Sunday, March 29, 2009

Memorial held for fallen cyclist in Sparta

The memorial for fallen cyclist Bent Rasmussen, 78, was held this Saturday in Sparta, NJ.

About 50 riders took to the narrow streets of Sparta around Lake Mohawk to celebrate the avid cyclist's life.

Organized by Andreas Meyer who grew up a few doors down from Rasmussen and his family, the group traveled 3.5 miles from Beach 6 along Lake Mohawk, to the center of town to the location where Rasmussen was hit and killed on March 1 of this year.

Meyer was joined by his sister Sandra, Rasmussen's daughter Karen, and a host of friends, family and acquaintances who came to pay their respects for the man who used to be seen every day on his bike.

Local officers from the Sparta Police Dept., sealed off major roadways with flashing lights so the cyclists could pass through big intersections and not be subjected to the same dangerous conditions that Rasmussen encountered on that day.

His accident occurred in front of the Sparta town hall on Rte. 181 where traffic calming "neckdowns" into the roadway had recently been built.

Though Rasmussen was said to be aware of the "neckdowns" some friends have said the driver of the school bus that hit him did not give Rasmussen enough space when it passed.

The roadway in that location--and over much of the town of Sparta-- is so narrow as to require that any car passing would have to move out into the other lane over a double yellow line. "That would be illegal," noted Sgt. Beebe of the Sparta Police, though he acknowledged that the school bus driver that hit Rasmussen should have slowed if it had been unsafe to pass.

When Rasmussen was allegedly hit by the bus's mirror, it threw him several feet, and he died at the scene of the accident from head injuries. The accident is being investigated by the Sparta Police Dept. and the Sussex County Prosecutor's Office, said Beebe.

Meyer was the first to speak in front of the ghost bike he had constructed at the scene. Describing his friend he said, "He was always running, on the boat, on the lake...We had a lot of fun with our families together."

But turning to the seriousness of his accident, Meyer said, "But it is unfortunate that something like this should happen to someone so vibrant and full of life."

He also spoke about how accidents like Rasmussen's are becoming more the norm when instead it should be getting safer for cyclists. "It's only getting worse," said Meyer. "In 2008 cyclist deaths In New Jersey increased by 100%. This is the main road to the school, I mean your kids ride this road."

Rasmussen's daughter Karen also spoke as she fought back tears, "It really touches my heart" to see everyone here, she said. Beside her stood her partner, Karen Schuler Hill and their son Miller Rasmussen.

One of Rasmussen's neighbors, Gabriela Arnold, who was there with her husband Chris, said her four sons were inspired by the dedicated cyclist. especially her youngest son Pablo who is 16 who started riding a bike because of the elder cyclist's example. "We saw him every morning on his bike, and every time I saw him I said to myself, 'Okay, I have to go exercise today,'" said Arnold.

But despite the bucolic character of the area about 50 miles west of the George Washington Bridge, which is surrounded by tree-lined streets of picturesque lake houses, the roads are very dangerous she said. Majestic homes ranging in price from $300,000 to $3.0 million line the 8.5 mile perimeter of the lake, many of them with the red shutters and wooden trim reminiscent of Swiss and German chalets.

Birds flying overhead evoke a European vacation spa, but the speeding drivers along the perimeter are more like Mario Andretti, the race car driver whose name became synonymous with speed according to Wikipedia, at the Indianapolis 500 during his glory days.

Although the West Shore drive of the lake is dotted with speed humps, they are the American variety, low and long, and possibly ineffective compared to international versions which are steeper and shorter. (A site called TrafficCalming.org, deems speed humps effective, but also details a long list of complaints, among them, damage to cars. The site also says they can be dangerous to cyclists, but on the contrary, traffic humps become less effective the smaller the vehicle, and we rode the west shore and used the humps for "wheeing".)

Along the East Shore of the lake, where the Meyers and Rasmussens live, there are no speed humps, and there were no visible traffic calming measures in Sparta town other than the noted "neckdowns".

"There is no space," said Arnold. Even when she walks along the East and West Shore lake roads, where the speed limit is 35 mph, she said "the cars go too close, and they don't slow down." She said that last year a woman walking with a baby carriage was hit by a car that came too close.

"Sometimes we just want to give them the finger," she said. Arnold said that the dangerous conditions mean that many residents won't let their kids ride bicycles.

Nan Humes, a neighbor said she always saw Rasmussen on his bike so when she heard about his accident she was in shock: "I just didn't understand how it happened," she said.

Hotvelociti donated a red bike jersey called, Arrestado por el amor al ciclismo. The jersey was passed around and friends and neighbors signed their good-byes to Rasmussen. Karen Rasmussen said she would take the jersey home and frame it as a memory of her father.

Sgt. Beebe of the Sparta Police who was helping guide the event and insure rider safety pointed out the spots on the pavement where Rasmussen had landed, which were boldly spray painted in green. "It was a terrible tragedy," said Beebe, who had known Rasmussen his whole life. "The roads are very congested and it is the responsibility of everybody to drive safely," he said, referring also to cyclists.

When asked if he thought a new law recently introduced into the state legislature that would require motorists to give cyclists a minimum of three feet when passing, would help safety in Sparta, Beebe said, "Anything would help."

Indeed, if the school bus had given Rasmussen three feet, perhaps he would not have been hit said some who attended the memorial.

Andrew Besold who traveled over one and a half hours from New Brunswick came with his folding green Brompton. He introduced the memorial riders to a new organization, Walk-Bike New Jersey that he hopes will help push the safe-passing law through both houses. After the event, cards were exchanged, and email messages sent:

"Can you send me info on how to help pass the bills? " wrote Gabriela Arnold to BBB.

Here is their address: ajbesold@yahoo.com

The following bill was introduced by Senators Oroho (Sparta) and Stack:

AN ACT concerning the operation of motor vehicles in certain cases and
supplementing Title 39 of the Revised Statutes.
Requires motorists operating vehicles to maintain minimum three foot
safety distance when overtaking bicycles.
AN ACT concerning the operation of motor vehicles in certain cases and
supplementing Title 39 of the Revised Statutes.
BE IT ENACTED by the Senate and General Assembly of the State of New
Jersey:
1. The driver of a vehicle overtaking a bicycle proceeding in the
same direction shall leave a safe distance between the motor vehicle
and the bicycle of not less than three feet until the motor vehicle
has safely passed the bicycle. Any person violating the provisions of
this section shall be subject to a fine of $100.
2. This act shall take effect immediately.
STATEMENT
This bill would require motorists to maintain a distance of at least
three feet when overtaking a bicycle that is travelling in the same
direction. The bill provides for a fine of $100 for violating the
three foot minimum distance requirement while overtaking cyclists.
Requires motorists operating vehicles to maintain minimum three foot
safety distance when overtaking bicycles.

For more pictures to this event, please go to Picasa:
Bent Rasmussen's Memorial in Sparta, NJ March 28, 2009

3 comments:

Anonymous said...

"require that any car passing would have to move out into the other lane over a double yellow line. "That would be illegal," noted Sgt. Beebe of the Sparta Police" ---Is'nt that Baloney? Cars do need to cross the yellow to pass cyclists in many many situations. Thats not illegal is it??
-Dean

Anonymous said...

Great post by the way.
-Dean

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