On an overcast morning in November 2017, 31-year-old Jonathan Chase Adams was riding his bike north on Northwest Wall Street, headed for his job a few blocks away at Carl’s Jr.
Vehicle traffic was stopped because of a red light at the intersection of Wall Street and Olney Avenue, according to court documents, but Adams’ bike lane was clear. He reached the intersection after the light was green and several cars made it across, at the same time as a Fedex tractor-trailer driven by Terrebonne resident Trenton Derek Sage.
The truck turned right.
The bike kept going straight.
Adams never made it to work. Instead, he crashed into the side of the trailer, bouncing against it several times before he was pulled under the trailer’s wheels.
Adams’ death at that downtown intersection prompted the city of Bend and a couple state legislators to consider changing the legal definition of a bike lane to provide more protection to cyclists and force drivers to pay more attention to cyclists on the road.
Even advocates of the proposed law say it won’t make cyclists safer.
String of crashes
Adams’ fatal crash was the first of at least three serious bike-vehicle collisions in Bend in less than a year. About a month later, Bend dentist Marika Stone was struck and killed while cycling east of town.
Shantel Witt, who was intoxicated with a combination of medications when she drove her truck across a lane of traffic and hit Stone, was convicted of first-degree manslaughter earlier this month.
In June 2018, Bend resident Travis John Roberts, then 21, hit cyclist Roy Andrew Holtvedt, then 61, and continued driving. Holtvedt was injured but survived; Roberts turned himself in and is serving probation.
Before November 2017, the last fatal bike accident in Bend was in 2011, when texting pickup truck driver Erik Conn struck and killed 16-year-old Forrest Cepeda as he rode his bike on Reed Market Road. Recent high-profile accidents have added an urgency for advocates for safer cycling infrastructure, but it’s Adams’ case that may prompt a statewide legislative change.
Sage, the FedEx driver who hit Adams, faced no criminal charges. Instead, Deschutes County District Attorney John Hummell issued a traffic citation because he determined Sage had failed to yield to a bicycle rider in a bike lane.
The ticket was thrown out. Sage’s attorney argued, and Deschutes County Circuit Court Judge A. Michael Adler agreed, that bike lanes do not continue through intersections.
A one-page bill introduced this year by state Reps. Rob Nosse, D-Portland, and Sheri Schouten, D-Beaverton, aims to prevent a similar ruling by clarifying that bike lanes continue through intersections even if their markings don’t.
The city of Bend will support the legislation, which Nosse said he chose to introduce after a constituent who’s an active cyclist told him about Adler’s ruling.
“I said ‘Well, heck, I’ll write a bill and see if we could get that changed,’” Nosse said.
If that bill had been law before Sage hit Adams, it probably wouldn’t have prevented the crash. A judge may still have dismissed the citation.
Before Nosse and Schouten introducing the statewide bill, the Bend City Council had asked the city’s legal staff to see if they could change the definition of a bike lane on city streets. Assistant City Attorney Ian Leitheiser told the City Council earlier this month that state law appears to pre-empt cities from doing so.
“We probably don’t have a lot of options to redefine this locally,” Leitheiser said.
The state bill is “a pretty clean, pretty simple and pretty effective fix,” he said. However, he said if the bill were law when Adams was hit, the judge still could have dismissed the citation for other reasons.
City Councilor Barb Campbell said the bill is similar to Oregon law that stipulates that every public street intersection is a crosswalk, even if it’s not marked.
“It’s just this conceptual piece in the law,” Campbell said. “The law is what tells you the right of way, not presence or absence of paint.”
Campbell, along with Mayor Sally Russell, Mayor Pro Tem Bruce Abernethy and Councilors Gena Goodman-Campbell and Chris Piper, voted to tell the city’s lobbyist to support the bill. Russell said it clarifies an expectation that road users watch for other road users, whether they’re driving, biking or walking.
“If you have two automobiles next to each other, you’ve got to check out the lane before you move right or left,” she said. “It makes people be a little bit more aware that both people who are in the right-of-way are subject to the rules.’
Councilors Bill Moseley and Justin Livingston opposed city support of the bill, citing concerns that it could lead to an undue expectation of safety for cyclists.
“I think if you’re a cyclist, you have to have extreme caution when you’re going through that intersection,” Moseley said. “I just worry about promoting a really unsafe condition and giving someone the feeling that they’re legally entitled to do something when they’re just not safe to do it.”
Nosse said he hadn’t heard concerns like Moseley’s and Livingston’s at the Capitol, where his bill is still waiting to be scheduled for a hearing. He said he understood where the two councilors were coming from, though he disagreed with them.
“Bicyclists should be allowed to feel safer,” Nosse said. “We car drivers have to watch what we’re doing, and biking is part of the road.”
More than legislation
Peter Werner, a Bend attorney and cycling advocate who urged the City Council to look at redefining bike lanes, said the changed definition could provide legal protection for cyclists and guidance to law enforcement. The district attorney, not a responding police officer, issued a citation to Sage because police didn’t believe bike lanes existed in unmarked intersections.
“What it would mean is a greater potential for accountability for the driver,” Werner said. “If law enforcement’s policy or understanding is that bike lanes don’t continue through the intersection, a legislative fix like this would give them guidance that yes, it does.”
He cautioned against putting too much stock in a legal fix.
“This doesn’t keep cyclists any safer physically,” he said. “Cyclists still have to ride defensively.”
Bike advocates and city transportation planners are looking at other ways to keep cyclists safe. The City Council approved a broad framework for Bend’s next two decades of transportation needs this year, and that framework includes a network of bike paths.
Construction work on part of that network is expected to start this spring, when city crews will begin turning sections of Northeast Sixth Street and Northwest 15th Street into neighborhood greenways, or streets designed with speed humps and shared-lane markings to encourage bicycling, walking and slow-speed traffic.
— Reporter: 541-633-2160; firstname.lastname@example.org