State Road A1A at Atlantic Avenue in Delray Beach often is jammed with vehicles, and the county Transportation Planning Agency labels it a ‘high-crash corridor’ for bicyclists even though it has bike lanes. Tim Stepien/The Coastal Star BELOW RIGHT: Steve Barry, needed extensive rehab after a crash in Manalapan. Photo provided
The Jeep SUV struck Jerry Mandello first. Its side mirror sheared off a piece of his left ear and launched Mandello and his bicycle into the hedges outside an estate along State Road A1A in Manalapan.
Steve Barry, pedaling south in front of Mandello, was hit next. The SUV smashed into the rear wheel of his black S-Works bicycle, split the bike in two and dragged Barry several yards along the pavement as two other cyclists in their group of four watched in horror.
Mandello, before fetching the severed chunk of his ear from the side of the road (doctors would sew it back on), ran to his friend.
“His bike was a pretzel and his legs were shredded,’’ he recalled. “I’m shaking him. He’s not moving for a while. I thought he was gone.’’
But Barry, a former Navy officer who did reconnaissance river patrols in the jungles of Vietnam before becoming a successful West Palm Beach accountant, might be the epitome of resiliency. A devoted cyclist, he also climbs ice walls in Montana and snowboards from helicopters on unbroken British Columbia powder.
“One tough dude,’’ said Mandello, who snapped a photo of Barry sitting on the curb after he regained consciousness, his legs black and bloody, a slight grin on his face.
When Barry came to, he looked at his legs and saw gashes with exposed bone and shredded muscle.
“It wasn’t pretty,’’ said Barry, who had his football-damaged knees replaced in 2013.
“As I got thrown off the bike, my pedal and shoe stayed on my foot and separated from the bike. The whole frame was broken in half and there were ragged pieces of carbon everywhere. My legs got sliced and diced on the inside because as I went off the bike I must have hit these carbon pieces that were split sideways.’’
The driver of the 1995 Cherokee, an 80-year-old Briny Breezes man, tried to leave the scene, but Barry’s companions blocked his vehicle with their bikes until police arrived.
He was cited for careless driving that day, Feb. 11, 2020. He said he was headed south at 5 p.m. “behind a large line of vehicles when he suddenly heard a thud on the side of his car,’’ according to a Manalapan police report.
He pleaded not guilty. That summer, a judge dismissed the case because the officer who issued the citation failed to attend the driver’s traffic infraction trial, which was held on Zoom, court records show.
By then, Barry was in Big Sky, Montana, going through grueling physical therapy sessions that helped him regain his strength after his wounds were closed with 400 staples and 300 stitches.
“I won’t go back onto the road,’’ said Barry, who mounted the mangled pieces of the bike on the wall of his garage as a reminder. “It’s not worth the risk.”
A1A seen as dangerous
Avid cyclists like Barry have long known that Palm Beach County, in particular the scenic coastal stretches of A1A, can be a dangerous place to ride. But recent statistics show a disturbing trend in fatalities.
Eleven bicyclists were killed in 2020, more than double the number of such fatalities recorded in 2019, according to the Florida Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles.
And with three fatalities through March, the county had been on pace to exceed 2020’s deadly toll. There were no fatalities in April and none through late May.
Legislation awaiting Gov. Ron DeSantis’ signature may help keep those numbers down. If signed, the proposed law set to go into effect on July 1 will add several safety initiatives, including a requirement for drivers to stay behind bicyclists if there’s no room to pass.
The rise in bicyclist as well as pedestrian deaths is probably part of a national trend related to the coronavirus pandemic.
“You have a lot more people that are using bicycling and walking as their escape from the pandemic lockup,” said Ocean Ridge Police Chief Hal Hutchins. “When you put more folks on the roadways, it becomes more important for everyone to be careful and follow the rules.’’
But following the rules is not something drivers and bicyclists do on a consistent basis.
Though bicyclists and pedestrians represent just 2% of commuters in Palm Beach County, they made up 30% of all transportation-related fatalities on county roadways from 2018-2020, according to the Palm Beach Transportation Planning Agency.
“These are our most vulnerable users and they’re a large, disproportionate share of the total fatalities,’’ Andrew Uhlir, the agency’s director of program development, said at a TPA governing board meeting in February.
“We are not heading in the correct direction when it comes to safety.’’
Among the deadliest states for bicyclists, Florida has consistently ranked at or near the top. In 2019, Florida’s 161 bicycle deaths were the highest in the nation, 28 more than No. 2 California had.
In Palm Beach County, a 2017 Pedestrian and Bicycle Safety Study by the Palm Beach TPA identified 10 “high-crash corridors.’’ Only one was an area frequented by road cyclists — Ocean Boulevard from Thomas Street (just north of Atlantic Avenue) to Linton Boulevard in Delray Beach.
The other nine “high-crash corridors” were in areas where people ride on generally slower bikes.
Riders can be at fault
It’s not always the motorist’s fault.
Bicyclists don’t always wear proper safety gear and don’t always obey traffic laws, taking chances by crossing busy streets against red lights.
“A lot of it we see is no helmet, safety gear missing, no lights at night. Improper clothing, the color of clothing when you ride your bike and dusk or dawn hours,’’ Delray Beach police Sgt. Hannes Schoeferle said.
And on State Road A1A, cyclists sometimes ride in packs, taking up the travel lane. This can happen even if they abide by the law and ride no more than two abreast.
In South County, Delray Beach and Boca Raton have designated bike lanes on A1A, whereas other municipalities have only shoulders of varying widths. The Gulf Stream and Manalapan shoulders are the narrowest.
“Right or wrong — wrong, obviously — at some point the motorist is really getting worked up,’’ Schoeferle said. “It’s an emotional issue, and they’re going to start passing in a reckless manner. This is when we see crashes.’’
In Ocean Ridge, town officials included in a May newsletter for residents a list of bike safety tips in observance of National Bike Month.
“It is incumbent on all of them to do their part to share what’s available for safe travel and according to the law,’’ Chief Hutchins said.
“Are the bicycle packs of particular concern? I would say some of them are. But so are motorists who don’t follow the rules of the road pertaining to sharing the traffic ways with bicyclists.’’
Many bike clubs remind their members about the rules and how cyclists are supposed to obey the same traffic laws that apply to motor vehicles.
Road design a problem
A big problem is the fact that just about all roads were designed for motor vehicles, not for cyclists.
On most parts of A1A, the predominant place for road cyclists on the barrier island, there are no bike lanes. Cyclists are forced to ride on the shoulder, potentially inches from motor vehicles and often over hazards such as sewer holes and traffic reflectors.
“The road is just not built for cyclists,’’ said Kristy Breslaw of Boca Raton Triathletes. “There is a lot of distracted driving. There’s a lot of people not paying attention when they’re driving.’’
Cut off suddenly
On the morning of July 6, 2018, Sandra Prestia was enjoying “a beautiful ride” as she pedaled south on State Road A1A in Manalapan.
Without warning, a white construction van heading north turned in front of her to enter a condo building on the west side of the road.
“I saw white and then I was in an ambulance,’’ said Prestia, a triathlete who has been riding competitively for 11 years.
The impact snapped her bike in two, but that wasn’t the only damage.
“I T-boned him. It was like my face made an imprint in the van,’’ said Prestia, 41, who was rushed to Delray Medical Center with a concussion.
“My top lip was in three pieces. A plastic surgeon had to sew my lip back together. I had bruises on my knees and legs for at least six months.’’
She didn’t break any bones. But the crash resulted in $70,000 in medical bills, most of it paid by her insurance.
The driver of the van stopped to offer help and, according to what the police told Prestia, “he apologized profusely.’’
Still, she can’t understand how he didn’t see her.
“It was 8 a.m. The roads were completely empty,’’ she said. “There was nothing to take his attention away and not to see me. He just turned in front of me.’’
Six weeks later, she was back on her bike.
“Am I overly cautious now? Oh, yeah,’’ she said. “But to stop doing what I love, cycling, I don’t want to live like that.’’
Rules to change in July
Florida bicyclists will get some added layers of protection in the form of safety changes expected to become law in July.
A bill approved by lawmakers in the recent session would require drivers to change lanes when approaching a bicyclist or pedestrian in the travel lane and, if they cannot safely change lanes, wait at a safe distance behind the bicyclist or pedestrian until there is room to pass.
The current law, section 316.803 of the Florida Statutes, requires drivers to be at least 3 feet from a cyclist when passing, but it makes no provisions for waiting if there’s no room to pass. Safety advocates note that few roads in Florida are wide enough for drivers to obey the 3-foot rule, which is why drivers often ignore it and pass dangerously close to cyclists.
The new law — sponsored by Sen. Lauren Book, D-Plantation, with a companion bill sponsored by state Rep. Christine Hunschofsky, D-Parkland — has an educational aspect. The Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles will be required to launch a public awareness campaign informing motorists about required safety precautions when passing bikes and pedestrians.
The department also will have to include the precautions in driver’s license educational materials and to devote 20% of the questions for the driver’s license tests to bicycle and pedestrian safety.
“This legislation is probably some of the most progressive we have seen,’’ said George C. Palaidis, a Plantation-based attorney and avid bicyclist who often rides from Key Biscayne to Palm Beach.
“For the first time there is a definition of a bicycle lane in the statutes. And the educational aspect of it is huge. There’s still a lot of work that needs to be done but it’s a giant step in the right direction.’’
A similar incident
Pedaling north on A1A with another cyclist, Rhonda Wright saw a white car pass them.
“I was in the lead position,” recalled Wright, who was about a mile south of the Lake Worth Beach pier on the morning of July 7, 2019.
“And he just turned straight in front of me to go into a driveway.’’
With nowhere to go, Wright slammed the brakes. “I tried to pull my bike down to the right to get out of his way and I went straight into the side of him,’’ she said.
Her bike’s aero bars — an extension mounted close to the center of the handlebar that cantilevers out over the front of the wheel — got caught under the car’s front wheel. Wright was dragged 25 feet across the asphalt before the car stopped.
“My left arm got dragged along the side and I was half underneath his car. I turned onto my bike and thought, ‘I’ve got to get out of here.’ As I flipped myself around, my hand got caught under the car.’’
Her right hand was broken. Her left shoulder dislocated and the labrum was torn. Her helmet was smashed.
“My broken helmet saved me from severe head trauma,’’ said Wright, 66.
She missed two months of work as a home health care aide. She had hand surgery and racked up close to $80,000 in medical bills.
“I can’t hold weights and things like I used to because I have permanent screws and pins in my hand,’’ she said.
She said the driver, “an elderly guy” who worked as a condo security guard, was cited for reckless driving.
“He said he didn’t see us. He was probably in his 80s and I don’t think his peripheral vision was very good,’’ Wright said.
Wright, a triathlete who lives in Boca Raton, still rides competitively but only in races where the roads are closed to motorists.
“I will not ride on A1A because it’s not safe,’’ she said. “You have people out there who have no respect for bikers at all. It’s really a sin.’’
Vision Zero: Safety for all
The Palm Beach Transportation Planning Agency is working on ways to protect bicyclists and pedestrians. For one, most new roads in the county are now built with bike lanes.
The Florida Department of Transportation led with changes to its design manual for state roads in the early 2010s and Palm Beach County followed, including bike lanes in its county roadway standards in 2018.
“The TPA Board has also adopted a Complete Streets Policy and a Vision Zero commitment to ensure that all transportation projects funded by the TPA include safe and comfortable facilities for transportation users of all ages and abilities,’’ said TPA Executive Director Nick Uhren.
But more needs to be done, said Robert Weinroth, the Palm Beach County Commission’s vice mayor whose district includes the coastal communities from South Palm Beach to Boca Raton.
He called on local leaders to take “a more proactive approach” aimed at preventing bike and pedestrian accidents, similar to the intense focus investigators give to airline crashes.
“We know statistics don’t fully represent the pain that’s being inflicted on the victims and families of these tragic events,’’ Weinroth said at a recent TPA governing board meeting.
“We need to drill down into these incidents to figure out what it is that is common about these accidents that are causing the carnage on our roadways and what can we do in fixes rather than just continually look at the wrong direction of these trends.’’
Death is a cautionary tale
Steve Brown loved his family, his friends and his bicycle.
He enjoyed back-road biking adventures with his wife, Dana, and riding around his Boca Raton neighborhood and to the beach for exercise. And as the affable co-founder of Brown’s Interiors, he took any opportunity he could to leave the car at home and pedal to a client’s house with a swatch or sample.
On the morning of April 9, 2014, Brown strapped on his bike helmet and set off to see another client. He was bicycling north on the shoulder of Lyons Road around 9 a.m. when a 68-year-old woman driving a minivan lost control and struck Brown from behind. Brown hit the windshield and was thrown onto the sidewalk. He was pronounced dead at the scene, less than 3 miles from home. He was 58.
More than 1,500 people attended his funeral. His death inspired congregants at Temple Beth El in Boca Raton to launch an annual charity bike ride in his memory.
But seven years later, his family remains scarred from the tragedy.
“It affects us every day,’’ said Andrew Brown, a son. “He was head of the family. Head of the business. My mom and him had been happily married for many, many years. They were high school and college sweethearts. My sister was pregnant at the time of the accident, so he never got to see his first grandchild. It was devastating on the family.’’
The driver, Marion Rosenstein, pleaded no contest and was found guilty of unlawfully overtaking and passing a vehicle. Her driver’s license was permanently revoked and she was ordered to complete 120 hours of community service.
In 2011, Rosenstein was cited for running a red light and causing a crash, court records show.
“South Florida can be a hard place to live because it’s so beautiful and you want to bike all day every day, but it’s just … these cars,’’ said Susan Brown Siegel, a daughter.
“I just can’t handle distracted drivers on the road,’’ she continued. “Listen, I know every single person checks their cellphones, but you never think it’s going to be you. I never thought it would happen to my dad. He rode his bike but he wasn’t one of those cyclists on A1A. It was just awful.’’
Brown’s family has been speaking out about the need for better safety measures such as more dedicated bike lanes or even barriers separating cars from bikes.
As for the trend of bicycle fatalities, the Brown family is not surprised.
“The numbers will keep going up because not enough preventive action is being taken and more and more people are using bicycles, especially during the pandemic,’’ said Andrew Brown.
“Unless measures are taken on the safety prevention side, the numbers are going to keep going up. There’s just no way around that.’’