Marek Warszawski

Message to Fresno County is clear: Maintain bike lanes, or lose again in court

Call it a victory for cyclists and a defeat for local government negligence.

Just unfortunate two people had to get seriously injured for Fresno County to be held accountable in a court of law.

With bike lanes since the early 1990s, the 18-mile stretch of Auberry Road between Copper Avenue and the town of Prather is one of the most popular cycling routes in the Fresno area. On any weekend, especially when the weather is mild, dozens are out pedaling.

Cyclists deal with all sorts of hazards while on the open road: hostile and distracted drivers, potholes, road debris, broken glass, snarling dogs that come tearing out of driveways intent on a chunk of flesh.

What they shouldn’t have to deal with are bike lanes completely covered with sand and gravel, resulting from one of the rainiest winters in decades, that go nearly a year without being cleared.

Despite the fact Fresno County employees whose job it is to maintain roadways (including bike lanes) drive that same route almost every day.

Either nobody cared, or thought enough to care. Maybe they will now that the county must fork over nearly $400,000 in damages to two cyclists who paid the price for the county’s carelessness.

A 12-member jury rendered that verdict in Fresno Superior Court. The accident in question occurred March 19, 2017, a Sunday morning. Melissa Rose and David Bray were on a group ride with five other cyclists on northbound Auberry Road, about 1½ miles north of the Millerton Store, when they hit a section of bike lane covered with sand and debris that California Highway Patrol investigators found to be between 4 and 7 inches deep.

Road bike tires are barely an inch wide and have virtually no tread. In other words, they aren’t designed for sand and dirt. When she reached this section, Rose’s tires lost traction. She slipped and tumbled into the northbound lane, where she was struck by a passing car that sped away.

Riding directly behind Rose, Bray slammed into her and also crashed. He wound up with a broken wrist and a broken finger that needed to be surgically repaired. Rose sustained a broken upper arm, a dislocated AC joint and underwent two surgeries.

Bike lane sand
Sand and gravel cover almost the entire bike lane along northbound Auberry Road on March 19, 2017. This photograph was taken by the California Highway Patrol shortly after the accident that left cyclists Melissa Rose and David Bray injured. Courtesy of Doug Gordon

An investigation by Rose’s attorney, Doug Gordon, revealed the bike lanes on Auberry Road had not been swept since the previous June — even though the winter of 2016-17 was one of the wettest on record.

Now get this: Two hours after the accident, maintenance crews were out there sweeping the bike lane.

Which tells me (and evidently the jury) that it takes two cyclists to break multiple bones for the county to get off its butt.

“The county knows that these roads are used by cyclists, they’re designed to be used by cyclists, they have bicycle lanes just for that purpose,” Gordon said. “The county has a duty to keep (the roads) clean and safe.”

Now that it has been dinged in the wallet, let’s hope Fresno County takes this duty seriously. But listening to some of the legal arguments its side made during the trial leaves room for doubt.

During his opening statement, county-hired attorney David Overstreet tried to paint road cycling as inherently dangerous activity practiced by a few elitists.

“This is not bicycling like maybe you did when you were a child,” Overstreet told the jury, according to court transcripts. “These are expensive bikes. These are different kinds of cycling that most of us have never done.”

Overstreet then questioned why the cyclists were riding so close together and whether that impaired the plaintiffs’ line of sight to potentially hazardous road conditions ahead.

Uh, Mr. Lawyer, riding close together is called “drafting.” When cyclists are in single file, they take advantage of basic aerodynamics. Riding directly behind the person in front of you allows you to be in their slipstream and expend up to 50 percent less energy.

Despite that close proximity, no one rides blind. The cyclist at the front of the line calls out road hazards to those in his or her slipstream. Likewise, the cyclist at the back calls out approaching cars coming in the same direction.

Yes, those things take experience, as well as a degree of trust. But this is not some extreme activity. Most of the cyclists who ride Auberry Road on weekends aren’t training for the Tour of California. They’re enthusiasts getting in shape for local events or fundraising for leukemia research through programs like Team in Training.

They’re just regular, everyday folks who enjoy pedaling their bikes. And when not dressed in Lycra and helmets, they wear jeans and baseball caps like everyone else.

Plus, cyclists are drivers, too. They also pay road taxes. And even though the sport does have inherent risks, the county letting a huge sand pile build up for nearly a year on such a heavily used route should not be one of them.

I’d expect to see Fresno County do a better job maintaining its bike lanes from now on. Because if it doesn’t, its attorneys will be back in court making the same losing arguments.

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Marek Warszawski writes opinion columns on news, politics, sports and quality of life issues for The Fresno Bee, where he has worked since 1998. He is a Bay Area native, a UC Davis graduate and lifelong Sierra frolicker. He welcomes discourse with readers but does not suffer fools nor trolls.