Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Tragic Accident Follows Pattern Non-cyclists Think is Typical

A bicyclist, John Lacaillade II, 38, from Meredith, NH, was killed yesterday on Route 25 in Porter, Maine, when he lost control of his bike and fell under the rear wheels of a tractor trailer.

Read the news account here on MaineToday.com. Read a more detailed article here.

I know that section of highway. It has a shoulder, though not a wide one. Pulpwood trucks do use it, along with every other imaginable vehicle headed east toward Portland. It's never been as scary as certain sections of Route 25 on the west end of Lake Winnipesaukee between Lacaillade's own home town of Meredith, and Moultonboro.

It's always frustrating to hear fragmentary accounts of an accident like this. The pilot often can't give an account of the actions that led up to the crash. Bikes have no voice or data recorder to verify the typical motorist-centric report. No charges will be filed against the truck driver. But did he make every effort to give the bicyclist room? Or did he play tag, the way drivers sometimes do? Some drivers state very plainly that they put the burden on the cyclist to stay out of their way. I've had them throw high, inside pitches at me a number of times. The so-called professional drivers can have a very proprietary attitude about the road.

The driver in this case, Renald Morin, 30, of Quebec, may have given the cyclist a couple of feet and the cyclist could have actually deflected sideways far enough to go under the trailer. But any long-time road cyclist has had large vehicles go by way too close. The drivers don't think, don't care or trust their luck and the skill and cool nerves of the cyclist to prevent tragedy. Large vehicle drivers are quite confident they won't be charged unless witnesses can testify that they made an obvious swerve toward the bike. Such witnesses never appear.

As distressing as this recent accident is, crashes of this type are rare. Cyclists are not commonly struck by overtaking vehicles unless the vehicle makes a sudden turn in close proximity or the cyclist rides erratically. That doesn't mean it can't happen, only that it usually doesn't. Cyclists are more at risk in intersections where they or other vehicles are entering or leaving the traffic flow, and most at risk when they ride against traffic or maneuver haphazardly.

The worst part about Monday's accident, aside from the death of a human being and the loss to his family, is that non-cyclists will see it affirming their view that you have to be crazy to be out there at all. Those big trucks really will just crush you because they can't avoid you and shouldn't be expected to. The last part calls for only minor speculation, because I hear people say things like it all the time in the bike shop. Customers looking for a bike for exercise often declare that they have no intention of doing something as irresponsible as riding on the road.

On a highway like Route 25 a rider will not be able to herd traffic except possibly in the sections through towns, where the speed limit can drop as low as 25 miles per hour and the highway becomes a street. Even then, through-traveling motorists have their highway mind set and can't wait to resume their headlong charge toward the coast.

Route 25 east of Ossipee is actually a pretty bike-friendly highway. It does not have a full breakdown lane the whole way, but it usually has a foot or two to the right of the fog line. Porter is one of the places where it narrows, but not even through all of Porter. Other roads cross it, giving access to miles and miles of hilly but scenic touring. Some roads are better than others, but that's true anywhere.

Mourn the loss of one rider, but keep riding. It really is the best that we can do.


Joel said...

As you say, these types of accidents are difficult to figure out the facts of after they happen. What it makes me think of is something Dr. Walker spoke about on the "Bike to Work, the book" podcast #2 - the fact that long vehicles tend to drift after passing a cyclist and often pinch them without necessarily realizing it. He discussed it in detail (more than I can do here) and since then it's the first thing that comes to mind when I hear about this type of accident.

cafiend said...

Passing clearances can be very hard to judge, especially when a lot of vehicles are trying to get through a restricted space at the same time.

I've seen long vehicles drift to the right. An experienced, skillful and caring driver will know to go further than seems necessary before coming back to the right. Even so, people make mistakes or get rushed by other vehicles jostling in the urgency of the moment.

I wondered also if Lacaillade, being apparently in a group, might have either nipped a wheel in front of him or been squeezed over as the line of cyclists bunched up a little. The other riders in the group might be able to shed some light if one or more of them had the misfortune to be behind the crash and see it. I certainly wouldn't want to.

Anonymous said...

I'm car-free and have been riding for decades. One of my earliest pieces of equipment is the most vital (after a helmet) -- a rearview mirror. It can save your life. I know. It's done so for me.

cafiend said...

So do you bail off the road every time you see something developing from behind you that might turn into a problem? Because the last few seconds, when you should be looking where you're going instead of into a mirror, can be the critical ones.

Once a big vehicle is beside you, the rear view becomes irrelevant. So the only effective response to the possibility presented by a vehicle approaching from behind you is to get out in the lane or get off the road entirely.

That being said, what kind of mirror do you find effective? Handlebar or helmet? Do you use upright or drop bars? DO you glance over your shoulder to confirm the mirror's findings?

Anonymous said...

Paul, as he was known to his family, is an experienced rider. He has been doing so competitivley for years. He has raced up Mount Washington several times and had hopes of competing in the Tour De France at one point in his life. The first Gulf War and his tour of duty there as a Marine changed his plans then and upon his return, a beautiful woman named Michelle changed his mind again. He leaves behind her and two amazing children.

His father and sister were both part of the group cycling with him and saw this tragedy. Paul did nothing wrong. It is a freak, tragic accident that his family will have to deal with for the rest of our lives. He is already greatly missed.

Kendall said...

My dad was part of the group that was finishing up their cross country trek (as was Paul's father, John). My dad didn't see the accident occur - he was behind them and came across the scene - but was very shaken by what happened. He said John is one of the nicest guys around, was always willing to lend a hand, and certainly didn't deserve this type of tragedy on what should have been a momentous day of finishing up a 4000 mile journey.

I am also an avid biker and very cautious by nature. From what I've heard, Paul did absolutely nothing wrong - he just happened to be unfortunate enough to have been in the vicinity of that trucker at that very spot.

cafiend said...

My condolences to the family and friends of Paul Lacaillade. I appreciate your comments at this difficult time.

lnewman said...

I was riding with Paul as part of the cross-country group. Paul was a highly competent rider. He rode a straight line, no bobbing and weaving. I'd guess he would be rated in the top 5-10 percent of riders in skill and bike handling ability.

Paul was NOT in a bunched group. He had just told his sister and niece that he would meet them up the road in the next town. He was about 50 yards ahead of them, riding alone, by their accounts, on the far right.

The shoulder where the accident happened was 4-5 feet wide. But just before where the accident occurred, the shoulder had crumbled up to the white line. The shoulder pavement abruptly ended, dropping 5 inches into loose gravel. Any competent rider, as Paul was, would have moved left into the traffic lane. The only alternative would be to dive for the shoulder and a certain tumble at 20+ mph. Paul was a powerful rider, and having just accelerated away from his sister and niece, would likely have been moving briskly.

Like most cyclists who race, Paul did not use a mirror. I do, but I question that I would have had the presence of mind to see the oncoming 18-wheeler and dive for the ditch and a nasty wreck.

As one poster noted, I suspect that the rear wheels of the truck drifted slightly wider than the front wheels, and the vacuum of the passing truck, whether at 50 or 70-mph, must have sucked Paul under the wheels.

The trucker said there were oncoming cars. He probably thought that he was splitting the gap between the cars and the cyclist.

Once in Montana, three of us faced a similar event. This road had no paved shoulder But this log-truck driver opted to move his truck slightly across the yellow line, forcing oncoming traffic to both slow and steer their passenger-side tires onto the gravel shoulder. If only all big-rig drivers were as skilled and considerate.

Independent of the speed limit, and largely independent of the speed of the truck, the mass of a loaded wood-chip, log, milk, or freight truck is too great for them to brake for a 20 mph cyclist until it is safe to pass. Like most accidents, perhaps 10 different factors lined up simultaneously to contribute to this tragedy. Other than perhaps not using a mirror, none of them were the fault of the cyclist.

Anonymous said...

The non-cyclists always thought is always typical. LOL, Boy, I sure and thankful that it wasn’t me in this situation, I’d have to call my local Los Angeles personal injury attorney and get them on the case, there’s no doubt about that.

Andrew said...

i thank all of you for your comments, i am Pauls son Andrew. it has taken me years to find the courage to see these reports and find the true happenings of this day. the comments of the riders that were with him that day have truely ave me some peace of mind and closure. thank you an may we remember my Dad as a great man

Andrew said...

i thank all of you for your comments, i am Pauls son Andrew. it has taken me years to find the courage to see these reports and find the true happenings of this day. the comments of the riders that were with him that day have truly gave me some peace of mind and closure. thank you and may we remember my Dad as a great man