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A preventable, tragic death: Some lessons

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On April 19, Suzanne LeBeau, an avid cyclist, was killed when she rode her bicycle into the path of the southbound Rail Runner train at the point where the Santa Fe Rail Trail crosses the tracks just south of Zia Road.

Commenters to a local TV outlet claim she was wearing some sort of headphones or earphones. This has not been confirmed by the ongoing police investigation.

A bicyclist crosses the tracks on the Rail Trail along Zia Road where a bicyclist was hit by a train and killed last weekend. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

A bicyclist crosses the tracks on the Rail Trail along Zia Road where a bicyclist was hit by a train and killed last weekend. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

Also relevant is that the Rail Trail runs parallel to South St. Francis Drive at that location and approaches from behind the train station. A cyclist riding north will be screened by buildings and will then be looking at the sides of the lights and crossing arms in a large and busy intersection. The cyclist will also be looking directly towards the southbound train.

Although the railroad barrier arms, safety lights, warning sirens and the train’s horn were all activated and working properly, readers must note that there are in fact no barriers or safety lights whatsoever at the actual rail trail crossing used by cyclists.

We will never know everything that happened on Saturday to cause this tragedy as Suzanne is not here to explain it. My condolences go out to her family and to the train engineer, who was powerless to stop events.

Are there lessons here for cyclists, municipal planners and facility designers? Certainly.

First, cyclists must maintain their situational awareness and anticipate hazards. We must constantly be asking: “What can happen at this intersection or crossing and what will I do about it?”

Whether the cyclist was wearing headphones is less relevant than how a cyclist compensates for the loss of critical sensory information under potentially adverse conditions. Darkness, cold (requiring headgear), bad weather and other situations can compromise one’s sensory safety envelope and require adjustment. Distracted riding can be perilous because it takes away the ability to sense and evaluate danger.

Secondly, the design standards for trails should be comparable to those for an immediately adjacent roadway – if there are barriers and lights for a busy roadway, why not for a key rail trail crossing at that very busy intersection? Indeed, this is not just any trail but an important component in Santa Fe’s offroad bicycle network, made necessary because many of its major roads (and especially St. Francis Drive) are decidedly bicyclist-unfriendly, thus requiring separate bicycle facilities.

Khalil J. Spencer.

Khalil J. Spencer.

In this context, a cyclist should benefit from a warning light or barrier system similar to that enjoyed by motorists. A cyclist arriving via the Rail Trail is riding at right angles to the road’s barriers and warning lights. Is it possible that this reduced visibility coupled with background visual clutter did not provide the warning the designers had assumed?

Some of this discussion goes to the very heart of defining the roles of the cyclist and the government in maintaining roadway safety. We have to balance personal responsibility with an appropriate government role in building safe, well-engineered facilities. Let’s reexamine these roles today and not let Suzanne LeBeau’s death be in vain.

Khalil J. Spencer is a cycling instructor with the League of American Bicyclists and a resident of Los Alamos.

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