Mainstream media looks at shoddy cyclist fatality investigation

Quick personal note: I am traveling this week and may be slow in approving comments, which are currently under manual moderation.

Some of you may remember the the death of 66 year old Margaret Bengs on November 2, 2015 in Sacramento, CA. Bengs attempted to cross Fair Oaks Boulevard at Kenneth Avenue on her bicycle when Sacramento Superior Court Judge Matthew Gary slammed his pickup truck into Bengs. Family members of the victim allege the California Highway Patrol’s rushed investigation failed to properly establish fault. An investigative report published last weekend in the Sacramento Bee concurs that in spite of CHP statements firmly placing blame on the cyclist, not enough evidence was collected to determine fault either way.

Fair Oaks and Kenneth, Sacramento, CA

Sac Bee investigative reporter Brad Branan reviewed the CHP collision report with two retired investigators from the CHP’s Multidisciplinary Accident Investigation Team (MAIT). MAIT investigators receive specialized training above that given to most officers.

This cycling fatality first came to the media’s attention because of a glaring error in the initial report from the local CHP office. The investigating officer stated the victim wasn’t wearing a helmet, when those who initially gave aid to Beng all said she was indeed wearing a helmet.

The official CHP report also places blame on Beng because she was crossing Fair Oaks illegally. The retired MAIT consultants, however, said that Bengs’ position on Fair Oaks could have been legal depending on her travel direction. It’s impossible to know where Bengs was riding because the investigating officer placed a higher priority on re-opening the intersection for traffic than on gathering physical evidence.

The investigating office only collected a statement from Judge Gary, the driver of the pickup, and he was clearly treated with deference. The driver, for example, said he gently nudged Bengs at no more than 10 MPH, and that the crushing injuries to her skull, rib cage, and internal organs must have occurred when she fell over. When other witnesses later came forward to contradict Gary’s statements, they were treated with hostility and skepticism, according to the Bee report.

You can read the the full report here. The local Public Information Officer has doubled down, telling the press that they stand by their report.

Keep this in mind the next time you hear the statistic that cyclists are at fault in 60% of Bay Area cycling crashes. I’ve seen other evidence of this kind of bias in the city of Los Alto, CA, where an astounding 74% of cyclist collisions are the fault of the cyclist. Are Los Altos cyclists really that much more careless than the rest of the Bay Area?

Back to Sacramento

The intersection of Fair Oaks and Kenneth is in unincorporated Sacramento County in the community of Carmichael. If Strava’s global heatmap is any indication of bike use, neither Kenneth nor Fair Oaks seem particularly popular as bike routes, and the Streetview image at the top is a good clue why this is. SWITRS — California’s traffic collision database — tells me this isn’t the most accident prone intersection in the county, but enough happens here that it’s probably worth a look. People on foot and on bike still need a way to get around, even if conditions are dangerous for them.

Fair Oaks and Kenneth pedestrian and cyclist collisions

The above map is centered on Fair Oaks at Kenneth, and shows incidents within a half mile of that intersection. Red shows the single pedestrian fatality from 2004 to 2013. Orange icons are “serious injuries,” yellow designates locations involving “complaint of pain.”

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