Reflecting on Safety in the Wake of a Tragedy

Mike Strickland Memorial Ride 3/31/12 Photo by Jason Evans, Newport

On Thursday, March 22, we learned the tragic news of a cyclist’s death at the east end of Purgatory Road in Middletown. A beautiful well-traveled, oft-cycled area approaching Second Beach. The news that the cyclist was riding the steep eastbound downhill with the low sun behind him, and that the driver was turning left at a blind curve with the sun in front of him, stopped our hearts. Bad timing leading to a worst nightmare.

The official police report released one week later confirmed that the driver, Arthur Chapman of Portsmouth, never saw the cyclist, Michael Strickland of Middletown. Michael, an Australian national on a two-year assignment at NUWC, was a loving husband and father, an exceptionally kind and generous friend and an accomplished athlete. In his short time in our community, Michael made friendships that would have lasted a much longer lifetime.

Our hearts go out to the Stricklands and to their family and friends. And also to the Chapmans. We can only imagine their pain.

On Saturday, March 31, some 70 cyclists honored Mike with a 15-mile slow ride, escorted by Newport and Middletown police. The goal: to show support for Mike’s family and to bring more awareness to cycling safety.

Cyclists of all abilities rode to the site of the accident to pay respects and then to the Strickland house to offer the love and support of friends, neighbors and strangers. Tony Strickland, Mike’s father, and Miki, one of his 10-year old twin daughters, joined the ride for the final five miles. More than a dozen riders held back to follow Miki and surround her with a big bicycling hug of support as she worked her way up the hills of Paradise Road, Purgatory Road and Memorial Blvd. When she stopped for a break and a swig of chocolate milk, we all stopped with her. She stopped again near the site of her father’s accident, turning her eyes but not her head to the memorial wreath of flowers tied to a bicycle wheel. A heart wrenching but promising glimpse of one of Miki’s first brave steps forward without her dad.

I didn’t know Mike personally. Mitch Turner, Mike’s close friend and the coordinator of the ride, had asked Bike Newport to help get the word out. Emailing with Mitch and chatting with Mike’s other friends along the ride brought the emotion of the whole horrible event to the surface and my own heavy heart released tears at the site and again at Mike’s house when I assured his wife, Emma, that the community would be there for her.

It didn’t occur to me until later that Emma and the girls would be gone in two days. They were already packed for Perth. They’ll be back in Australia by the time most of you read this post. In notes of support written to the family, many of the riders promised to keep Mike’s memory alive here in Newport.

So now we have a job to do. We may not be able to stop accidents like Mike’s. A low sun will blind drivers and hide riders. And long hills will beckon experienced cyclists to ride low and fast, thrilling at the accelerating descent. Bad things happen. They happen everywhere for every reason. As they happened on Purgatory Road on March 22.

But there is a lesson and a message: Our best defense is to be prepared – as cyclists, as motorists and as a community.

Cyclists need to be visible, protected and predictable. In a car-bicycle encounter, the car will always win. Period. We have to cut our risk by wearing bright colored clothing, using lights and reflectors, wearing a helmet, signaling our intentions and following every rule of the road. We need to consider and choose the best routes for our purposes, and we need to breathe through encounters with aggressive drivers. We can be part of efforts to improve cycling by advocating for road-sharing education, for improved roads and road markings, and for dedicated recreational bicycle paths.

Motorists need to be courteous to bicyclists. Cyclists have a right to be on the road and the need to be safe. We will ride as far to the right as is safe, but we can’t ride closer than four feet from a car door that might suddenly open, and we can’t ride in roadside debris or broken pavement. If we’re 13 years or older, we can’t ride on the sidewalks. Motorists need to relax and be patient when we’re sharing a road or a busy intersection and give us a chance to get where we are going safely.

Cities and school districts need to be involved. Cyclists and motorists won’t magically understand what it means to share the road. We need signs, road markings, banners, campaigns and education. Imagine if every child learned cycling skills and safety in Phys Ed. Imagine if every Driver Ed class taught road sharing and every road test tested it.

We shouldn’t be frightened away from bicycling. But we can take this frightening moment to recommit to improvement. As Bike Newport’s mission states: we want to improve and encourage bicycling. Bicycling contributes directly to improved health, economy, ecology, historic preservation, productivity and quality of life. It’s low cost and it’s high return. It makes our kids healthier and our visitors happier. We want more people bicycling.

There are rock-solid statistics that translate to this formula: More people on bicycles = fewer accidents. Why? Because the more people on bicycles, the more aware the motorists, and the better the road sharing behavior by both.

This morning, I dropped a note to Mitch Turner to thank him. I told him he did a wonderful thing by planning yesterday’s ride to honor Mike Strickland. His answer was: “Thank you Bari, but I did nothing . . . it’s the wonderful community we live in that did a beautiful thing . . . and that is why I love living here.” I understand Mike’s answer, because I’m also a Newport Newbie, and I also love living here. We are indeed part of a wonderful and supportive community. So together let’s commit to the one thing that can prevent another accident like Mike’s. Let’s prepare.

We’re taking a big step in this direction at Bike Newport – we’re about to train 15 residents as League Certified Instructors. It’s an intensive program provided by the national League of American Bicyclists. The training is made possible by nearly 200 supporters who attended our recent Bike Newport Night fundraiser. With this training, we’ll gain a better understanding of what it means to share the road – and we’ll share that knowledge with Newport’s cyclists, motorists, tourists, businesses, schools and community leaders.

I like to refer to Newport as a “Bicycle-Friendly-Community-Waiting-to-Happen.” Let’s work together to really make it happen. Let’s do it in the best interest of our youth, our families, our visitors, our businesses, our historic properties, our natural environment and our future – and in honor of Mike Strickland.

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15 comments on “Reflecting on Safety in the Wake of a Tragedy

  1. Bill Mott says:

    Thanks Bari for writing this and bringing to my/our attention. I"d not heard of this terrible acccident.

    Your piece is very well written and wonder if you'd submit it or a slightly edited version (to be broader than Newport) for the Providence Journal, as an op-ed. They may have covered this death but didn't see anything and I read it most days. Either way, spring is here and bikers , new and veterans, are out and about and they and the drivers all need this type of reminder.

    Thanks again.

  2. Kenneth Gould says:

    Beautifully written piece tieing together the compassion of the cycling community with important lessons going forward for cyclists and motorists. Thank you for writing it!

    Ken

  3. Durishin says:

    Well written.

    I would add that it is very important to remember that flat light conditions – as at dawn or dusk – both blind onlookers and change the perception of depth and distance. So, it is important to do more than dress brightly and demonstratively signal your intent to drivers. It is important that you remain extra vigilant to motorists and your own whims.

    Who among us has not reveled in the adrenaline rush of flying down a smoothly-paved hill at the end of a long ride?

    It is critical that, as great bicyclists, we are easy to see, overly-demonstrative of our intended path to those with whom we share the road and keenly aware of our surroundings and the prevailing conditions, both in our immediate environment and our internal zeal for the riding moment.

  4. Bari, nice writeup!

    I would also add that we, as a society, have become to lenient and accepting when it comes to deaths associated with vehicular travel. Any person involved in a motor vehicle accident with death resulting, who has any morals, must come away from such an event devastated. But the reality is an accident occurred and someone died. Aside from any self-imposed moral punishment, no other punishment is typically imposed. Personally, I think this is wrong. I have no interest in ruining the life of any person involved with such an accident, but rather to require them to hold them accountable to society as a whole. I'd like to see two things happen, at a minimum, any time someone is involved in an accident where death results, regardless of whether this is two vehicles, a vehicle and a pedestrian, a vehicle and cyclists, a cyclist and a pedestrian, etc.:

    1) Require all people who were involved in the accident to perform a community service. I think it is vital that our future generations understand the great responsibility they are taking on by sitting behind the wheel of an automobile. A reasonable community service would seem to be going to drivers education classes and retelling their story to those in the class. I also don't think it's unreasonable to ask people involved in such an accident to attend driver re-education classes. Yes, accidents to happen, but obviously there was some sort of failure, most likely on the part of both parties, any time an accident occurs and death results.

    2) All drivers have a permanent citation against their license. This does not necessarily mean they are ticketed or face some sort of criminal prosecution, but it is an official record that they were involved in such an accident. In fact, I think any time someone is involved in an accident, there should be such a citation. Under current conditions, it is possible that a driver could have MANY accidents, none of which result in significant injuries or loss and currently go unreported. Yet, by recording every accident a driver is involved in, a pattern may start to emerge and the DMV could tell that a particular person is a dangerous driver. In this case, they could be flagged, be required to do driver re-education, etc.

    Driving has become so engrained in our society that it is now viewed as a right, not a responsibility. I don't believe it was ever meant to be this way. People are licensed to operate a motor vehicle, so they can be held accountable for their actions. I believe Europe has the right idea. It should be time consuming, rigorous, and perhaps even expensive to get your license.

  5. Bill Mott says:

    Actually, I think there could be two really important op-eds, from Bari's article and Marks thoughts. Both deserve MUCH wider readership than us bikers.

    Speaking of driving as a right, this is a bit tangential but it's maddening to see drunk-drivers basically get off scot-free, as has just happened with Senate Majority Leader Dominick Ruggerio who was clearly drunk but whose DUI charge was dismissed in Court yesterday. Not that bikers are out on the streets at midnight in Barrington when Ruggerio was caught by police, but drunk driving laws need to be much stricter and fully enforced, for anyone and everyone who drinks and drives, regardless of position of power in the state.

  6. Bill Lewis says:

    [content moderated] A car did not hit Mr Strickland he hit the car in the rear. Why don’t you request the police report from the Middletown PD?

    @ Mark, so even if the driver did nothing wrong they should be penalized? In this instance the rider struck the car at over twenty miles per hour above the posted speed limit with the sun at his back. The driver did nothing wrong.

    • Matt Moritz says:

      @Bill Lewis:

      I guess the truth is considered too much for you Mark and Barry?

      Mark and Barry had nothing to do with your comment being moderated. I was asked to examine it by members of the community and chose to hide your earlier comment. I also replied to it at that time, thinking that you would see my response and repost the portions of the comment that were not at issue. There were items of language used which were objectionable and which had nothing to do with facts of the collision.

      Of particular interest in your comment were an indication that a speed in excess of 45mph on the part of the the rider. I assume you've read that from the police report? (which I too do not have, and last I checked was not available online through the Middletown PD). You also mentioned in your earlier comment on the (non-)effectiveness of a helmet. Both very excellent topics, worth considering.

  7. Labann says:

    Amanda Lynn Benge, Frank Cabral, Michael Strickland, Scott Wright, Victor Rodriques Potter… Rhode Island cyclists plucked untimely from life but ready for resurrection.

  8. Bari George says:

    Mark, there is great and often untapped value in storytelling and sharing direct experience. Firsthand experience is among the most effective teaching methods. I don't know how or if it could be made compulsory, but I'd like to see the opportunity to speak to students at least recommended to anyone involved in an accident ,and then facilitated so the moment of opportunity is not lost. There must be models of such programs, just as convicts speak to young people about avoiding crime, or substance abusers about addiction.

  9. @ Mark, so even if the driver did nothing wrong they should be penalized?

    Did nothing wrong? He was involved in a motor vehicle accident where someone was killed. It wasn't a single vehicle accident, he was driving one of the vehicles. I believe he also stated that he was experiencing sun glare. He made a choice, that resulted in pulling out in front of oncoming traffic. I'm not saying he is guilty of criminal acts, but his actions definitely played a role in the death of another person. I do feel for him, I can't truly know what it must feel like and honestly hope I never do, but I would have no issue following through on what I suggested if I were the driver. I take my responsibility as a driver very seriously and I would have no issue with speaking in front of a driver's education class and having something on my permanent record. Yes, it would be a brutal experience to recount what happened, but it would also be a way I could pay back some debt to society. I actually believe I would desperately be seeking to do something and in the long run such an action might help me to deal with the tragedy.

    What's the danger in my suggestion? Why shouldn't society demand drivers take responsibility for their actions, even if they are truly accidents?

    In this instance the rider struck the car at over twenty miles per hour above the posted speed limit with the sun at his back.

    I have to confess, I have not read the police report. But my understanding is that other people on this thread have and there is no mention of his speed. Is there an official document stating what the cyclist's actual speed was? The cyclist is certainly responsible for controlling their speed, but not the location of the sun.

  10. Bill Lewis says:

    There is no doubt in the facts that Mr. Strickland was at fault for his death, he was going almost twice the speed limit and hit the rear of Mr. Chapman’s vehicle. I’ve known Arthur chapman for close to 30 years and he is a sensitive and good person. He is extremely traumatized by this incident. According to the Middletown police Mr. Strickland was going at least 45 MPH when he hit Arthur and went through a rear window he severed either his jugular or carotid and bled out. The police have told Mr. Chapman he was in no way at fault for what happened as Mr, Strickland was speeding and inattentive to traffic. This has not made it any easier for him to deal with and he has been getting help.

    According to Bari George this is a blind curve but I beg to differ. As I pointed out in my blocked comment Mr.Strickland had a very long view of the hill and should have anticipated vehicles turning onto Purgatory espescially at rush hour.

    [content moderated]

    The curve runs uphill and bends right then straightens out for several hundred feet, I would not consider this a blind curve. There is ample sight line for traffic approaching at the speed limit. But we have a setting sun and a rider getting it on in a tuck going about 70 feet per second it isn’t hard to do 45 MPH on a bike downhill.

    Mr Chapman was almost done turning that is why the cyclist hit the back of his car if Mr. Strickland was wearing a helmet with his head down he would not have seen traffic legally turning. He should have been paying more attention and he could have slowed or swerved around the rear of the vehicle. Even when I wear a ball cap I have to constantly look up when riding in order to have situational awareness.

    As far as the police are concerned there was no fault to the driver, so should people not travel west on sunny days 2 hours before sunset until dusk?

  11. Bari George says:

    The blind curve I referred to is the uphill from Paradise to Purgatory – Mr. Chapman’s path, not Mr. Strickland’s. I have ridden the route perhaps less than others, but more than a few times. And I drove the route five times at the same hour in both directions before writing my post, because I was heartsick and wanted to understand. My post deliberately did not address responsibility; it was about how we can improve moving forward, as both cyclists and motorists. [content moderated].

    Mark, Matt and others: I will pick up the police report tomorrow and bring you a copy.

  12. Bill Lewis says:

    Bari, [content moderated]. If this was a blind curve there would be DOT sign to that effect. You didn’t assign blame because it was assigned to the cyclist by the police. [content moderated].

    [content moderated]

    I spend a lot of time on line reading and posting about bicycle issues and advocacy. I find the best way to get people aware is to ride everywhere every day not sit in a car until it’s sunny and warm out [content moderated].

    I have ridden on the streets of Newport county since I was 7 years old when I got my first bike.

    Newport is one of the best places to ride in the state. There is a reason that Newport has the highest rate of bicycle commuters in the state according to the 2010 census. Newport is graced with summer traffic that is relatively slow even now I have no trouble beating cars down the main streets. You aren’t going to change drivers behavior with a bunch of signs, and trying to force bike lanes is going to get more people hurt or killed because of door zone placement. Like the disaster on Broadway in Providence. [content moderated].

  13. Matt Moritz says:

    A reminder to ALL comment authors. Keep it civil.

    We're here to discuss issues, education, approaches to advocacy and the fun of bicycles. Having disagreements is fine and good, but personal insults are not helpful and do not further the discussion. If your response includes language that accuses, belittles, demeans, insults, or calls another person names, reconsider the content of your post or posting at all.

    I have already moderated one comment which I am not happy to have done. I do not want to take further action on this topic or move to block comments altogether.

  14. Christina says:

    I just feel the need to speak out on behalf of Bari and hopefully we can all remember that if we don't have anything nice to say, we don't need to say anything.
    In my opinion, Bari has been such a great addition to the community. She came to Newport just last year and has been working hard to make Newport a more bicycle friendly community. I do not know many people who would expend the amounts of time and energy like she has fighting to just make a city better. Since she got here, she has ridden her bike almost everywhere almost every day, even on a few days that maybe she shouldn't have (darn icy roads!). Yes, she does drive on occasion, just like most of us do when schedules or locations or the amount of stuff you need to carry is not conducive to a bicycle.
    She has worked to get bike lights to people who were driving in the dark without lights. She pushed and got more bike racks up (though we still need a lot more!). I realize that I could list many more things that Bari has done for the betterment of the community, but I think I can best sum it up by saying that she has worked to make bicycling a bigger part of the future of Newport. And for that, I commend her.