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Collision Course

Dr. Henry Martinez examines Thomson's blood clot injury, which has kept him from long rides.
Daniel Kramer

For the members of the Brazosport Bike Club, Saturdays typically meant a 55-mile trek along peaceful rural lanes south of Houston. It was a good three or four hours of exercise, fresh air and -- once they got out into the country -- friendly banter.

Kelton Thomson knew the routine well as he pedaled out from his home to meet his neighbor on a weekend morning in August. The 60-year-old retired Dow engineer and Jim Thomerson, 49, always rode together to the staging point, the Lake Jackson Recreation Center, to join the rest of their group for the Saturday rides.

Both were family men who loved the outdoors. Thomerson, who still worked for Dow, was especially active -- making sure to exercise for an hour a day. He liked to Rollerblade, swim, jog and lift weights. He had also spent years coaching his two daughters' soccer teams. And, ever since he discovered Thomson's fondness for bicycling, the friends would often pair up outside their homes for bike excursions.

Their three-mile jaunt to the recreation center went quickly and silently, with little more heard than the sound of the breeze and faint hum of tires racing across pavement in the relative coolness of an early morning.

The rest of the 21-cyclist group trickled into the parking lot around 8 a.m. There was the standard safety talk: the helpful reminders about properly following the lead rider, calling out approaching road hazards, staying two abreast in the pace line and -- foremost -- remaining alert on the narrow country lanes.

With the preparations completed, the ribbon of riders eased out, riding slowly from stoplight to stoplight, looking forward to getting out of the burbs and onto the open road.

As usual, they planned to head west to Brazoria and Sweeny, with a stop at the convenience store to check in on the friendly clerk inside. They still chuckled about the time they'd varied their routine for a few weeks and bypassed her store. She'd gotten worried about them, tracked down the club president's number and called just to make sure everyone was all right.

From Sweeny, the route would take them down to Jones Creek and back into Lake Jackson. On this morning, they were only a few minutes into the ride when they reached State 332, noticing that the dry pavement gave way to slick patches of dampness, the apparent residue from an earlier mild shower. A few hundred yards before two overpasses, a pair of cyclists in front of Thomson whipped ahead, disappearing behind a sharp curve and leaving him at the head of the pack.

He checked ahead and behind for vehicles, and before the group reached the first overpass, Thomson waved his hand behind his back and shouted "Single up!"-- the signal for them to merge into a single-file line.

There was no way for him to know that, around the blind curve ahead, a woman was driving a Ford F-150 pickup truck that suddenly lost control. Sliding sideways, the truck plowed into the riders ahead of Thomson and then came into his view. Thomson had no time to react to the two silver tons barreling broadside at his 18-pound bike. Fifty yards ahead. Forty.

Suddenly, impact.

Thomson sailed over the hood, landing breathless on his back in the weeds 30 or 40 feet from the road. He couldn't hear or see anything -- his eyes focused only on the sky. Soon there were faces mixing in with the clouds -- the other cyclists checking on him.

Then medics were gingerly slipping him onto a gurney. He remembers that before they loaded him in the ambulance, he was able to hear a single voice penetrate the wail of the sirens and the whirring blades of Life Flight.

They covered two bodies, the voice said.

Rushing to the hospital, Thomson lay in pain, wondering who they were.


Like many Houston-area adults, Thomson would have laughed only years earlier at any notion that he'd be suited up and in the center of a group of cyclists making an early-morning run down country roadways.

He hadn't biked since his early teens, when that was his transportation to school and on short trips through the neighborhood. His riding days abruptly ended in favor of the automobile. Thomson was too busy with work and raising a family. If he wanted recreation, there was always hunting and fishing.

At age 52, two years before Thomson's retirement, co-workers at Dow convinced him to climb back atop a bike. They were organizing a team for the MS-150, the popular fund-raising ride from Houston to Austin. Thomson liked the cause -- the event raised money for multiple sclerosis research -- and figured he'd give it a shot.

 

He didn't even have a road bike when he signed up -- he had to refurbish the old mountain bike his son had left behind when he went off to college. After trying it out, he dropped a few hundred bucks on a used road bike. The small investment made a dramatic difference -- Thomson completed the MS-150 and kept right on riding, with retirement affording him even more opportunities to hone his cycling skills.

Without any good road-bike trails in the area, Thomson turned to the lure of country roads. He joined the Brazosport Bike Club, becoming "the oldest guy on the oldest bike."

He liked the exercise and the camaraderie and the added safety of riding in a group along the country lanes. While Thomson's bike hardly rivaled the $4,000 titanium-frame bikes of some of his fellow members, he had stepped up in style. Last year, he'd bought his first new bike: a $2,500 Airborne.

Thomson is hardly alone in his enthusiasm for riding. The Austin-based Texas Bicycle Coalition reports that the popularity of biking in the state has helped it balloon into a $450 million annual industry that ranges from mom-and-pop shops to wholesaling corporate giants. Executive director Robin Stallings describes the coalition's constituency as primarily fortysomethings who are well paid and heavily Republican.

However, the cyclists haven't shown that clout in trying to convert urban and suburban Houston into any mecca for biking.

In June, Bicycling magazine rated Houston as one of the worst big cities for cyclists.

"The city rivals Los Angeles in pollution, urban sprawl and congestion, and construction has been delayed indefinitely on many of the bike route systems its government promised," the magazine stated. "On average, roads are narrow and bike paths are poorly maintained, with potholes, misdirecting signs and no map system."

With those problems confronting a soaring number of riders, cyclists such as Thomson and his group have increasingly turned to the outlying areas for their riding. Rather than a safe haven for the sport, however, the country lanes can also put them on an unexpected collision course for danger -- both accidental and deliberate.


Thomson remembers one peaceful ride down a rural road, until he noticed a young teenager standing in a field. As the biker went by, he became a moving target as the kid hurled a hardball at him. "It just went zinging about two feet in front of my bicycle," Thomson says. "And I think he was just showing off to older kids."

Such attacks became de rigueur. Thomson has had to dodge soda and beer cans -- especially when he was by himself or with just another rider. There was more safety in numbers, but even a group wasn't protected against assaults.

"There is probably some resentment, that 'Hey, you're in the way of us coming down the road,' " he says.

His friends in the Brazosport Bike Club and peers in The Woodlands Cycling Club have all been marks for frustrated drivers. Motorists seem to throw whatever's handy: cans, coins, rocks. Once, a Frisbee. They'll honk like they just discovered the horn. Speeding is a given.

"Rural roads are no excuse for speeding," says Stallings, the state bicycle coalition director. "I think since the Magna Carta there has been a tradition of the public roadways being available to everybody, whether they had a donkey cart or whether they had the royal carriage. And I think that we're forgetting this in Texas somewhat, where there's this tendency to think that the…roads are just for those of us who drive cars."

Documenting the number of incidents and accidents is difficult because of the sheer lack of safety data in Texas.

When bicycle coalition leaders first lobbied the Federal Highway Administration for more bike safety funds, they found that the administration required more information than the Department of Public Safety had available. The only way DPS measured bicycle accidents was if there was a fatality or damage to a car.

Stallings says the coalition has worked with DPS to develop the state's new bike and pedestrian accident form, part of state legislation passed this year. Law enforcement officers can file the reports, but the forms are also for accidents that are not investigated. Cyclists and pedestrians are encouraged to download the forms from the DPS Web site and send them in to DPS, allowing it to track which roads create dangerous conditions for cyclists.

"The safety issues at the state level are all driven by the data," Stallings says.

It will take time for the new reports to make an impact. DPS is already two years behind in logging bicycle accidents and fatalities. Data from 1998 through the first half of 2001 show 91 accidents and two fatalities for Brazoria County and 86 accidents and two fatalities for Montgomery County.

 

Harris County has also seen its share of tragedies, including a 2000 accident in which an out-of-control pickup slammed into four cyclists on U.S. 290 near Barker-Cypress, killing one and injuring the others.


The cyclist's mantra: A bicycle has the same rights as an automobile.

It's the ace in the bikers' stretchy sleeve, their opening salvo and closing speech in any debate about who rules the road.

Nowhere is this rallying cry more prevalent than in swiftly developing Montgomery County, where the quiet country road is an endangered species.

Members of The Woodlands Cycling Club say their biggest problem is with anti-biker bias and uneducated sheriff's deputies. Mean motorists are one thing, but it's even worse when those sworn to uphold the law would just as soon run you out of the county.

Club member Tom Riddle says he got his first exposure to law enforcement bias about 15 years ago.

Riddle says he was cycling north of FM 1960, on the northbound service road of I-45, when a driver was distracted by a Ku Klux Klan rally and ran into him from behind. He was thrown off his bike, blacked out, but came to in enough time to tell the Harris County sheriff's deputy that the motorist was clearly at fault. Riddle says the officer scolded him for even being on the road.

"Over the years, that kind of epitomizes the attitude of law enforcement," Riddle says. "My experience in Montgomery County has been very similar."

He accuses deputies of harassing cyclists -- pulling them over for bogus reasons and spewing thinly veiled threats. In each case, he contends, the cyclists were more aware of the law than the officers.

"My impression is that they haven't read [the bicycle law], don't know what it says, in any detail at least. And even if they had read it, they wouldn't care," he says.

As a member of the club's bicycle accident committee, Riddle says he's complained to Sheriff Guy Williams, only to get lip service that the department will do what it can to ensure safety and respect for cyclists. Riddle says it hasn't happened.

Fellow club member Bill Oswald feels the same way. He cites his near-death experience as an example of how cyclists are treated in Montgomery County.

On June 7, Oswald and two friends were biking on the shoulder of State 105, a four-lane road with a 55-mph speed limit, when he was hit by a pickup truck. Oswald flew into the air and landed with a compressed vertebra, cracked ribs, a bruised lung and kidney, and an inflamed spine.

The driver didn't stop.

While he recovered in the hospital, Oswald took his story to the Houston Chronicle and television news, hoping the publicity would help track down the driver. Oswald was sure the hit was deliberate -- he speculated that it was the work of joyriding teens.

But three days later, 81-year-old James Price noticed the passenger-side mirror on his pickup was missing. He had heard about Oswald and worried that he may have hit him. He called his attorney and they relayed the story to the highway patrol. State police recommended the county charge him with failure to stop and render aid, but the complaint has languished in the district attorney's office for five months.

In a telephone interview, Price did not recognize Oswald's name, and said only that he had been "disoriented" on the morning of the accident.

Oswald says he plans to sue Price, but he's also outraged by what he says is an environment that breeds anger toward cyclists. Oswald and other club members distributed copies of the bicycle code to bike shops, encouraging cyclists to stick it in their wallets, and whip it out the next time they're falsely accused.

"You'd really be surprised how many…police officers don't know the law," he says.

But if anyone knows the law, it's Elizabeth Morris.


A Montgomery County sheriff's officer, Morris is also a competitive on- and off-road cyclist. She's a bicycle safety consultant with the National Transportation Safety Association and an instructor with the International Police Mountain Bike Association. She likes to get in about 15 miles on her lunch break.

She says she hates cyclists who break the law, but witnesses it all the time. They whiz past her house like the road's their red carpet, failing to yield, neglecting to signal, riding three abreast. Novices too clumsy to look over their shoulder without bopping into the middle of the road force vehicles to swerve around them.

 

"Everybody in the whole area I live in would just as soon see them go away completely," she says. "They act like they own the whole road, and it's aggravating."

Morris can talk frankly because, as she says, "I see both sides of the coin."

She's well aware of the cyclist's mantra, but she's also aware of the responsibilities that go along with it. Bikers may have the same rights as an automobile, but that doesn't mean they always follow the rules.

Thomson attributes some of the problem to ignorance, noting that his riding group has had to explain some rules to unknowing cyclists. Some people "assume they're similar to a jogger," he says. "They're going facing traffic. And we keep continuing to remind them, 'You have the same rights as an automobile. You need to be going in the right direction.' "

Bikers also fail to realize that as Montgomery County develops, the quiet country roads they're used to riding aren't so quiet anymore, Morris says.

"Montgomery County has experienced such growth that the roadways are having trouble keeping up with vehicular traffic, much less bicycle traffic," she says. And, she adds, cyclists "can get upset all they want and think they're getting picked on, or that motorists are being rude to them, but the reality of it is that they are causing a problem by choosing to ride on roads that are not safe to be on."

Frustrated by the sea of stretch pants that clog already overburdened roads, motorists have been logging regular complaints with the sheriff's office. And everywhere Morris goes, she says, people who know she's a cop won't hesitate to vent about the bicycle menace.

"This group of bicyclists is creating a lot of frustration," she says. "They're creating a lot of misunderstanding. They are actually going backwards….Instead of being a nice, bicycle-friendly environment, it's getting to be an us-versus-them environment…motorists versus bicyclists. And the motorist is going to win. Maybe not legally, maybe not morally. But a bicycle and a vehicle cannot compete. The bicycle's going to lose every time."

Morris no longer whips down once-quiet routes like FM 1488 or Honea-Egypt. Even though she knows she's legally allowed to ride those roads, common sense tells her not to. She heads out to trails near Huntsville, and she encourages cyclists to seek alternative routes until the county's roads can catch up with the boom.

She also encourages cyclists to work with the Texas Department of Transportation and local officials to implement bicycle-friendly features in new roads.

"They can push and shove and say, 'I want to ride on these roads no matter what,' and that's their right," she says. "But they need to understand that with that, they need to be aware of the consequences. The consequences are, someone's going to get hurt or killed."


If bikers need documentation of the dangers of rural riding, all they have to do is look at TxDOT's draft of a bicycle safety map. The area includes Harris, Montgomery, Brazoria and Waller counties. About 95 percent of all the roads on it are outlined in red -- as in unsafe at any speed.

"It looks pretty grim," concedes Paul Douglas, TxDOT's state bicycle and pedestrian coordinator in Austin.

The draft is a belated response to a 1997 Texas Transportation Institute study on how TxDOT can create a statewide map outlining the safest areas for cyclists. Study co-author Shawn Turner reviewed maps from 16 other states, to determine how they analyzed their road conditions. Bike-friendly states assigned suitability scores to different roads by weighing criteria such as average daily traffic, lane width and presence of shoulders.

TxDOT workers soon produced a draft map for their rural Bryan-College Station district, but coming up with one for high-population centers is more difficult. Completing a map covering the 77,000 miles of state roads -- farm-to-markets all the way up to interstates -- is proving to be a nightmare.

Douglas says planning takes a long time, something that some cyclists interpret as indifference.

Federal law requires TxDOT to "consider" bicycle and pedestrian accommodations for all roads. But cyclist Riddle says that very language -- "consider" -- is slippery enough to let the agency forget about cyclists altogether.

"They do consider it," he says. "They consider it not to be necessary."

But Douglas says they're actually wrestling with their consciences up there in Austin, not wanting to direct cyclists to a particular road unless they're sure it's safe.

"It might not be reasonable to a local bicyclist who says, 'I want to ride anywhere I want to ride, and the law says…you have to consider accommodation on every road,' " Douglas says. "We would say, 'Well, that's ridiculous. We considered it and we don't want to encourage bicycling on this facility.' "

 

Douglas, however, says TxDOT wants a good relationship with cyclists -- inviting advocacy groups like the Texas Bicycle Coalition to be part of the map-making process. In the meantime, the problem seems to transcend the tangible task of creating bike-friendly roads.

"Particularly in the Houston area, it's very difficult," he says. "You've got as many people driving cars, saying, 'We don't even want bicycles on any roads,' to bicyclists saying, 'We want access to all roads.'…It's more of a 'Let's all share the public space we have and slow down a little bit and get reasonable and get friendly' -- and that's a mind and heart change that needs to be made."

Regina Garcia, vice chair of TxDOT's Bicycle Advisory Committee, says education can spur that change. School safety programs can help children grow up to be more cautious drivers. A new driver education manual and written tests for license applicants can include more bicycle-related information. Motorists also need to get out of a mind frame that relegates cyclists to second-class citizens.

"A lot of people still think we're supposed to be on the sidewalk. And they grew up with their parents teaching them, 'Oh, don't get out in the road,' " she says. "And since their parents told them that their whole lives, when they see somebody that's out in the roadway with their bicycle, they'll scream, 'Get on the sidewalk,' because that's what their parents told them."

For Garcia, it boils down to this: Motorists need to pay more attention.

"People forget that their car's a deadly weapon and can kill anybody in a second," she says. "All it takes is one moment of distraction."


A moment of distraction may have been the trigger for the August 30 crash that devastated the Brazosport Bike Club.

Marcia Ann Meeks, a 44-year-old nurse, was headed toward her Lake Jackson home when her pickup slid into the cyclists. DPS trooper Blaine Chesser says Meeks told him that she'd just flipped down the visor because the sun was in her eyes. But Chesser also noticed a McDonald's bag on the floor and a spilled soft drink on the passenger seat -- signs that she may have been otherwise distracted by eating.

The lack of skid marks left investigators without a clear indication of her speed, although Chesser says it was probably no more than a few miles an hour over the posted 35-mph limit. Brazoria County District Attorney Jeri Yenni says the case will be referred to a grand jury without charges, saying that panel will be saddled with the always "tough call" of deciding if there was any criminal negligence in an accident. Meeks, who refused to talk to the Press, has a clean driving record.

Chesser, who arrived at the scene about six minutes after the accident, reported that the payment was dry. Sugar Land police officer Lance Phy, who was on the bike ride with the group, recalled there were some wet patches. He believes the woman may have hit a damp spot, overcorrected when the truck began skidding and fishtailed out of control.

Phy agrees with Chesser that the riders were doing nothing wrong. "Fate had put itself into motion, and her actions were completely independent of our presence," Phy says. "If we would've been 30 seconds slower, we might've come up on this truck in a ditch."

Thomson, who terms it a "freak accident," sustained a blood clot on his right knee that has prevented him from cycling long distances. He says it could be months until he's able to ride like he did before.

Minutes after the collision, a few other bikers came upon the chaotic aftermath. They saw the medical helicopter clattering off and the ambulance rushing away with Thomson -- and the two motionless bodies covered by sheets.

One of the riders who arrived, Episcopalian minister Andy Parker, wasn't sure what to do initially. Then he had the others gather in a circle around James Roy Thomerson.

"Into your hands, O Merciful Savior, we commend your servant…," Parker began. The Episcopalian last rites. In 14 years as a priest, he had recited these words countless times in homes and hospitals. But never like this.

Parker got choked up, but he pressed on.

"May his soul and the souls of all the departed, through the mercy of God, rest in peace. Amen."

Parker repeated the prayer for Brian Joseph Delaney, also a father of two.

 

It wasn't any easier the second time.


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