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What a Week: Yet another bike fatality

Editorial: Jeremy Walsh reflects on the recent death of Tri-Valley native Shawn O'Donnell who was struck by a truck while cycling to work in Washington, D.C.
Jeremy Walsh_2022
Jeremy Walsh, editor.

"She was a bit of laughter, and a bright light who had so much more to live for and so much more to give, and it was stolen because people with huge cars, huge trucks ... in this case they're no different from a drunk driver, but we treat the drunk drivers and people who have blind spots differently. They both took somebody's life because of their carelessness, because of their responsibility."

That's what Danville resident Mary O'Donnell told our reporter Jeanita Lyman last week during an interview about the death of her 40-year-old daughter Shawn O'Donnell, who died after being struck by a Mack truck while cycling to work in Washington, D.C., on July 20.

The story caught my eye in part because it happened in my old stomping grounds, although that area of Northwest D.C. was closer to George Washington University than up near my alma mater American University.

But more importantly, it was yet another case of a fatal crash that sure seemed preventable. The preliminary police report describes the truck as making a right turn even though the cyclist was riding in the roadway alongside.

I very much respect Mary O'Donnell's perspective -- and the fact she was so open in an interview with us less than a day after such a personal tragedy. Hers is a fair opinion, and while I might go as far as to equate drunk drivers to unaware drivers, she was spot on to advocate for more consistent criminal consequences for avoidable collisions that claim lives.

That could be an effective additional deterrent for fatal crashes (notice I don't say "accidents") across the board, whether involving just one car, multiple cars, a cyclist or a pedestrian/bystander.

Individual civil, insurance or emotional repercussions often don't go far enough to influence societal change with such persistent problems. Or that's my takeaway at least, as we continue to see innocent victims lost to collisions where someone else is at fault.

While most readers say law enforcement investigators and prosecutors should take a stronger stance on such crimes, and that may well be true in certain cases, the most impactful moves need to come at the legislative levels.

The way the law is written seemed to be the deciding factor in the Tri-Valley's most prominent fatal cyclist collision last year.

Career NFL assistant coach Greg Knapp, 58, died in the hospital five days after being hit while cycling on Dougherty Road in San Ramon on July 17, 2021 when a vehicle drifted into the bike lane and struck Knapp.

Cycling advocates lambasted the lack of charges from the Contra Costa County District Attorney's Office against the driver, whose name was not released publicly, especially when police confirmed the driver was glancing at his hands-free cellphone in that fateful moment.

The key phrase there, under the law, being "hands-free." Although, there's a good argument to be made that prosecutors could have put the question to a jury instead of calling it on their own.

These are not easy decisions, and I don't mean to imply otherwise. There is often so much at play for prosecutors, beyond simply the facts of the case, in terms of achieving their ultimate goal: proving a crime beyond a reasonable doubt to earn a conviction.

And what about when the facts aren't so black and white, for police and the DA?

Recall the sad death of Christine Boyle cycling on Stanley Boulevard just across the Livermore border on Dec. 21, 2020 she was one of five people killed in separate crashes in a 33-hour period back then.

There was a situation where police actually first deemed 63-year-old Boyle at fault for riding off the sidewalk into the crosswalk without yielding to a turning gravel truck a story I broke only to rescind their finding weeks later after uproar from bike advocates. The trucker kept driving, later telling police he did not even know he hit someone.

Livermore police quietly issued a press release soon afterward admitting to misinterpreting the local law around crosswalk cycling and all but clearing Boyle's name (without using it, interestingly). In the end, "a primary cause could not be found in this collision."

So many of these bicycle fatalities are etched into my mind from my 12-year journalism career. It's important we don't forget them. That I don't forget.

One I'll always remember, because the case was solved but the driver is still on the lam, happened five months after I started with the Weekly. Alamo resident Dan Taylor, 72, was killed on an orchard-lined country road in Winters in Solano County while riding in a timed interval bicycle race on March 26, 2014.

The California Highway Patrol alleges the driver, Adrianna Melendez (now 31), took steps to conceal the crash and then fled when she learned investigators were looking for her. She is still at-large. The FBI has a "most wanted" reward out for her whereabouts that is still active, $10,000 for information leading to her arrest.

It would be great to see the Taylor family get their day in court and hopefully a bit more closure.

Editor's note: Jeremy Walsh has been the editor of the Embarcadero Media East Bay Division since February 2017. His "What a Week" column publishes on the second and fourth Fridays of the month.