As ten-year-plus avid road biker, the cycling death of world-renowned architect Helmut Jahn at the intersection of Old La Fox and Burlington Roads hit me kind of hard because it seems so pointless. It’s not the possibility of suffering the same fate that bothers because I won’t be plying the roads for the foreseeable future.
The major reason for my retreat to riding Rouvy in the bedroom was having to consistently bear witness to the vast arrogance of my road biking ilk, particularly when they ride in groups. I can’t begin to understand how so many think they’ll come out on top in a confrontation with over a ton of rolling steel.
But the final straw was hearing how Kane County Department of Transportation head honcho Carl Schoedel got picked off the eight-foot Rt. 64 shoulder on his way to work by a tardy NIU student who’d failed to clear off his icy windshield.
The paradox there is that, while Carl continues to cycle to work in all manner of weather, I’ve relegated myself to that indoor bike trainer. I’m not sure if that means I’m sanely smarter or he’s insanely braver.
Aside from a tragic loss, what’s also been bothering me is the media accounts of the accident are short on the details and the details they’ve managed to report are quite contradictory.
So, I had a lengthy conversation with Campton Hills Police Chief Steve Millar who graciously sorted out the specifics, not the least of which was there were at least three eyewitnesses in three separate vehicles. Two were headed westbound and the other eastbound. The SUV that Jahn actually struck never saw him coming because as I just noted, this was a case of the cyclist hitting the car!
And it was a combination of his high speed and the driver doing no more than 30 mph that precipitated the chain of event that led to his death.
Jahn blew through the stop sign and hit and SUV by the passenger side rearview mirror at over 20 mph, a speed easy attainable on a road bike. Then he flipped over the handlebars and onto the windshield which catapulted him the center of Burlington Road’s westbound lane.
That’s when the second motorist, who had no time to stop, ran him over and killed him.
Every last one of the eyewitnesses told the Campton Hills Police that Jahn came out of nowhere and the whole thing was over in a matter of seconds. The driver whom Jahn hit pulled over within 20 yards of the impact which indicates he was going no more than 30 mph.
Put more simply, he certainly wasn’t speeding.
The tragic irony is, had the SUV driver he been going just a little bit faster Jahn would’ve bounced off the side of the SUV and he probably would’ve lived.
Since a veteran road biker like Jahn didn’t see the stop sign or four rapidly approaching vehicles, the only logical explanation is that he forgot where he was, he had a medical event, or he was so single-minded he wasn’t paying attention to anyone or anything.
He certainly wasn’t trying to beat those vehicles, particularly when, given the diagonal layout nature of Burlington road, there were two eminently visible vehicles coming from east.
So, to all the bicycle activists howling about safer intersections or who errantly insisted that driver didn’t have his eyes on the road, none of that would’ve mattered. Safer intersections are good for everyone, but they won’t prevent every accident particularly when you’re dealing with a non-grid-confirming street.
To all the angry motorists who claim Jahn was just like every other road biker who purposely blows through stop signs assuming motorists will stop, that’s not the case here, either. The worst cyclist wouldn’t ignore a stop sign when they’re unable to fully view eastbound traffic, because again, that diagonal makes that proposition very difficult.
Once this sad scenario was set in motion, NOTHING could’ve prevented this tragedy, and it truly is a tragedy for everyone involved. We’ve lost a world class architect, a wife lost her husband, and two motorists will likely have to relive this nightmare for the rest of their lives.
So, whether you’re a cyclist or a driver, let’s ignore the worst of both worlds, take a deep breath, slow down a bit, and try do our best to make the roads a little bit safer for everyone.