Wyoming DOT Doesn’t Count Bicycle Fatalities

By EMMA BREYSSE | March 12, 2013

Robert Verhaaren pedaled into Wyoming on U.S. 25 near Palisades Reservoir on Sept. 8 as part of the LOTOJA bicycle race.

The Arizona racer rode past Alpine, up Highway 89 and started across the Snake River at the bridge at Horse Creek, about 190 miles into the 206-mile course from Logan, Utah, to Teton Village.

There, among a pack of riders, his bike careened into the bridge guardrail, launching him over a 29-inch-high banister and down 56 feet to the shallow edge of the river below.

Despite the efforts of fellow riders, highway patrol, a sheriff’s deputy and medical workers, doctors declared Verhaaren dead a short time later.

He died five days before his 43rd birthday. His wife Bridget and three children mourned him at funeral services back in Mesa.

But Verhaaren’s death does not count as a traffic fatality, according to the Wyoming Department of Transportation policy. Safety data, which helps officials identify problem areas and improve roads, doesn’t list a bicyclist fatality on the state’s highways in 2012.

Wyoming Highway Patrol’s report on Verhaaren’s wreck also shows that such an investigation is rare for an accident with no cars involved.

The News&Guide obtained the report last week after requesting it under public records laws.

“There’s no reporting threshold when it comes to bicycle crashes,” said Lt. Tom Kelly of the Jackson office of the Wyoming Highway Patrol. “It’s pretty much up to the judgment of the trooper who responds whether it’s serious enough to write a report.”

For the LOTOJA crash, the deciding factor was the fatality, according to the report. The investigation shows the wreck likely was caused by a stray mound of asphalt no more than 2 inches high.

Teton County Deputy Coroner Dave Hodges wrote a report on the incident as well, which is included in the Highway Patrol’s investigation. Both provide the following narrative.

The Crash

According to witnesses, including the man riding the race behind Verhaaren, the 42-year-old Arizonan hit an obstacle in the road riding at about 20 miles per hour. He overcorrected after the impact and collided with the bridge railing, pitching him off his bike and over the side.

“We had just passed the highest point in the bridge when I heard Rob hit something,” fellow rider Alan Hamberlin, who was right behind Verhaaren, wrote in a statement for Hodges.

“I saw his bike pitch to the left and in correcting, his wheel turned right, caught the pavement and directed him into the railing at an angle … and (he) immediately went over.”

Verhaaren fell 56.5 feet into the rocky shallows of the Snake River.

Hamberlin shouted to nearby racers, all of whom stopped their bikes and ran down the embankment to help Verhaaren, he said.

Bystanders and fellow racers “who had training in medicine and law enforcement” got Verhaaren out of the river and started performing CPR, Hamberlin said.

At that time, three state troopers were helping to direct traffic and organize responses to the half-hour old Horsethief Canyon wildfire, which ignited that same day just up the road. They left the blaze to respond to the crash.

Highway Patrol Troopers David Richelderfer, Dustin Ragon and Andrew Jackson took turns performing CPR along with bystanders until emergency medical responders arrived. Hodges arrived during that time and also took his turn at CPR.

“The situation was appearing quite grim and fatal as there were no apparent signs of life after 20 minutes of life-saving techniques,” Hodges reported.

Verhaaren’s wife, who was in the area at the time of the crash, would not stay on the bridge and came down the embankment to be with her husband.

When medical responders arrived, the four police officers met to decide whether to do a report. At that point, Hodges said he didn’t believe Verhaaren was going to survive. He and Richelderfer agreed they would each write up a report. Richelderfer and Ragon both noted the wreck wasn’t a traffic accident and didn’t require one.

At what responders believed was the slightest hint of a pulse, the troopers, Hodges and others carried Verhaaren up the slope. Paramedics rushed him to St. John’s Medical Center.

Verhaaren never revived. Doctors pronounced dead at the hospital.

“It was determined at the post examination of the body that Verhaaren would have never survived his injuries,” Hodges concluded in his report. “Practically speaking, he was dead on impact. From the examination, it appeared after the nearly 60-foot fall from the bridge, Verhaaren crash landed directly on his back into the rocky river bottom with deadly energy, speed and force.”

The Cause

The bridge itself “was not in very good shape,” according to Hamberlin’s witness statement. But none of the road’s potholes or cracks caught Verhaaren’s bike, according to the report.

When Hodges, the only law enforcement officer legally required to investigate, went back to do so, he found no potholes in the shoulder where witnesses said Verhaaren was riding.

“There were no potholes, fissures or wide cracks on the road surface to catch the wheel of a bicycle, at least on the shoulder of the road, the bike lane,” Hodges wrote. “The only possible road hazard I took note of was a lengthy ‘asphalt remnant.”’

The asphalt appeared to be spillover from repairing several recently filled potholes near the fog line, Hodges wrote.

In his witness statement, Hamberlin also noted the asphalt mound. He looked for “loose debris” that his friend might have hit, but said he found none.

He did see a few potholes, but made specific mention of “a patched area of the road which was deformed and higher than the rest of the roadway.”

The apparently fateful asphalt patch took up a little more than a foot of the 5-foot shoulder, 37.6 feet away from the place Verhaaren went over the side of the bridge, according to Hodges’ measurements.

It was nearly 2 feet long and 2 inches high.

Photos taken the day of the crash show a race official guiding riders around what appears to be the patch Hodges describes. In the photo, the asphalt patch appears large enough to deflect the wheel of a bicycle.

That is as close as the report comes to determining a cause for the crash.

“It may never be absolutely verified how Verhaaren lost control of his bicycle, or even why,” Hodges wrote. “But it is clear that no car or another bicycle was implicated and could have precipitated Verhaaren’s crash.”

The Case

Anyone setting out to discover whether that asphalt mound caused accidents before or since Verhaaren’s death will have a difficult time doing so through police or transportation department reports. Troopers usually write a report if a cyclist is killed. Short of death, it’s anybody’s guess if such an incident will end up in the agency’s records, Kelly said.

As two of the three responding troopers noted in their statements, responders discussed whether a report was necessary.

Richelderfer said he intended to write an incident report on the wreck, but he had a second discussion with Kelly to back up his decision. Ragon also weighed in.

“Deputy Hodges asked if it was a traffic crash and I advised him it was not, and a crash report would not be completed,” Ragon wrote in his statement. “Trooper Richelderfer said he would be doing an incident report, and Deputy Hodges stated he would also need to do a report as he was the acting Teton County Deputy Coroner for the event.”

Bicycle or pedestrian crashes qualify as “incident reports” rather than “crash reports,” according to Sgt. John Townsend of the Highway Patrol’s Cheyenne office. They do not have their own designation.

Even Verhaaren’s death is categorized as a “miscellaneous event” in the Highway Patrol’s computers, rather than a bike wreck.

The computer has no heading for bike wrecks, Kelly said, meaning it’s next to impossible to search for more than one wreck at a time. There’s really no need; Kelly said there are no state agencies looking for that information.

“I think there might be a reason to collect that data if there was a pattern of deaths or injuries in a certain spot,” Kelly said, “but I don’t know how you’d find out about something like that.”

In-depth reports like the one on the LOTOJA fatality are rare because bicycles occupy an unusual place in Wyoming law. They have their own category in Wyoming’s motor vehicle laws, but are excluded from the official definition of a “vehicle” because they are exclusively human-powered.

No-Man’s Land

Bicycle crashes are in even more of a no-man’s-land. Law requires a report when a motor vehicle is involved and damages meet or exceed $1,000 in repair costs. Statutes requires drivers to call in the police in those cases or when it appears one of the vehicles involved can no longer operate safely.

The law makes a specific exception for “bicycles or any other vehicle moved solely by human power.”

Safety data gathered by the Wyoming Department of Transportation includes only bicycle and pedestrian accidents when a car or other motorized vehicle is involved, District 3 Engineer John Eddins said. So a death like Verhaaren’s won’t appear in annual road safety statistics and reports, which legislators and highway engineers use to identify problem areas and plan improvements.

Those reports, despite the exclusion of bicycle-only crashes, have identified patterns that led to some changes to protect cyclists and pedestrians on Wyoming roads, Eddins said. The flashing lights and crosswalks in Pinedale, for example, came about because of a high rate of vehicle-pedestrian crashes, he said.

As for bicycle-only data, Eddins said under the current laws, there really is no way to track those wrecks, even in cases like the LOTOJA crash, where a cyclist is killed.

“They’re just not reported,” he said. “There’s no legal requirement for them. I don’t know how we would collect that information.”

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