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Death puts new emphasis on safety concerns
May. 8, 1999
MARY CALLAHAN Press Democrat Staff Writer
A Santa Rosa man killed on what some bicyclists say may the most dangerous stretch of road in town has reignited hopes for improvements aimed at making Bennett Valley Road safer for cyclists, pedestrians and others.
Advocates say they've longed to travel in safety and security along the narrow road -- gateway to a winding rural route that leads both east and south -- but most say they don't dare for fear they'd confront the same fate that Thursday ended the life of Vy Chantharangsy, 40.
His younger sister, Maya Chantharangsy, said he used a bike as his primary mode of transportation because of a lifelong struggle with epilepsy that prevented him from driving a car. Family members believe he was in the area to pick up his biweekly prescription of seizure pills at a drugstore on Farmers Lane.
"The only reason he would be out there was just to do that,'' Maya Chantharangsy said. But the pills had his seizures well under control, and family members don't believe his illness caused the accident, she said.
"He had a lot of friends. He was just a wonderful guy. He wouldn't even hurt a fly, and he was such a helpful person,'' she said. "This is such a tragedy that this had to happen to him.''
Chantharangsy was killed on the narrow, winding stretch of Bennett Valley Road between Farmers Lane and Yulupa Avenue, a distance of less than two miles. Cyclists and pedestrians can avoid that link by using city streets to the north, including Tachevah and Bethards drives, Creekside Road and Hoen Avenue.
Traffic is an increasing concern on Bennett Valley Road because more and more motorists are using the road as a shortcut and commute route, according to those who know it well.
"Bennett Valley Raceway. At least in our household, that's what we call it,'' said Gail Judge, who lives with her husband, Joe, and their family on Bennett Valley Road at Holland Drive.
"The only reason this hasn't happened sooner,'' said neighbor and cyclist Valerie Welch, "is because so many cyclists are afraid of riding on Bennett Valley Road. It's deadly.''
While it appears a new signal light may help regulate traffic, the road's designation as a scenic highway, intended to guarantee preservation of its rural character, makes widening or bike lanes unlikely, if not impossible, Santa Rosa city traffic engineer Gene Benton said.
"The scenic roadway standard is a very difficult one because it doesn't allow for bicycles easily,'' he said.
Police still don't know precisely what led to Chantharangsy's death -- whether he fell under the wheels of the pickup that killed him or was struck from behind, Cmdr. Rod Sverko said.
At least one witness reported having seen him riding out in the lane just before the 2:50 p.m. accident, which occurred about one-tenth of a mile east of Farmers Lane.
The edge of the road drops off sharply at least six inches just outside the white line that defines the lane at the point where Chantharangsy was killed, and there would have been nowhere for him to go if someone tried to pass him.
Somehow, he was run over only by the rear dual wheels of the large pickup, causing "massive injuries,'' Sverko said.
It's possible, police said, he suddenly swerved or tumbled under or into the path of the pickup, driven by Joan Pomeroy, 35, of Santa Rosa. Authorities also are waiting for post-mortem tests that could point to a medical cause and want to ensure he wasn't under the influence of alcohol or drugs.
Though sickened by knowing the conditions they've complained about for years have now resulted in death, some area residents and cyclists said they hope it brings momentum to their efforts to improve travel along the road.
Welch would be happy if folks would simply drive slower.
Joseph Judge, whose activism helped move big rigs off Bennett Valley Road and build a crosswalk at nearby Yulupa Avenue and Tachevah Drive, is among a group of people circulating a petition to expedite installation of a signal at Tachevah and Bennett Valley.
City staffers have recommended the intersection be improved sometime soon, likely in the year 2001-02, Benton said. But city officials have final say over when the estimated $150,000 job will be completed.
Judge said enough signatures could be persuasive in ranking the intersection higher on the council's prioritized list of projects.
Cyclist Martha Barton, chairwoman of the Sonoma County Bicycle and Pedestrian Advisory Committee (and a Santa Rosa Cycling Club member)-- a panel she joined specifically "because I'm so afraid of that road'' -- said the committee's countywide bike plan also calls for some effort to make room for cyclists along the length of Bennett Valley Road.
The Board of Supervisors, which approved the plan in 1996 and controls the road east of Galvin Community Park at the city's eastern edge, has been swayed by limitations of the scenic route designation and complaints from some Bennett Valley residents who fear any improvement will just make traffic worse, she and former Advisory Committee chairman Ken Wells said.
But Wells said it seems feasible to consider adding shoulders along the road without disturbing its scenic nature or necessarily breaking the bank.
"It would be nice if this particular, unfortunate, tragic accident would shine some light on bicycling issues,'' said Wells.
"As Santa Rosa becomes more like a city and less like a town,'' Santa Rosa Cyclery owner Randy Carpenter said, "they are going to have to pay more attention to these issues. Bicycle thoroughfares just aren't seen as a high priority.''
By JODY KLEINBERG Press Democrat Staff Writer
A cyclist riding along a narrow stretch of Bennett Valley Road was hit and killed by a pickup Thursday afternoon in Santa Rosa.
Investigators are still trying to determine who was at fault in the 2:50 p.m. crash and whether the cyclist fell into the path of the truck or was hit on the edge of the road.
Bennett Valley Road is a narrow roadway and the cyclist was riding close to the right edge of the roadway, said Santa Rosa Police Sgt. Tom Swearingen. At the edge of the roadway, where the pavement ends, there is a four- to six-inch drop to a gravel shoulder.
The drop-off may have made the cyclist wobble or fall into the truck, Swearingen said. At least five people saw the crash and investigators were trying to piece together their stories Thursday night and compare them to evidence at the scene.
man, who police were still struggling to identify Thursday night,
was traveling westbound on Bennett Valley Road when he was hit by
a 1998 Dodge Ram driven by Joan Pomeroy, 35, of Santa Rosa.
He died at the scene. He was carrying no identification, but had a fishing license with an address on it, Swearingen said.
Pomeroy was not injured in the crash and there was no damage to her truck, Swearingen said. She was traveling 30 mph, in an area with a 40 mph speed limit, according to police.
Residents of the area say the road is popular among cyclists and that safety has been an issue in the past. Valerie Welch, who lives on Bennett Valley Road between Tachevah and Bethards drives, said she rides on the road every day and is concerned that cars drive too fast and do not watch out for cyclists.
She said several of her friends called her house on Thursday, terrified that she had been in an accident.
Investigators closed Bennett Valley Road between Farmers Lane and Tachevah Drive for three hours.