsin’s total fatal bicycle crashes to four, compared to one last July.

Both the Muskego and Eau Claire crashes remain under investigation, so it is inappropriate for us to jump to conclusions about guilt in either crash, but the circumstances certainly raise questions. The Eau Claire crash happened when the driver of the car turned onto a bike trail. I spoke with Lt. Golden from the Eau Claire Police, and he told me they have finished the on-site crash reconstruction work and are working to put that into a report for the District Attorney’s office. He said the DA should have that information by the end of this week and could then determine if there was cause to issue a citation or any charges.

It is typical not to issue citations or charges in crashes of any kind involving a fatality until a full investigation and crash reconstruction is done. The reconstruction process involves using an advanced GPS “Total Station” and careful measurements and calculations. That data is then put into a written report so a district attorney can determine if there is probable cause to charge anyone.

Of course, that process is not complete yet in Muskego where the State Patrol will be doing the crash reconstruction. I spoke with the Muskego police and they told me that, although no citations have been issued, Robert Gunderson was riding his bicycle eastbound when he was hit head-on by the westbound car driven by the 20-year-old as he crossed the centerline on Woods Road.

My parents moved from Milwaukee to Muskego when I was in middle school.  I road my bike on Woods Road plenty of times to visit friends and never had a scary incident. Still, I had not been on it in a while, so I pedaled out there Sunday morning to visit the crash location.  I was surprised that in the 20 minutes I spent taking photographs from the side of the road, I saw eight people riding bicycles.  This was not a group ride, it was just a bunch of different people out riding on what is clearly a pretty popular road for bicycling. You can see some of the people in my photographs from Sunday morning below.

The road itself seems ideal as a bike route.  It has smooth pavement, a narrow, but paved shoulder, relatively low traffic volumes and the speed limit varies between 25mph on the east end near S North Cape Road, and 35mph a bit west where the crash happened. I did not have a radar gun with me, but I felt like traffic was moving close to the posted limit and that people driving cars were safely passing the people I saw on bikes.

Todd Jenson, PhD, is one of our members who lives less than a mile from the crash location.  He runs Tri-Faster training and rides that road frequently. Todd agreed with my assessment of Woods as a nice bike route. “I would say 9 out of 10 cars drive close the the speed limit and pass bicycles with a safe distance.  The other 10% think that if you are behind the white line they can pass you without crossing the centerline,” he said.

For the record, I measured the width of the paved shoulder and it varied between 16 inches and 30 inches, not wide enough for a bicycle.  People on bikes need to ride at least a foot or two from the edge of the road to safely deal with side wind, avoid road hazards, and general balance issues.  ”I tend to ride right on the white line, and most motorists then pass me safely by crossing the centerline,” Jenson added. You can read more about that crash and some typically disappointing comments that bicycles don’t belong on the road in the Muskego paper here.

The Thursday night rides out of Wheel & Sprocket have used Woods Road on their training rides for years without incident.

Both the crashes in Eau Claire and Muskego remain under investigation by the State Patrol and further details may not be available for more than a month.  For instance, no additional information has been released regarding the crash that killed Tammy Gass in Marathon County at the end of May. The staff at the Bike Fed will continue to check back with the district attorney and the police regarding all four of these tragic deaths.

In the meantime, we have been working hard to get our new public safety announcements played on television and on radio stations around the state. Television and radio stations have also conducted interviews with Bike Fed staff and bike shop owners. We have also been successful in getting yard signs and billboards up with share the road messages. For an up-to-date listing of where our media messages have appeared, check out our In the Media Page.

Todd said he would would like to get some yard signs from us to post on Woods Road. Hopefully this safety campaign can remind people driving cars of their responsibilities to keep other more vulnerable road users safe. If you are interested in purchasing yard signs, email Matt Gissibl in our Milwaukee office.

Four fatal bike crashes puts us three ahead of 2011′s to-date total. Sadly, Wisconsin is ahead in all categories: people walking, on bike, on motorcycles and in cars. Still, it is possible to finish out the year without anyone else losing their life, if we all follow the rules of the road, no matter what mode of transportation we are taking. Perhaps most importantly, since most of us drive cars as well as ride bikes, when we are behind the wheel of a car, we must remember to leave the distractions behind and pay full attention to the task of driving.

Note: This story initially included photos of the damaged bicycle that were taken at the Muskego crash scene, but I removed the photo of the officer carrying the crumpled bike and cropped the bike out of the other crash scene photo after hearing from a reader who knew Jeff Littmann and felt it was just too painful to look at a crumpled bicycle. If you want to see the original images of the crash, they are still viewable in the Bike Fed’s Flickr Photostream here.

I would like to hear back from others about their thoughts on running photos from the crash scene.  The Bike Fed needs to be responsive to these tragic crashes in the hopes of improving road safety, but it is important for us to be sensitive to the feelings of the family and friends of the victims. The Sheboygan Press ran a photo of the crash scene from the fatal crash that happened there. As a former journalist, I know that most news media would not hesitate to run such images of crash scenes, but I also know that this blog is not a commercial news media and our readers have different expectations.

That said, as painful as the image is to look at, a photograph of a crumpled bike at a crash scene is a powerful reminder of the tremendous responsibility we earn when we get our driver’s licenses. Most people who ride bicycles also drive motor vehicles. When we do, we must share the road with those more vulnerable than us, and that includes people walking, driving motorcycles, on horseback, highway workers and law enforcement officers.  Please remember that driving a car or truck requires our full attention and great care, particularly when we are sharing the road with others not as protected.

As I mentioned, out of respect for the feelings of the member who called, I have removed the crash images from this story.  We will be discussing this internally at the Bike Fed, but I would really like to hear from you, our members. What do you think our policy should be about reporting fatal crashes here on our blog?

My sincere apologies of the images caused anyone distress. – Dave Schlabowske

About Dave Schlabowske, Deputy Director

Dave was the first full-time staff member hired to open the Bike Fed's Milwaukee office 11 years ago. A former professional photographer and life-long Milwaukee resident, Dave lives with his wife Liz and daughter Frankie in the Washington Heights neighborhood on Milwaukee's west side.

18 thoughts on “Two people killed riding bicycles in two weeks

  1. Woods road is one of my main roads I use on most of my rides. I like it for the fact it does have a small marked shoulder, traffic is usually within the limits and I as a woman rider feel pretty safe on this road and there is a lot of bike traffic. I am so sorry to hear of this tragedy, my prayers to the family. I appreciate the Bike Fed following this and sharing any information in the future.

  2. I have never ridden Woods Road but from what I have read so far the accident sounds like someone not paying attention. It is a great tragedy for both the rider and driver as he will have to live with the memory for the rest of his life.

    As riders we need to do whatever we can to raise awareness of bikes on the road. This needs to begin with drivers Ed. Last week my wife and I were riding our tandem from Milwaukee to Port Washington, we were passed by 4 cars . Three of them gave us a wide berth, across the center line, the forth brushed us. The 4th car was a driving school car giving a lesson. Awareness needs to begin with basic drivers ed.

    • Wow, brushed by a drivers ed vehicle! I hope the instructor does not pass that kid until he or she gets better at driving. Coincidentally, my daughter started drivers ed yesterday. Learning to drive is certainly a right of passage in the US. Since we have such poor transit, it is almost essential that everyone learn to drive. Unless you live in an urban center and don’t intend to go anywhere outside the city very often, you pretty much have to drive. I live in Milwaukee and pretty much don’t drive at all in the city. I can bike, walk or take the bus everywhere I need to go. I have even hauled lumber and drywall with my bike. But my wife and daughter have a horse and the City frowns on keeping those in the yard, so they have to travel to Racine to hide him.

      When my daughter and I visited Copenhagen, she had a friend there who also rode horses. She was able to take a bus, with only one transfer, out to the country to the farm where the horse was stabled. That is simply not possible here, so we have a car. Berfore my time I have read that people used to take trains up north to go deer hunting, but not any longer. I have to drive to Ashland County to hunt.

      I will be very curious to hear from my daughter, who rides her bike and takes the bus to get around Milwaukee, what she learns about bicycling and walking in her drivers ed class. She did tell me last night that it is illegal to hang anything from your rear view mirror. Time to remove that tree I guess!

  3. I agree with your decision not to publish the photos and to include a link where to see the photos. By looking at one of the photos, it “appears” that the driver crossed way over the center line and after hitting the bike, hit a telephone pole on the opposite side of the road. Yes, I may be drawing a conclusion I shouldn’t have but I would have liked you to have included in your blog that the vehicle hit a tree. It would have been nice if the sheriff dept or highway patrol would have given you a preliminary accident report.

    To answer your question about whether you should report fatal crashes on the blog, yes, please continue to do so.

    • Chris,

      Thanks for your thoughts. You are correct, and I did mention in the fourth paragraph that the Muskego police officer I spoke with told me the driver of the car did hit Mr. Gunderson head on after crossing over the centerline. I suppose I could have mentioned he also hit the utility pole in the text as well, but it is unclear if he hit the pole before or after he hit Mr. Gunderson. As hard as it is to do so, I think we need to wait until the crash report is published to get more information. We can always request a copy of the eMV4000, which is the form the police fill out at the scene, but they cannot release that until the crash study is done.

      • Sorry, I meant to say ‘hit a telephone pole/utility pole’. I got it right the 1st time, brain fart the 2nd time.

  4. Such sad news! My thoughts and prayers are with the friends and families….

    Regarding your question: What do you think our policy should be about reporting fatal crashes here on our blog?

    I vote not to report on every bike fatality that occurs.

    • Max,

      I was really just asking if we should run photos of the crash scenes, but I am curious why you think we shouldn’t report about when people are killed riding bicycles? I think that is an important element of the argument to make our roads safer. It is sort of the opposite side of the safety coin.

  5. I think you should keep reporting bike fatalities (along those lines, I heard of another bike fatality, Todd – I don’t know the last name, 57, supposed to have died from a broken neck sustained in a fall, no car involved. As a beginning road cyclist, I feel like I need to be aware of the actual hazards, and recommendations for the safest riding possible.

    I deeply appreciate all the work you do – education, information, advocacy, public relations – to make Wisconsin a safer place to bike. Thanks.

    As to photos, I don’t need to see them, but a link is nice for those who want to get a fuller sense of the circumstances.

  6. Once the investigations are done, I think you should report on what it uncovered, and what the authorities did, and keep a running tally. For instance, the young girl (with a bicyle walking in a crosswalk at a stop sign) was killed in Greendale but the authorities did nothing. A 19-year-old driver killed a cyclist in Waukesha last year, but all the DA in Waukesha did was give him a light ticket – though eyewitness accounts said the cyclist did nothing wrong and the driver had no good reason to kill him.

    I think the police, DA’s, and drivers need to know they are being watched. If every crash is treated separately, we will continue to have high fatality rates. If you can demonstrate a pattern of nonconcern from law enforcement (statewide), then you might have something to work with.

    • Oh yeah, there was the 18-year-old, (I think), who crossed the centerline and killed a cyclist in Oak Creek last year. Never heard of any charges or citations there. The hungover 16-year-old in Dane Country killed a guy on what I think was the Dairyland Dare. No charges. Then there was the Littman incident, in which the Waukesha DA did his typical nothing.

      If I sat here long enough, just off the top of my head I could come up with fatal incidents followed by no charges, and even restrict them to incidents in which witnesses or “investigations” show the driver to be obviously at fault. Where we as cyclists are alarmed, I think police and DA’s just see it as another body they don’t have time or inclination to care about. Their thought process is too much like, “It’s just one time, and it hasn’t happened in.. (in this town, on this road, at this time of year, ) in a while so we are not going to worry about it.” Every cop and DA thinks he’s the only one who has the exceptional case where nothing should get done.

      • Good points Lance, and I am following up on the crashes, but none of the four from this year have been resolved yet as far as I can tell. I make regular calls to the District Attorney’s, Sheriff’s and Police offices. I am also in touch with the WisDOT Bureau of Traffic Safety and the State Patrol. Apparently these investigations move very slowly. As for the lack of charges in many cases, the primary reason behind that is because our laws are written in a way the make if very difficult for DAs to charge a person driving a car who killed someone walking or on a bike unless the driver does not have a licesnse, was drunk, speeding or obviously intended harm. That is why the Bike Fed is working to get a Vulnerable Users law passed. We started the legislative process last year, but it didn’t move forward.

        Readers who are interested in these issues should stay tuned to this blog for updates on the crashes and the Vulnerable Users law. The easiest way to do that is to subscribe to the RSS feed with a feed reader such as Google Reader or even easier subscribe via email with Feedburner. That will get you one email each day with the blog headlines and a hyperlink so you can see them and read them if you are interested, or delete the email if not. It is easier than checking back here. We often publish multiple blog posts a day, so even if you visit our website every day, you still might miss the stories about the laws or crashes.

        The staff at the Bike Fed have been debating putting all our members on the email subscription with a weekly notice rather than daily by default. Of course there would be an option to unsubscribe. I am on email notification lists for other bike organizations and I get similar e-updates on a weekly or monthly basis. Right now our membership default is that people have to opt in to subscribe rather than opt out. We are worried that many of our members don’t actually want to get all that information from us though and might be annoyed. Out of about 5,000 members, we only have a little more than 100 who are subscribed to the blog via email. Thousands of people visit the website each day and read the blog, but very few of them subscribe.

      • Hi Lance,
        In response to ” The hungover 16-year-old in Dane Country killed a guy on what I think was the Dairyland Dare.”, this incident happened on the Insane Terrain Challenge in 2009. http://www.nbc15.com/news/headlines/50547192.html

        Not that it couldn’t have happened during the DLD or any other ride, just making a statement of fact.

        I’m in agreement with you on your main points and share your feelings on the matter.

  7. Dave-

    Very well written blog. As a former journalist myself, I can express how much I appreciate your style and thoughtfulness. I support a policy that publishes the pictures of the crash. They are disturbing, but that is exactly the point. However, I also agree with the sensitive move to remove the pictures, just as you have, when and if there is a sincere objection.

    I grew up in Muskego in a home along Woods Road and rode my bike often from the Hales Corners line to school at Muskego High. It was a great ride and I never experienced a problem. But that was when the community was still pretty rural. Now it’s grown significantly. I applaud any effort to remind drivers in all communities of their responsibilities toward cyclists and all other mutual users of the road. As I head into my 50th year, I’m rediscovering the awesome freedom and healthy benefits of riding again, and I want to have the rightful comfort of knowing I can travel anywhere on any road.

    Well done Dave. You are the first blog site to which I have ever subscribed. I look forward to reading more and learning about all the possibilities in my local biking world! Thanks.

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