At 8 a.m. on May 31, Gail Lynne Kline rode out of Salina on her bicycle, heading west on Crawford Street — a paved county road with no shoulder and a speed limit of 55 mph. Between 8:05 and 8:45 a.m., authorities estimate, Kline was struck from behind by a driver in a large, white van, who fled the scene without reporting the accident. Her unresponsive body was discovered lying beneath her bike in the ditch by a passing motorist, both her back wheel and her shoes knocked off. She was pronounced dead later that morning at Salina Regional Health Center.
49-year-old Gail Kline did not have to die. But it was not Kline who was in the wrong. It was the driver, whose inattentiveness caused the accident and whose cowardice prevented him from reporting it, who killed Gail Kline.
Yet days after the tragic accident, Ben Wearing, executive editor of the Salina Journal, drew a different conclusion. On June 5, in an article condescendingly entitled “You’re Not Training for the Olympics,” Wearing admonished cyclists to stay off county roads.
The May 31 hit-and-run accident that killed Kline, Wearing wrote, marks “an appropriate time for us to make our annual appeal for bicyclists to stay off county roads during harvest.”
“Sharing narrow county roads with no shoulders with normal vehicle traffic is dangerous enough,” Wearing continued. “Throw in semis and other wheat trucks and farm equipment in a hurry to get through harvest, and the danger rises to the it’s-just-not-worth-it level.”
Never mind that Kline was not killed by a farmer during harvest season. Never mind that a tractor — yes, even a tractor in a hurry — hardly travels faster than a cyclist. Never mind that farmers tend to be pretty careful about driving their slow-moving, expensive farm equipment on 55 mph roads. “Whatever event you’re training for,” Wearing concludes, “it’s not worth the risk.”
Kline did everything right. A resident of nearby Delphos, Kan., Kline was participating in the Kandango bicycle tour, a three-day ride through the Smoky and Flint Hills, with 49 other riders. Other riders on the tour said the day was sunny and visibility was not a problem, according to a June 1 Salina Journal article by Tim Unruh. Although riding alone, she departed just minutes before a friend with plans to meet up later along the route, a common practice on tours when some participants are slower than others.
Oh, and she was wearing a helmet.
To Wearing, Kline was taking an unnecessary risk. In the end, of course, she’s the one who made the decision to ride her bike legally on a public road with appropriate safety equipment and after notifying her loved ones of her intentions. She was basically asking for it.
That was sarcasm. Ben Wearing is trying to blame the victim here, and that is not OK.
Kline is just one of hundreds of Americans killed each year in accidents with motor vehicles. Bicyclists’ deaths made up 2.1 percent of all motor vehicle accident fatalities in 2011, when 677 cyclists were killed and 48,000 injured in automobile accidents, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Wearing argues that cyclists put themselves at risk by riding on county roads — which, according to the same statistics, are far safer than urban roads to ride on — and suggests that instead, they ride in town or in an enclosed area. I would argue that drivers put cyclists at risk when they RUN THEM OVER WITH THEIR CARS.
Wearing’s “appeal” to cyclists is nothing short of shameful. In the wake of this tragedy, Wearing’s choice to place responsibility for bicycle-automobile collisions on the cyclists is unacceptable. Cyclists have the legal right to ride on any road they wish, with the exception of interstate highways. It is not the responsibility of cyclists to avoid fatal collisions by not riding their bikes on county roads. It absolutely is the responsibility of the driver behind the wheel of a thousand-pound vehicle traveling upwards of 50 mph to pay attention to the road and give cyclists a safe berth of at least three feet.
Twelve hours after Kline’s death, 62-year-old Lewis Grider was arrested and charged with involuntary manslaughter. According to a June 10 Salina Journal article, the investigation is ongoing but no additional charges have been filed. As Grider’s attorney Roger Struble stated, “Not every accident is a crime.”
Wearing’s original article has been assaulted by more than 150 commenters. Wearing also wrote another column, apparently published at the same time. In the second article, Wearing asks readers to “imagine that you were the one who hit the cyclist and how that would affect your life. Now try to imagine living with that.”
Instead, I’d like to ask Ben Wearing to imagine this: you are legally and safely riding your bike on a quiet county road during an organized bike tour.
Now try to imagine a driver doesn’t strike you from behind and kill you and some idiot doesn’t write a column implicitly blaming you for your own death.
Wouldn’t that be nice?
Katie Goerl is a graduate student in history. Please send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.