Friday, January 19, 2018
Human Interest

No penalty for driver who hit bicycle advocate Alan Snel, infuriating cyclists

Alan Snel, one of Florida's most well-known advocates for bicycling and safety, is recovering from his injuries after a motorist hit him from behind while he was riding his bike March 7.

And he's furious that the motorist who hit him, 65-year-old Dennis Brophy of Fort Pierce, didn't even get a traffic ticket.

According to the St. Lucie County Sheriff's Office crash report, Brophy was in the process of inhaling "a breathing treatment" when he drove his car into the back of Snel's bicycle on Old Dixie Highway near Fort Pierce shortly after 8 a.m.

According to the report, Brophy stated he was "blinded by the light and never saw the bicyclist until he hit him." He told the deputy he "suffered from extreme sleep apnea." The report listed the driver as "inattentive" and his condition at the time of crash as "fatigue/asleep."

But no citation was issued.

"Florida is a no-fault state," said Deputy Bryan Beaty, spokesman for the St. Lucie County Sheriff's Office. "He didn't intentionally hit the bicyclist and there's no evidence that indicates he purposely set out that day to go and run over a bicyclist.

"At this point it really is a civil dispute between both parties involved," Beaty said.

With Florida leading the nation in bicycle deaths, is there nothing law enforcement can do?

"That's not a question for a local law enforcement agency to answer," Beaty said. "That's a question for the Legislature to address."

Many outraged bicyclists have poured thousands into a YouCaring fundraising link to help Snel with his living expenses while he recovers with a fractured spine and deep bruises.

Snel, a former reporter with the Tampa Tribune, co-founded the Seminole Heights Bicycle Club and created South West Florida Bicycle United Dealers, a bicycling advocacy group. Bike dealers and lawyers in SWFBUD paid Snel to lobby and organize.

As an advocate, he has never been shy about calling out leaders like Tampa Mayor Pam Iorio when she eliminated a planned bike lane. He put her office number on Facebook and corralled bicyclists to flood her with calls to make bicycle safety a priority.

Now his own case is infuriating the bicycling community.

"We have an experienced cyclist, who follows the rules, was riding alone and struck from behind by a admittedly distracted, fatigued driver," avid Tampa bicyclist Jerry Nepon-Sixt wrote on Snel's Facebook page.

Florida is the most hostile state in the nation to bicyclists. It has the highest rate of bicycling deaths by far, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. At 7.4 fatalities per million people in 2015, the bike death rate in the Sunshine State is almost three times the national average of 2.5.

The state developed a plan for tackling the issue in the Florida Pedestrian and Bicycle Strategic Safety Plan, a 45-page report issued in 2013 by the Department of Transportation and the University of South Florida through its Center for Urban Transportation Research.

The report said the solution lies in the three E's: engineering, education and enforcement.

Stephen Benson, a transportation planner who specializes in bicycle and pedestrian safety for the FDOT's Tampa Bay district, said making Florida a more bike-friendly state is "a huge undertaking."

"Change takes time," he said. "We're trying to do it through engineering. Every time we resurface a roadway, we are looking for an opportunity to put in bike lanes."

He pointed to the protected bike lane coming this fall to downtown Tampa's Jackson Street, which is also State Road 60, the first state road to get such a feature. There's also a new protected bike lane on Cass Street in Tampa and on the Courtney Campbell Causeway. And the Coast to Coast Trail, linking bike trails across the state, is within five years of completion. When finished, you could ride a bike from the Pinellas Trail across the state to Titusville.

"It's really not just us, all the Sunbelt states have experienced tremendous growth, and our infrastructure wasn't ready for it," Benson said. "The system wasn't built for people to walk and retrofitting is expensive and disruptive."

Meanwhile, bicyclists have been feeling deflated that someone as safety conscious as Snel couldn't avoid a wreck.

"If anything comes out of this crash, I hope it's that advocates force our legislators to come to grips with this issue," Snel said from his home in Vero Beach, "because all we see in Florida is lip service."

But those advocates will have to do it without him.

Snel is leaving the state and will return to Las Vegas, where he had last worked.

"The motorist who knocked me out cold and didn't even receive a ticket for his careless driving was the final straw," he said.

Nevada is also a state that is debating a new law that would stiffen penalties for careless drivers who maim cyclists.

"I'm pretty jaded and cynical," Snel said. "Until someone that is personally close to a lawmaker is hurt or maimed or killed, we probably won't see any profound kind of movement on this issue."

Contact Sharon Kennedy Wynne at [email protected] Follow @SharonKWn.

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