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We still need to do more to protect bike riders

The story of Chelsea Norman just breaks my heart.

They call it the “ghost bike.” It is painted completely white, even the tires, and chained to a street post in Montrose.

The shrine near West Gray and Waugh marks where cyclist Chelsea Norman was hit 10 days ago by a motorist and later died of her injuries.

There are no known witnesses. The driver fled. Exactly what happened remains a mystery that police and Norman’s family continue to probe.

The bike is flanked by candles and flowers to honor the 24-year-old who was riding home at about 10:25 p.m. from her job a few blocks away at Whole Foods Market.

The spot has quickly become sacred ground. Tears are shed. Memories are shared. It is also a rallying point for cyclists calling for more safety among their own ranks as well as denouncing motorists who they say drive with impunity from the law and disdain for sharing the road.

Hundreds of riders are expected to converge on the area at 7 p.m. Wednesday to remind Houston of the Dec. 1 incident and pressure authorities to reduce the chances of it happening again by enforcing laws and enhancing bike paths.

Among the riders who vows to be there is Fred Zapalac, co-owner of the Blue Line Bike Lab bike shops.

“I would say the cycling community is by and large very angry,” he said. “This beautiful 24-year-old girl that was struck down and killed has really lit a fire under people. I think anybody that knows anybody who rides a bike in this city would be very concerned about this – and anybody who has a heart.”


Dan Morgan, an organizer of the Wednesday ride, said the goal is to push the city to enforce laws to keep cyclists safer as well as ask the public for help to solve the mystery of Chelsea’s death.

Among the people who plan to join the effort is John Williams, 30. In late August, he was riding alone at night, like Chelsea, down Waugh on a route he’d traveled many times.

He was riding far to the right and was hit from behind by a pickup, according to a police report. He was knocked out, broke several vertebrae and cracked his skull.

He regained consciousness several days later in the hospital. The injuries have left him with myriad problems, including not being able to drive, and hefty medical bills.

Williams, who rode for years with cyclists from Blue Line Bike Lab, said he is still angry at the man who hit him. He supposedly had a vision impairment that should have kept him from behind the wheel, Williams said, but he is grateful he stopped.

I don’t know how the driver that hit Chelsea Norman can live with himself or herself. It’s not possible that he or she could be unaware of what’s happened, though I suppose denial can be a powerful thing. I really hope the cops make an arrest.

Whether an arrest gets made or not, the fact remains that despite the big advances Houston has made in bike-friendliness, it’s still dangerous out there. Part of that is due to drivers’ sense of privilege. Part of that is because sometimes there are no safe routes to take. I’m pretty set from my house if I want to travel east-west – the bike trails are great for that – and I can go north pretty easily. But going south, my choices are the deathtrap that is Studewood/Studemont, or Heights Boulevard. The latter is fine up to Washington Avenue, but past that it’s mighty hairy, with the merge from what was Yale that suddenly forces you between lanes of moving traffic, and the entrances to/exits from Memorial. It was farther south, at Waugh and Gray, which really should be a reasonably safe stretch of road, where Ms. Norman was killed. I’d love one of these years to ride my bike to the Art Car Parade instead of being part of the parking problem. I just don’t have a good way to get there.

And part of the problem is that drivers still aren’t being held accountable for accidents they cause with bicyclists. Houstonia tells the rest of the story of John Williams.

Unlike the Norman case, the person who hit Williams did stop and render aid. The man was sober, but told police he was visually-impaired and did not see Williams right in front of him, despite the fact that Williams had more-than-adequately equipped his bike for night-riding.

“I had lights, a helmet, I rode predictably, staying in a straight line,” Williams says. “I did everything I was supposed to do. Maybe that gave me a false sense of security.”

The Tacoma driver told police his visual impairment forced him to watch the curb rather than his lane, but Williams says none of that made it into the crash report.

And here’s the thing. The Tacoma driver was not given so much as a single traffic ticket for all-but-destroying the life of John Andrew Williams.

Maybe the cop thought the Tacoma driver had suffered enough. Maybe it was enough that he was not drunk and stopped to render aid.

Williams most decidedly does not think so. “What, it’s alright to hit somebody if you didn’t mean it?” he asks. “I see this as a total devaluation of my humanity.”

Williams contends that had he been in a car and rear-ended by the Tacoma, the truck driver would have at least been ticketed for failing to maintain a safe distance or possibly reckless driving. He believes the sole reason that the Tacoma driver drove away scot-free was that Williams happened to be riding a bike rather than riding a car.

And what of the Safe Passage ordinance recently passed by City Council? Under that new rule of the road, car drivers are supposed to give cyclists, pedestrians, people in wheelchairs and even horseback riders three feet of clearance. (Large trucks must give six feet.) To put it mildly, that’s something the Tacoma driver certainly failed to do, Williams points out. Where was the $500 fine that man could have been assessed?

“There’s just not much concern for people not in cars,” he says. He believes there’s an ironclad and ingrained bias against cyclists on Houston’s roads, that they are somehow seen as unworthy of equal protection. “Motorists just don’t believe we have the rights to use the road,” he says and adds that as long as drivers are not so much as ticketed for maiming them, nothing will ever change.

Williams is right – if he’d been rear-ended while driving and the cops had come to the scene, the other guy would have been cited. It’s ridiculous that the driver wasn’t cited for rear-ending a bicyclist, especially given his admission of vision impairment. Everyone – drivers, bicyclists, and law enforcement – needs to do their part to make biking in Houston safer.

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  1. Bill Shirley says:

    I always ride my bike to the Art Car Parade, and other events at Eleanor Tinsley park. Usually Waugh, but there’s another meandering way. I don’t have to worry about kids though, and I’m comfortable navigating inner city street driving.

  2. Robert Nagle says:

    Thanks for this blog post. For your own amusement, see my blogpost about the drivers who have almost extinguished my life when bicycling .

    Although certainly better zoning and bike paths can do a lot to improve safety, I have noticed that people talking on cellphones at a red light and inching forward to turn right is my number one danger. People falsely think that talking on cell phones at red lights is 100% safe, not realizing that when they take a right turn on a red with only one hand, they are not as aware of their surroundings.

  3. Rich says:

    @Robert – There’s a Robert Nagel here in Madison who is a bicycling advocate, and I was wondering how he’d managed to find about Chuck’s blog. Guess there’s another person you’re not. 😉

    And on topic, finally here in Madison a driver killed a bicyclist by not yielding, and got a real citation. Might even do jail time, but I somehow doubt it.