he pictures are all-too familiar and all-too disturbing: a fit man in a green-and-white cycling jersey lies on the unforgiving pavement of the Rickenbacker Causeway, a pool of blood by his head and paramedics leaning over to render emergency aid.
Nearby are a silver Mercedes with a shattered windshield, concerned onlookers, snarled traffic and a mangled bike – in this case, amazingly enough, wedged tight between the concrete barrier and metal railing all the way on the other side of Bear Cut Bridge.
They’re pictures snapped by South Florida attorney and avid cyclist Howard Srebnick, a witness to the serious bike accident on the causeway Friday, March 28, that seriously injured Key Biscayne resident Ricardo Rongen – and they’re reviving the debate about safety conditions on Bear Cut Bridge.
Drivers and cyclists alike say the area, which will be under construction until mid-June, is hazardous, but Miami-Dade County officials maintain speed limits that have been lowered to 25 mph and a defined Maintenance of Traffic pattern should allow all users to share the road safely. They add there are no plans to make changes between now and the end of construction, at which point they say conditions for everyone will vastly improve.
“What happened Friday is an unfortunate event that always leads us to look more into evaluating improvements to the situation out there, but the reality is when you have bicycles and vehicles on the same traffic lane, there’s always a chance these things can happen,” said Antonio Cotarelo, County Engineer. “But with the lower speeds, I think we can maintain safe conditions.”
Indeed, when asked if the County would reconsider Village Council requests to bar repeated cyclists from Bear Cut Bridge vehicle lanes for the remaining two and a half months of construction – especially in light of the fact that Council members would likely say it’s exactly their point that “there’s always a chance these things can happen” when cars and bikes share tight quarters – Cotarelo said the option was already reviewed by County Attorneys and deemed unnecessary.
“No, not at this point,” he said. “It’s not being considered.”
Cycling groups also do not support the idea; they say riders have a right to the traffic lanes, but specific conditions on the bridge need to improve.
As that debate rages on, there was good news for Rongen: his attorney, Lee Marks, who has worked on behalf of injured cyclists for 25 years and represented the families of two riders killed on the causeway in recent years, said his client was set to be released from the hospital Tuesday.
It’s a bright spot in a troubling situation.
According to Miami-Dade Police, the March 28 accident occurred right in the middle of morning rush hour, at 7:07 a.m., on Bear Cut Bridge.
Police say both cyclist and vehicle were traveling westbound from Key Biscayne to the mainland when the cyclist merged in front of the vehicle and was struck. The accident caused significant traffic delays, prompting Key Biscayne Police to issue an alert to local motorists.
For his part, Srebnick said the group of cyclists he was riding with came up on the scene and saw Rongen, whom they all know, lying on the ground near the crest of the bridge.
Srebnick said the victim had a “massive bruise” on his left calf, and the damage to the Mercedes included a shattered windshield and missing front skirt – both, according to Srebnick, indicating the victim was hit “flush from behind” before slamming into the front of the car.
Rongen was transported by Miami-Dade Fire-Rescue to Jackson Memorial Ryder Trauma Center. County Fire-Rescue officials could not release details about his condition or injuries; but Srebnick said Rongen underwent CAT scans for bleeding in the brain, and Marks said his client also suffered severe bruising and road rash.
Miami-Dade Police said no one was ticketed in the accident, and the driver, a 64-year-old Key Biscayne man, remained at the scene.
Questions for Miami-Dade Police
Marks and Srebnick allege there’s more to it than that, and Marks has formally asked the County Police to reopen their investigation. He said he was told a supervisor would speak to the officer who handled the crash, specifically about remarks she reportedly made stating she didn’t ticket the driver because cyclists should not be in the vehicle lane, although that is allowed by state law.
Marks, who represented the families of Omar Otaola and Christophe Lecanne, cyclists who died after being struck on the causeway, said he also continues his own investigation as he considers whether to file suit against the motorist, who has not been named.
“The thing I find to be an abomination is the officer’s statement that she didn’t cite the motorist because cars have the right of way and bicyclists aren’t supposed to be on the road. They can’t circumvent state law that says a cyclist can be in the lane of traffic,” Marks said.
He is asking police to investigate citing the motorist for violating Rongen’s right of way and not providing him the mandated 3-foot buffer, and for speeding – he says damage to the vehicle and bike, including the fact that one of the bike’s tires ended up in Biscayne Bay, suggests the car was traveling 35-40 mph, well over the bridge’s 25 mph speed limit. He also wants police to try to ascertain if the motorist was distracted, perhaps by a cell phone.
“It’s incumbent on the department to reopen an investigation,” he said.
Victim put safety first
Srebnick defended Rongen, who was wearing a helmet, as a safety-minded rider.
He said he heard the driver of the Mercedes say Rongen should have been on the other side of the concrete barrier that separates a bike/pedestrian lane and also accuse him of swerving in front of traffic. But Srebnick said signs clearly state cars and bikes must share the traffic lanes on the bridge, and added, “Ricardo is a very safe bike rider. He’s an old-timer; a very cultured guy.
“He’s not a racer or anything like this. He loves cycling for the pageantry of it.”
Marks agreed: “He’s a very competent, regular cyclist out here,” he said, noting his client rides as much as 30 miles twice a day on the causeway and has for years.
Srebnick added when he found the mangled bike, its red rear safety light – used to make Rongen more visible to motorists – was still flashing.
While human error could end up the subject of a lawsuit, everyone seems to agree at least some of the blame lies with a non-human factor: roadway conditions that seem to have few defenders – at least outside County Hall.
Cyclists and motorists, who often agree on little when it comes to the Rickenbacker Casueway, both call Bear Cut Bridge a frightening place to ride and drive; Council members have time and time again publicly bemoaned the situation as a tragedy waiting to happen.
The Transit Miami cycling blog suggests Friday’s accident has eerie similarities to the crash four years ago that killed Lecanne: both were on Bear Cut Bridge, and both involved a cyclist being hit from behind. While, unlike Friday’s incident, Lecanne’s death involved a drunken driver, the blog states the similarities highlight dangerous conditions made worse by ongoing construction on the bridge.
“In the past seven years, at least three cyclists have been killed and countless others have been critically injured, yet the existing conditions on the Rickenbacker Causeway are getting more dangerous, not safer,” Transit Miami officials write.
“Crashes like these are preventable – if only our elected officials could get their act together and address the public safety crisis that is happening in front of their very own eyes.”
Srebnick also described unsafe conditions.
For one thing, he says the 25 mph speed limit is rarely followed. He also noted metal plates on the roadway’s bike lanes make it very hazardous for cyclists to ride outside the vehicle lanes – if they stay in the bike area, they’re subjected to uneven, bumpy terrain that could easily cause falls and accidents.
Harry Emilio Gottlieb, a Coconut Grove-based media consultant and avid cyclist, feels Bear Cut Bridge is likely to be the site of more injuries – or even fatalities – if conditions aren’t addressed. Gottlieb, who bikes from his home in the Grove to the Key every weekend, was very specific:
He noted the designated bike lane that leads to Bear Cut Bridge from either direction ends before crossing the bridge, and while casual cyclists may stop and cross over to use the protected pedestrian/bike area, “Serious road bike cyclists that ride at 20-plus mph will always remain on the road or in a bike lane next to the road if the surface is smooth enough for high pressure tires.”
Meanwhile, Gottlieb noted, even casual cyclists face a difficult time heading from Key Biscayne to the mainland. He noted the outgoing bike lane ends at the Bear Cut Bridge entrance, where it makes a sharp 90-degree right turn into the mangroves, leading to a rough sidewalk that goes to the newly-installed pedestrian and bike sidewalk.
“Again, a serious cyclist traveling at 20-plus mph will not take it. Those riders will now have to merge with cars in the right lane going over Bear Cut Bridge,” he said.
“If a driver can’t slow down or is distracted for second, there will be an accident.”
Gottlieb thinks a couple solutions would help:
He’d like to see crews remove a small portion of the metal barricade on the entrance to Bear Cut Bridge heading east. That would give casual cyclists safer access to the pedestrian/bike lane across the bridge without having to make a 90-degree turn, he said.
Second, Gottlieb recommends a designated bike lane for the serious road bikers when traversing Bear Cut Bridge in either direction.
County defends roadway
Cotarelo said Miami-Dade officials are aware of many of the issues cyclists brought up, and had already taken steps to improve the situation well before the March 28 accident.
The week before the accident, he said, crews installed a crosswalk at the University of Miami Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science intersection so cyclists on the south side of the causeway can cross safely to the new 14-foot-wide bike/pedestrian path on the north side of the bridge, which is separated from traffic by a concrete barrier.
And just days before the crash, Cotarelo continued, the County installed additional signage that had been requested by cyclists. He said crews placed signs before the Crandon Marina directing cyclists to the path, giving riders plenty of warning they were going to need to cross over.
Cotarelo added Gottlieb’s suggestion about removing part of the barricade was evaluated, but deemed undesirable based on two concerns: that it would give vehicles the impression they could enter the bike lane, or confuse cyclists into veering into opposing traffic.
Along with improved access to a barricaded path, Cotarelo said there were upgrades to the rest of the roadway prior to last week’s accident, in that vehicular lanes on Bear Cut Bridge were widened from 10.5 feet to 11 feet.
All of that is on top of safety measures already in place, Cotarelo said: the 25 mph speed limit, strict MOT patterns and clear signage that vehicles and bikes must “share the road,” i.e. that both are allowed within designated lanes of traffic.
With all that in mind, he said County attorneys and officials stand behind their conclusion that it is safe for cyclists and vehicles to share Bear Cut Bridge under current conditions.
He said the County would need to find “an extraordinary unsafe condition” in order to ban cyclists from the roadway during construction, and analysis has showed the area is “no different than other major roadways in Miami-Dade County” where bikes and cars coexist.
More improvement imminent
While Cotarelo defended the current conditions, he said the situation will get much, much better when construction wraps up in mid-June.
First and foremost, he said, there will be a 14-foot-wide barricaded bike/pedestrian path on both sides of Bear Cut Bridge. With the bridge being half a mile long, he noted, “That eliminates 1 mile, with both directions, of any chance of harm to bicyclists who choose to use the path. That’s a significant improvement to the Rickenbacker Causeway.”
As for the inevitability that some cyclists won’t use the path, Cotarelo said there are additional improvements: 8-foot-wide shoulders between the vehicular lanes and barricaded lane that offer safe passage for cyclists who don’t want to be inside the concrete barrier.
Cotarelo said the shoulders will also help ease concern over the metal bumps Srebnick described: he said the bumps are due to essential drains on the roadway and will be part of the 8-foot-wide shoulder, giving cyclists ample room to avoid the bumps while still staying within the bike lane.
“It will take another two and a half months to complete the project, and at that point we’ll be able to have the 14-foot pathways and the 8-foot shoulders,” Cotarelo said. “We’ll achieve a significant improvement for safety for bicyclists on Bear Cut Bridge.”