By Kellie Hall, Special to the Independent
A swarm of 200 to 300 cyclists rode en masse from Heisler Park in Laguna Beach to the Newport Coast Sunday, July 20, in memory of John Colvin and Debra Deem, both Laguna Beach cyclists who died after being struck by motorists on Coast Highway.
The sobering demonstration of support for bike-safety saw cyclists from all over Orange County pedaling the route taken by John Colvin and Debra Deem. Many carried bags and tossed handfuls of rose petals at the site of roadside shrines, where “ghost” bikes painted white remain to mark the scene of the fatal bicycle accidents.
“It was fabulous,” said Colvin’s widow, Joan Marcus-Colvin, gratified by the turnout among both the mountain biking and road biking communities. Her husband had been an avid mountain biker and, in preparation for a triathlon, had only been road riding for a short time before his death. Colvin, 55, was struck and killed near Emerald Bay on Tuesday, June 17, by a 19-year-old Laguna Beach driver, who has not been charged. A police investigation is still underway.
Though also gladdened by the turnout and effort by the cycling community to organize the ride, the experience was bittersweet, said Deem’s widower, Paul Deem, owner of Cycle Werks bike shops in Costa Mesa and San Clemente. It returned him to an emotionally difficult time, he said.
Deem, 58, was hit by a minivan at Newport Coast Drive on Aug. 27, 2013. Prosecutors charged motorist Robert James Anderson, 84, of Irvine, with manslaughter in a trial is set to begin Wednesday, Aug. 6, in Orange County Superior Court.
Most drivers who passed the cyclists during the Sunday morning memorial ride were respectful, but others sped by seemingly with little regard for cyclists’ safety, said Laguna resident Max Isles, who since Colvin’s death, has linked arms with two other residents, Tamara Hlava and Billy Fried, to advocate for safer travel for all forms of transportation by establishing Liveable Streets Laguna. They organized a less well-attended bike rally at City Hall last week, where City Manager John Pietig acknowledged their plea and invited them to stay involved in the city’s efforts to address their cause.
Even cyclists that didn’t know the victims showed up for the ride, including Mick Donoff, of Laguna Beach, the former president of the South Orange County Bicycle Association. He initially stepped down because he felt “worn down” and “frustrated,” by the lack of progress for bicycle safety, but joined in the memorial ride because he was “tired” of hearing about bicycle fatalities.
The city has done “a really poor job of protecting visitors and residents,” Paul Deem noted. “You couldn’t drive through Disneyland at 40 m.p.h.,” he stated, noting that because Laguna Beach is similar to a “theme park,” the city has a “certain responsibility” to take control of the situation.
“John’s accident galvanized the local community,” said Joan Marcus-Colvin, though the newly established Liveable Streets Laguna wants to develop solid initiatives before taking further action.
The group has been brainstorming street-safety solutions with city staff, though talks are in preliminary stages, said Isles, who wants to press for flashing lights at all Coast Highway crosswalks to improve pedestrian safety also.
Isles challenged local cyclists, who know Laguna Beach’s roads well, to quit offering complaints and instead offer their biking experience to help city staff with planning improvements.
Cyclists had no shortage of suggestions that could improve safety from simple signage to bike lanes protected from traffic by a barrier. Grim bike fatality statistics show that a comprehensive, uniform plan needs to be adopted, said Bill Sellin of Orange, a board member of the Orange County Bicycle Coalition, which helped organize the ride.
The patchwork of road signage around the county, such as green road striping in some places, and cyclists who ride at the road’s edge, contribute to driver confusion, Sellin noted.
Contrary to popular belief, riding in the “gutter zone,” can be more dangerous than riding in traffic, as drivers are looking for traffic in the roadway but not off to the side, Sellin said, adding that at the time of their accidents, John Colvin was on the shoulder and Debra Deem was in a bike lane.
Drivers often carelessly fling open their car doors or turn right in front of cyclists who try to ride as far to the right as possible, Sellin noted. An experienced, educated bike rider knows when to hop on the sidewalk where legal, ride on the shoulder, or take up the entire traffic lane, Sellin stated.
Plans need to take into account the pervading car culture, because unless “an earthquake levels Orange County,” the region will never be able to have the same sophisticated bicycle infrastructure as in many European cities, Sellin stated.
Though cyclists clearly need to be careful on the road and obey all laws, drivers have a responsibility to be hyper-vigilant and respectful because of grave bodily harm they can inflict, cyclists said. Motorists “tend to think they own the road,” Joan Marcus-Colvin said.
Cycling advocates agreed on one measure to improve safety immediately: slowing down. “Travel is a right; driving is a privilege,” Sellin said.