Archie R. Vanwormer, 90, faces charges of homicide by negligent operation of a vehicle and hit-and-run involving death for driving his car onto the bike path in Eau Claire and killing 51-year-old Kirk D. Cartwright while he was riding his bicycle. Two weeks ago, Tracy A. Kruzicki, 42, was charged with a felony for driving his car into and killing Tammy Gass on Highway KK near Mosiniee on the morning of May 23rd. Marathon County District Attorney charged Kruzicki with operating a motor vehicle with a suspended license and causing the death of another person. With these charges, two of the four drivers who killed people riding bicycles this year have been charged with felonies and the other two crashes remain under investigation.
Vanwormer is scheduled to appear in Eau Claire County Circuit Court this Thursday to face the charges. According to the police report, he was heading south on Rudolph Ave. when he turned west over the pork chop island, through the right turn bypass and onto the bike path, rather than the parallel Clairemont Street. He then drove down the path and hit Cartwright. His car dragged Cartwright more than 350 feet until the 90-year-old Vanwormer was forced to stop by an off-duty police officer and other bystanders, who took his keys out of the ignition. When you look at the map of the area below, it is clear how a confused or impaired person could have made this mistake.
My emotions are mixed about this news. While part of me is glad a person’s killer stands a good chance of being held accountable by our legal system, another part of me would prefer we fix the broken system that allows people unfit to drive to get behind the wheel at all. Certainly strict enforcement of the current laws and perhaps enacting a vulnerable users law should help to reinforce the responsibilities we all shoulder when we get behind the wheel and buckle up, but I fear our priorities are so far out of balance that much more is needed if we are to prevent more innocent people from being killed.
While I believe that enforcement is necessary, our permissive culture that so heavily subsidizes motor vehicle travel, but under-funds safety and education efforts is the real place to start. Do we really want to require that every tavern have a parking lot? Maybe we should require that taverns can only have a few parking spaces. Do we really want to cut transit service at midnight, but keep our bars open until 2 a.m.? I understand the efforts to limit government spending, but is it a good idea to cut back on driver’s exams when people are living so much longer?
My daughter is 16 now, and is just finishing drivers education. She didn’t have any questions on her exam about bicycling, and her instructor said nothing about the laws regarding people riding bicycles or walking in the classroom course. I have a friend who is a pilot and a police officer. He often makes the point that he had to get 100% on his pilot’s exam, “Is it OK to only understand 80% of how to land a plane?” Not only can people pass a driver’s exam with a less than perfect score, but my daughter is convinced that none of the other students in her drivers education class have any idea what the laws are regarding people in a crosswalk or people riding bicycles on the road.
So while I believe that it is only proper that district attorneys bring charges against the drivers who, through their own simple carelessness or negligence, kill people riding bicycles (or anyone else actually), I would prefer our legal system was better at preventing poor unfit drivers from getting the chance to kill. If we had taken Mr. Kruzicki’s car from him (or booted the wheel) when he lost his license, perhaps he would not have knowingly broken the law and killed Tammy Gass. If we invested more money in testing older drivers, perhaps Vanwormer would not have been driving down a bicycle trail. If we invested in more transit, or made bicycling more attractive to the mainstream (as it is in many other countries), perhaps the Muskego teen who fell asleep and killed Bob Gunderson would have been riding a bike or on the bus instead.
Since they easily could have been prevented, these are crashes not accidents. As a society, we make choices about what we feel is important. We do this through our legal system and how we invest our tax dollars. Currently our priorities seem to be to subsidize and encourage the most inefficient, most expensive, most dangerous form of travel at the expense of our quality of life and even life itself. Motor vehicles are vital elements of our transportation system, and certainly have their place, but the real cost of providing roads and parking so 99% of all trips, no matter how short, can be done by motor vehicle is tremendously more expensive than providing safe, attractive facilities so people can make short trips on foot or by bike. We are investing more in roads that encourage sprawl while we cut funds biking, walking and for transit.
Is that really what we want?