Recently, I read about the untimely death of a well-respected local cycling leader in Los Angeles. She died as a result of a crash which occurred during a group ride.
Despite following the story over a number of days, not much in the way of details came to light. The general story was that this cyclist, Pam Leven, who was the president of the LA Wheelmen, touched wheels with another cyclist and they both crashed.
According to the report I read, “she suffered injuries including a broken hip and collarbone, as well severe head and facial trauma. The second rider was not seriously injured.”
From this description, it’s difficult to determine what happened and why. Most of what is known appears to have come from friends and acquaintances of this woman.
After several updates on this story, it still isn’t clear exactly how the cyclist sustained injuries serious enough to end her life. Only a few murky details were left as comments on this post, and an online memorial, a few allegations were made, but no one seems to have pursued them.
A few weeks after the crash, a guest column on the blog where I originally saw this story provided some background about the incident, but not much else. The author was a participant in the ride, but did not witness the crash.
The ride in question was not a race, but rather a leisurely ride. It was an official “newcomer” ride, even though no newcomers were present. Everyone participating was a regular rider of this group.
Here is how the guest columnist described the moments leading up to and after the crash:
“When I arrived to the corner of Sunset and Amalfi, most of the riders, including the experienced rider involved in Pam’s accident, crossed Sunset and were waiting on the southwest corner for the rest to catch up. It was a long light. Finally the light turned green, and I and another rider crossed the intersection heading south on Amalfi descending the slopped street at about 5 miles an hour. Not far behind me, Pam was crossing the same intersection riding south on Amalfi at a similar speed. Suddenly, I thought I heard Pam yell “Oh! Oh!”, and then there was a horrific sound of the crush of metal. When I stopped and looked back, I saw Pam lying in the middle of the street on the pavement facing downhill. The other rider involved in the crash, who had a large bruise or road rash on his left cheek, was kneeling at her side calling her name, and squeezing her hand. She was not responding.”
This description suggests that the riders were traveling at approximately 5 miles per hour when they interacted and crashed. Such a slow speed makes it unlikely that the rider’s injuries were from the fall itself. Even falling head first at 5 miles per hour would probably not kill an experienced rider, although he or she could suffer significant injuries from landing that way.
An interesting point was made about how such incidents are handled by authorities:
“The kind of “accident” that led to Pam’s death will never be fully understood. Apparently, there are no guidelines or rules that require any investigation about such accidents. Even if someone tried to figure out what happened, it would be difficult because someone moved both bikes to the sidewalk.”
Unlike in a car crash, where the cars are left in place until police arrive on the scene, both bicycles were moved. Consequently, the only person who knows what happened is the other cyclist involved in the crash — unless a pedestrian or motorist witnessed the incident. Even if there was a witness, as the author pointed out, there is generally no an investigation when accidents involve solo riders or two or more cyclists.
Instead, such crashes are assumed to be “accidents.” What’s odd about the acceptance of this terminology and description of events is that many cyclists are adamant about the fact that we should call all clashes between cars and bicycles “wrecks” or “crashes.” They want us to refrain from using the term “accident” at all costs.
Their reasoning for this is that when a car hits a bicycle, it is not an “accident,” someone is at fault. Of course, someone is always at fault when a crash between two vehicles occurs. If we accept this as true, then why are cyclists willing to call the tragic and unnecessary death of an experienced cycling advocate and rider an “accident,” merely the result of participating in an activity that entails risk?
What makes this even more surprising is the author’s comments about the history of the rider who was involved in the accident with Pan Leven.
“If this accident had involved anyone else, I would not feel as angry as I do. I have been riding with the Corner group for about ten years. During this time, this rider was known to have a record of reckless riding. This includes riding too fast and aggressively, riding too close to other riders and cars, listening to music while riding, rude behavior such as flipping off car drivers and verbally antagonizing other riders and belittling slower riders, and encouraging the group to ride ahead and not wait for them. Last year, he made an unsafe move which caused another club rider to fall off the bike. Luckily, they were riding along the bike path. Had the other rider fallen on pavement and not on sand, this rider might have sustained severe facial injuries. And not long ago, he broke his collarbone when he flew over his handle bars riding too fast downhill and hit a hump on the road. As president of the Los Angeles Wheelmen, Pam had several discussions with him about his riding etiquette and style, but apparently, this is where it ended.”
So, apparently, some people have seen the rider who became entangled with Pam Leven riding recklessly. And yet, no one wants to assign blame, even if it turns out that something this man did resulted in the unnecessary death of an innocent person.
This raises an important question: is there a distinction between crashes involving cars and bikes and those involving only bikes? Is the former always a “wreck” and the latter always an “accident?”
There are probably times when a car versus bicycle encounter is truly an accident and times when a bicycle versus bicycle encounter is the result of negligence on the part of one of the parties. Still, cyclists don’t want to blame their own, even if the life of a vibrant, capable woman has been lost.
Maybe no one knows exactly what occurred and no blame can be assigned. But shouldn’t we at least consider the possibility that one of the cyclists made a mistake or engaged in unsafe behavior which resulted in someone’s death? We always consider this when a car hits a bike.
Unfortunately, we will probably never know how an experienced cyclist on a leisurely group ride, riding at 5 miles per hour, ended up dead. Most cyclists believe that riding at a moderate pace will protect them from serious injury. Theoretically, it should — which is why we must reconsider the premise that when two bikes interact “accidents happen.” Accidents never just happen; they have a cause, and we should look for that cause even if it means incriminating one of our own.