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Could A Traffic Tragedy Lead To Safer Roads For Cyclists?

LV5 Ghost Bike unveiling

LV5 Ghost Bike unveiling

On December 10, the driver of a box truck, who was later shown to have methamphetamine in his system, plowed into a group of bicyclists on their annual, 130-mile trek from Las Vegas to Nipton, California, and back.

Five of the cyclists were killed, and two others were injured, along with the driver of a safety vehicle that was accompanying the riders on U.S. 95 when the collision occurred.

Michael Anderson is a retired Las Vegas Metro Police officer who was on that ride. He told KNPR's State of Nevada that he had done the annual Nipton loop ride, as it's called, for the past 15 years.

He explained that, along the way, some of the stronger riders, including himself,  moved ahead of the group and the safety vehicle that was accompanying them.

When the lead group got near the turnoff to Searchlight, Anderson realized they had separated from the rest of the group, which had moved behind the safety vehicle to stay out of the wind. Anderson told the riders he was with to move as far as possible to the right. 

That is when a truck pulled over and told them there had been a crash.

"I'm just thinking, 'Okay, that can't be right,'" Anderson said, "I turn back around. We start to head back down, and the first thing I see is the box truck."

Anderson said he saw the driver walking in the desert, looking distraught. He asked the driver if he was hurt and told him to stay where he was.

"That's when the cop in me kicked in," said Anderson, a 22-year veteran of the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department. "I go back behind the truck, and I'm further down and then I see my friend — Gerrard (Nieva) was the first one I saw. I've seen the look of dead people, and I knew my friend was dead right then and there. Literally, I didn't even know what to think." 

Anderson found the rest of the victims in the road and in the nearby desert, along with bicycle and car parts. 

A team of medics, who were on their way to Searchlight, stopped at the crash site and started to administer first aid, but unfortunately, four more of his friends did not survive.

"After it was done, I just sat on the side (of the road), and it just kind of hit me. Twenty-two years as a cop and I couldn't do a damn thing about it," he said.

After the crash, Anderson woke up the next day and decided to focus on helping the families of his friends who were killed. He set up a Go Fund Me page and raised $20,000 in just the first few days.

"It was so empowering and so thoughtful," he said, "With everything going on — COVID, people losing their jobs, times are tough, people are losing their houses and it's Christmas time — people are still giving money."

He said the donations ranged from $5 from a little girl's piggie bank to $5,000. In the end, he distributed the raised funds to the families of the people who were killed. 

Since the crash, people have questioned whether it was appropriate for the cyclists to be on the highway. 

Anderson said many people die participating in the sport they love. 

"Should I just stop cycling because of the way that we think here in America?" Anderson said, "Our way of thinking is: The roads are built for cars, not to share... It seems adversarial every time a motorist comes up to a cyclist." 

Keely Brooks is the outgoing president of the Southern Nevada Bicycle Coalition. 

She said that under Nevada law the cyclists that were killed on December 10 were allowed to be there. Brooks noted that if there is no alternate route a cyclist can take, then he or she is allowed to use the freeway.

Also under Nevada law, motorists are required to give cyclists a three-foot buffer and move into the left lane if possible. 

"In 2011, the state of Nevada passed this law called the Three-Foot, Move Over law," Brooks explained, "What it says is, when a motorist is passing a cyclist, they should move into the adjacent lane to the left. So basically, give the same amount of room that you would give another motor vehicle."

If moving into the next lane is impossible, then a motorist should only pass a cyclist if they can give them a three-foot buffer. Brooks said that is the safe way to pass a bicyclist.

Another important law that most drivers don't know about allows cyclists to move into the lane of traffic when it is unsafe to use the bike lane or shoulder. For instance, if there are obstacles or debris in the bike lane or shoulder.

"Motorists must be educated about the fact that it is legal for cyclists to use the full lane," Brooks said.

Her organization believes that educating drivers and new riders about the rules surrounding cycling is key to improving safety for everyone.

"Our next education campaign is going to be geared towards actually new riders," she said, "We've seen that bike shops around town have sold out of bikes so we know we have a lot of new bicyclers on our roadways. Now is the time to educate new cyclists and to remind existing cyclists of safe ways to ride."

Besides education, one of the topics most discussed when it comes to bike safety is infrastructure. 

David Swallow is the deputy CEO of the Regional Transportation Commission of Southern Nevada. 

He said part of the problem is that most roads are designed exclusively for cars and the rest of the road users, like bicyclists, are an afterthought.

"I think the important thing that has happened in recent years is that we've gone from the idea of designing roadways for cars to designing roadways for people," Swallow said.

He said the idea is to design roads for the safety of all users.

Swallow also noted that a large percentage of people living in the valley do not have access to a car and the roads must be safe for everyone who uses them whether that is on foot, on a bicycle, a motorcycle or a car.

In 2017, the RTC finished its Regional Bicycle and Pedestrian Plan, which outlines a plan to increase the miles of bike and walking trails the valley already has with the ultimate goal of doubling the current number.

One of the most dramatic symbols of the December crash has been five bicycles painted white and put on display. The sculpture is part of the Ghost Bike initiative. 

A ghost bike is a bike that is painted white and placed where a fatal bike crash happened, explained Ghost Bike Las Vegas founder Pat Treichel. 

"It serves quite a few purposes," Treichel explained, "First and foremost to raise awareness and create a conversation around where cyclists had, unfortunately, been killed on the roadways."

He said it also serves as a call to action for decision-makers about making roads safer. And, it can be a place for healing for the family and friends of those killed.

Treichel said when they were trying to gather bikes for the ghost bike memorial for the people killed in December they could not find enough bikes because there were just so many victims. 

While laws, education and infrastructure are all part of the solution. Treichel said real change must come from people's mindset, an understanding that everyone using the road needs to be looked out for. 

"Being aware, being present and actually humanizing any and everybody else out there is really as much — if not more," he said, "We can put all the signs and all the laws that we want, but if people aren't paying attention" it won't make any difference.

He said it is a shared responsibility of everyone to look out for others, slow down, not drive tired or impaired, make themself visible and be safe.  

A memorial for the five cyclists will be placed outside the Las Vegas Ballpark by the  Las Vegas Cyclists Memorial

Michael Anderson, cyclist;  Keely Brooks, Outgoing President, Southern Nevada Bicycle Coalition;  David Swallow, Deputy CEO, RTC;  Pat Treichel, founder, Ghost Bikes Las Vegas

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Desert Companion welcomed Heidi Kyser as staff writer in January 2014. In 2018, she was promoted to senior writer and producer, working for both DC and State of Nevada. She produced KNPR’s first podcast, the Edward R. Murrow Regional Award-winning Native Nevada, in 2020. The following year, she returned her focus full-time to Desert Companion, becoming Deputy Editor, which meant she was next in line to take over when longtime editor Andrew Kiraly left in July 2022.