Bikeways on Trial in Widower’s Suit

Debra Deem
Debra Deem

By Andrea Adelson | LB Indy

For his own safety, former Olympic cyclist and bike shop owner Paul Deem would rather cycle through the stop-and-go traffic of downtown Los Angeles than the wide-open roadways of Orange County, where motorists expect to accelerate to highway speeds on four and six-lane parkways.

“Bicyclists are in the way,” said Deem, describing how he interprets the yells and honks he endures when pedaling into traffic lanes on roads that lack space for bicyclists.

This week, California’s long-awaited “Three Feet for Safety” law finally took effect, requiring drivers to give at least three feet of clearance when passing someone on a bike. If the street width doesn’t allow for that, the driver is required to slow down and only pass once it is safe to do so.

That margin of safety might have made a difference for cyclist Debra Deem, of Laguna Beach, who was riding north on Coast Highway in Aug. 27, 2013, when she was struck and killed by a motorist.

Last week, an Orange County jury deadlocked over the guilt of the motorist who struck her. The prosecutor set a hearing for Monday, Sept. 22, to consider retrying Robert James Anderson, 85, of Irvine, who had pleaded not guilty.

On Monday, an attorney for Deem filed a lawsuit in Orange County Superior Court over his wife’s death, accusing the city of Newport Beach and the state of California for allowing a dangerous condition at a negligently maintained and designed intersection of Coast Highway and Newport Coast Road. The suit seeks unstated compensatory damages.

Torrance attorney Bruce Brusavich said he will rely on Caltrans’ own traffic control manual to demonstrate that the intersection design at Newport Coast Road deviates from other intersections in Newport Beach and lacks a safe zone for bicyclists.

Newport Beach relinquished control of the roadway to Caltrans in 2004, said Brusavich. “Caltrans has the obligation to maintain it,” he said.

“It’s a tragic loss, but I don’t think the city is liable in any way,” Newport Beach City Attorney Aaron Harp said Wednesday.

Deem disagrees. “It’s a dangerous corner; they go through at 50 m.p.h.,” he said, citing the testimony of a witness in Anderson’s trial who described seeing in his rearview mirror two cars maneuver around his wife while a third did not.

Cyclists toss rose petals near Newport Coast Drive during a memorial ride Sunday, July 20, to two Coast Highway shrines to bicyclists that died in collisions with cars in the last year.
Cyclists toss rose petals near Newport Coast Drive during a memorial ride Sunday, July 20, to two Coast Highway shrines to bicyclists that died in collisions with cars in the last year.

Deem, 57, lives in Mission Viejo. The home he shared with his wife of eight years in Laguna Beach was sold, in accordance with her wishes, and the proceeds donated to City of Hope in Duarte. “I lost my wife and my home,” said Deem, who owns Cycle Werks bike shops in Costa Mesa and San Clemente.

The longtime cyclist believes Newport Beach’s bike master plan is working towards improving safety and access for cyclists. He is more critical of Laguna Beach, which ranks first in fatalities and injuries to pedestrians among small cities statewide, according to the state Office of Traffic and Safety.

In July, he stood at Laguna Beach’s City Hall with the widow of John Greg Colvin, 55, a cyclist who also died in June when struck by a motorist on Coast Highway near Emerald Bay. Spurred to action by the bike tragedies, they joined a rally organized by Livable Streets Laguna to urge city officials to make safer streets a priority in future planning.

While Laguna has designated a non-Coast Highway route for cyclists and is discussing a bikeway on Laguna Canyon, Deem still feels the community does too little to protect cyclists and aggravates the situation by continuing to welcome more tourism. “If Laguna Beach was held to the standards of Disneyland, it would be shut down; Disneyland sets limits on capacity,” Deem said.


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  1. Where is this between dana point and aliso beach?
    “While Laguna has designated a non-Coast Highway route for cyclists”….
    If it exists, I’d like to know about it and use it….


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