Crash in Vilas County raises bike fatalities to 13 for the year

The Vilas County Sheriff’s Department reports that a crash on Highway 70 east of Eagle River killed a person riding a bicycle about 8 p.m. Wednesday – the 13th bicycling fatality on Wisconsin roads this year.

The four fatal crashes in the past three weeks matches the total for all of 2014, and the state is nearing the highest number of deaths on bicycles in a decade (14 in 2005). On average, 10 people on bikes are killed in Wisconsin each year.

According to a sheriff’s department press release, a car traveling eastbound on the eastern edge of Vilas County struck the bicyclist riding on the two-lane highway. Initial reports suggested the person riding did not have lights or reflective clothing, while riding in the dark. The crash occurred at the location below.

All four of the recent fatalities occurred at night, and in at least one of those crashes the bicycle was not equipped with lights. Initial reports in the deaths of James Thomas, in Platteville, Mario Esquivel-Flores, in Beloit, and the victim in Vilas County did not confirm the use of lights.

Wisconsin State law requires people riding bikes to have at least a front head light and a rear reflector or red blinkie light when riding at night:

Bicycling at night requires at least a white front headlight and a red rear reflector. The white front light must be visible to others 500 feet away. The red rear reflector must be visible to others between 50 and 500 feet away. A red or amber steady or flashing rear light may be used in addition to the required reflector. These are required no matter where you ride–street, path or sidewalk. [347.489(1)]

For relatively little money ($30 or less), anyone can purchase a highly visible bicycle light set.

We will continue to follow this crash looking for more information in the hope that nobody else need die in this fashion.

Of the 13 people killed while riding bikes this year, nine of them were hit from behind.

That scenario accounts for roughly 12 percent of all crashes involving bicyclists in Wisconsin, but nearly 40 percent of fatal crashes according to an analysis by Robert Schneider, an assistant professor and traffic safety researcher at the University of Wisconsin – Milwaukee. Schneider reviewed reports of all crashes in 2011, 2012 and 2013 for the study.

Similarly, he found that crashes on rural roads accounted for a small percentage of the total, but a high percentage of those that resulted in serious injury or death. More than 70 percent of the crashes that killed people on bicycles occurred on roads with speed limits above 35 miles per hour, like Highway 70 in rural Vilas County.

Click here for guidance to stay safe while bicycling and free educational materials.


15 thoughts on “Crash in Vilas County raises bike fatalities to 13 for the year

  1. If you go to streetview, you can see that the road has shoulders in the location. Assuming that the bicyclist was riding on the shoulder — and I have to assume that any bicyclist out in the evening on a rural road would be on the shoulder — why are we focusing so much on the fact that he didn’t have lights or reflective clothing? Isn’t that a bit of blaming the victim?

    Of course, both legally and practically, one should use lights, reflectors/flashers, and/or reflective clothing at night. But there is always another party involved. What about the driver? Geez, I’m worried about hitting a DEER at night. Shouldn’t the driver be aware of what’s around him?

    If indeed the bicyclist was on the shoulder, the driver would have to have left the travel lane to hit the guy. I realize that Share and Be Aware is focused on keeping bicyclists safe, but where is the outrage that drivers are not paying attention?

    And maybe we should also be looking at why people have no choice but to travel on these roads. What about infrastructure? Isn’t it a great thing that people are using their bikes to get around? Do they have a safe route when they chose a bike?

    Unfortunately, we do not have the victim’s side of the story, so we will maybe never know why he was out there and whether he was on the shoulder. I’m sure the driver will never even get a ticket because the bicyclist didn’t have lights. Leave your lane = oopsie. No lights = death penalty.

    • Robbie:
      I completely agree. Given that this is a blog of a bike advocacy organization, these posts feel very tone deaf to me. If a person on a bike is killed on a rural road, the only witness is usually the person who hit them with their car – hardly an unbiased perspective. And there have been plenty of documented cases that show that law enforcement personnel will often have a windshield perspective that makes them all to ready to search fault only with the victim. I’m a member of the Bike Fed, and I don’t want to see victim blaming of people injured or killed while biking on this blog. Please stop it, right now.

      • The early unofficial reports suggest the bicycle did not have lights or reflectors and was in the middle of the lane at night. We will know for sure about the lights and reflectors after we get the MV4000e crash report. The crash investigation will very likely determine if the person on the bike was hit in the middle of the lane as suggested or not, but we won’t have an official answer on that for some time. The Bike Fed’s goal in reporting on fatal crashes is to prevent a future crash. If a person is hit riding at night without lights or reflectors or reflective clothing, and positioned in the middle of a lane on an unlit two-lane highway with high speeds and paved shoulders we are going to mention that and suggest counter measures to keep other people safe in the same situation.

  2. Something sounds very fishy here. If he really was riding without lights and in the middle of the lane and did not move over when he could see headlights coming behind him, this is a suicide, not a bike accident. Without even looking behind me, I can see approaching car lights behind me for at least a full minute before the car passes me. He had to know a car was coming behind him and if he kept riding in the middle of the lane with no lights and didn’t move over, then this is a suicide, not a bike accident, or this was someone who was not mentally competent to be riding a bike.

  3. I know the answer to my question is going to be the price involved, but why can bike be sold without lights if it’s the law to have lights? Cars, motorcycles, scooters, and my Dutch commuter bike have lights built in. As pointed out, light sets are relatively cheap, so there could be away to get them used more.
    As a year round commuter for many years, I have noticed the huge increase in “dark riders” zipping around town. This does not meant the driver is innocent in case of an accident, it’s an observation.

    • Good question mk, I think it is because bicycles are still viewed primarily as for recreation/exercise, not transportation. We don’t have good statistics, but I bet the vast majority of bicycles are rarely if ever ridden on the road for transportation. Even in places like the Netherlands and Denmark, bicycles can be sold without lights. There are certainly more commuter bikes sold with integrated lights, fenders and locks, but a significant percentage, if not the majority of bikes, are still sold without lights.

      • I once bought a bike with built in lights. The lights failed so frequently that I carried, first a spare bulb, then a spare light. Finally the headlight mount broke and the light fell off, thus failing permanently. Unless the built in lights are a lot better than that one, that is not a viable solution.

        • Hey Steve, modern bicycle lighting is very good. Many commuter bikes now come with LED headlights run by very efficient hub generators. The lights last forever, offer great visibility and some even have sensors and daylight running lights. Systems like this are the norm in Europe, have been for years, but now can be found on many commuter specific bikes in the US.

          • Agreed!

            I have a MAKO NiteRider front and matching rear light. Both hold a good charge, are charged by USB, and create plenty of light. I don’t ride in the dark (perhaps I’ll end a ride in the dark but I’m not looking to ride in full dark) but I’ll be out in dusk and both lights provide plenty of illumination, I’ll even turn them on during daylight to give me a bit more flash.

  4. Despite this incident, HWY 70 between Eagle River and HWY55 is a great road to ride, I ride it regularly (usually between Kentuck Lake Rd and HWY55). It is straight, wide, broad shoulders, smooth, and moderately hilly. The scenery is fantastic and so too the smells and sounds. I’ve never had a bad motor vehicle encounter on it, the drivers give me all the room they can and have been courteous. I often ride it solo and usually from West to East. The traffic volume is low to medium-low the one thing though is expect a lot of vehicles to be pulling trailers.

    IF the initial reports are to be believed then the rider DOES share some of the blame in this incident. Riding at night without lights is just a bad situation (on or off the shoulder) waiting to happen. If I can’t see you (while I’m driving a car) you do not enter into my calculations when working out a way to avoid rubbish in the road or avoid a deer (or up there bears come into play as well). Obviously the car has headlights but still it is not so easy to pick up on walkers or riders without lights or reflective clothing.

    Remember, motorcyclists who are on bigger vehicles and have better lighting than we do have this same visibility problem.

    • Thanks for the local insight Mark. We hesitated to report on the specifics of this crash because we did not have official reports when we published the post. We only added these details because some people thought we were blaming the victim. We don’t want to blame anyone at this point, but in the interest of safety, it behoves us to remind people to ride with lights at night.

  5. Really, whether or not someone has lights on her/his bike (maybe they flew off and broke because of crappy pavement as happened to me a few days ago or maybe the person was out later than intended), which would be a traffic violation, that someone does not deserve the DEATH PENALTY. Any car driver speeding about on rural roads at dusk knows that deer and other creatures also use the roadways without lights and they have to be ready to react in time to not KILL someone. I assume the car driver had her or his lights on. Again, even if the bicyclist was not using lights, at the most, that rider should have received a ticket and not a GAME OVER. We cannot keep giving drivers who kill people a pass because the people they kill may have not been wearing their armor, lights, sirens, battle cages and whatever else car drivers think bicyclists should use when riding on public roadways (if they even think bicyclists SHOULD be riding on public roadways – probably not.) We need MUCH stricter penalties for killing or injuring bicyclists and pedestrians no matter what the circumstances in my opinion.

    • Cathy, the Bike Fed has pushed for a Vulnerable User rule for just the reasons you articulate. That said, as we stated in a previous comment, we only report on fatal crashes in the hopes of providing possible countermeasures to prevent a future tragedy. In this case, early unsubstantiated reports suggest the crash might have been avoided if the bicycle had lights. We don’t know that for sure yet, but we would not be doing our job if we didn’t advise people to ride with lights at night.

      I understand your analogy about deer, but we can do better than they can, so we should. Of course people need to be more aware when driving. Sitting behind the wheel of a rolling mass of steel is a daunting responsibility to may people take far to lightly. It sounds dramatic, but death waits around every blind corner if we are not vigilant when driving.

      We have been reporting on fatal crashes for years. It is the most unpleasant part of what we do, but we feel it is important. In cases where the victim was an innocent casaulty of someone else’s careless inattention, we do not shy from calling for strict consequences and remind everyone to give the act of driving the full attention it deserves. In cases where the victim paid the ultimate consequence for a poor decision, we must acknowledge that and encourage others to be more careful.

      Perhaps we should have waited to report anything but the official facts until we had more details about this tragic crash. Those are difficult decisions we face every time we report on the death of someone riding a bicycle. We accept that we can be wrong. We will apologize when we are and try not to make the same mistake again, but we must go on with this difficult job.

  6. The victim was a 41 year old resident of Eagle River and the driver was a 71 year old woman likewise from Eagle River, I’m seeing stories from today noting this, but nothing more about the accident itself — saying the investigation is ongoing.

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