Two fatal accidents involving bicycles and pickup trucks in Dane County this past summer have resulted in far different outcomes and have local cycling advocates asking why.
In one case, Kevin Meister of Brooklyn is facing hit and run charges resulting in death and second-degree reckless homicide charges for killing triathlete Shelton Berel.
Berel, 33, was riding his bike on Lincoln Road west of Oregon early on the morning of Aug. 5, when Meister’s truck crossed the center line and crashed into the cyclist. Meister, who had a history of substance abuse issues, left the scene and was later arrested.
In the other case, Cynthia Arsnow, 62, was riding on U.S. 14 east of Cross Plains on the morning of July 15 when she was hit by Rollen Fries of Mazomanie. Although Fries did stop to render aide, he later admitted he was “looking at some papers and drove off the shoulder of the road and hit her,” according to police.
As of Nov. 21, no charges had been filed or any traffic citation issued in the death of Arsnow, who regularly pedaled 40 miles round trip from her home on Madison’s east side.
The lack of any law enforcement action four months after the Arsnow crash has bothered Madison cyclists Paul and Karen Matteoni. They penned an open letter to Dane County District Attorney Ismael Ozanne asking why Fries is not facing any punishment.
“As cyclists who frequently ride in rural Dane County, we request that this case be given the full attention appropriate to other homicide cases,” they wrote. “The fact that the driver admitted his fault should be an indication that the prosecution ought to be swift.”
That letter has been signed by nearly 100 members of the Bombay Bicycle Club, which organizes rides and advocates for bicyclists in the area.
“The Oregon case seemed to grab more attention because that driver was quickly arrested but then tried to fake a drug test,” says Paul Matteoni. “However, I think this Cross Plains case should also be followed up. I can't understand why it took so long to investigate.”
A call to Ozanne’s office last week offered little additional information. A staffer said there was no record of any citations or charges, and declined to speculate on further action.
But the Arsnow case does point to a hole in Wisconsin statutes. Bicycle and pedestrian advocates have lobbied for years for a “vulnerable users law” that would offer prosecutors a way to file charges in a fatal accident that goes beyond a simple traffic ticket, but stops short of homicide.
Over 20 other states have passed such laws, but in Wisconsin it has remained stalled in the Legislature.
And concerns about crashes with motor vehicle crashes have only increased among the bike crowd amid reports that more drivers are spending time looking at their phones when they’re behind the wheel.
After steady declines over the last four decades, highway fatalities spiked last year with the largest percentage increase in 50 years. Things got even worse in 2016 with highway deaths up another 10 percent compared to last year.
At the same time, bike safety advocates are pushing for bicyclists to wear contrasting clothing, brightly colored socks and use lights on their bikes, even during the day. It’s called the “ABCs of Awareness”—Always On, Biomotion and Contrast.
The effort is based on research from students at Clemson University’s Perceptual Awareness Department which showed that bicyclists badly underestimate how quickly they are recognized by motorists while on the road.
The “always on” piece calls for bikes to use front and rear lights all the time. The more flash, the better. It’s the same thinking behind the use of daytime running lights, or DRLs, on cars and motorcycles. Studies show that vehicles equipped with DRLs are less likely to be involved in a collision.
The “biomotion” piece refers to highlighting a bicyclist’s moving parts so they get noticed before it’s too late. On a bike, the unique up and down pedaling motion is what makes them recognizable as a human.
Cyclists are urged to bring attention to their feet, ankles and legs by wearing brightly colored socks or reflective shoe covers.
The contrast” piece means wearing vibrant clothing during the day and reflective gear after dark. A yellow jersey may help in the daytime but does nothing at night.
The bottom line is that bicyclists must do all they can to be seen and drivers need to be doubly aware about paying attention and watching for riders. If not, the results can prove tragic for all concerned.
Mike Ivey is a Madison-based writer whose journalism career includes 30 years at The Capital Times.