Bicycling experts who viewed a video Friday of an April collision between a cyclist and a New Mexico Rail Runner Express train agree that a safety gate would have prevented the fatality.

“There’s almost no question in my mind that it would have made a difference in that scenario,” said Tim Rogers, an avid bicyclist who helped craft the city’s master bike plan. “It’s really hard to say what else could have helped. I think any crash has multiple causes.”

The safety gate, Rogers said, probably would have stopped Suzanne LeBeau, 60, who had ridden across St. Francis Drive, then along a trail next to Zia Road and directly into the path of the southbound train. Officer Patrick Sanchez of the Santa Fe Police Department concluded in a report that the “train did not have time to stop before striking the bicyclist” at about 11 a.m. April 19.

LeBeau’s sister, Janet Bostelmann, said the family plans to petition the state to add additional safety measures at the crossing. Gates block traffic on Zia Road while a train is passing, but there are no barriers to riders and pedestrians crossing the tracks. Bostelmann has said she wants a safety gate installed at the trail, or she wants the train to blow its whistle as it passes through the intersection.

The New Mexico Department of Transportation said Thursday that the agency is “looking into” the incident, but “no findings or decisions have been made.”

In a video recorded by the train, LeBeau is seen riding through the intersection on St. Francis Drive before reaching the Rail Trail. She appears to look at the train for a brief moment when her front tire hits a yellow rumble strip at the rail crossing, and in the span of a second, she jerks the handle bars as if she is trying to adjust her trajectory. Then LeBeau disappears below the camera’s view.

Rogers said the incident was unusual, but “foreseeable with a hazardous outcome.” And he said the government often tries to prevent foreseeable accidents — for instance, treacherous roadways are usually equipped with guardrails.

Rogers previously has said that the Department of Transportation didn’t install safety equipment on the Rail Trail because officials deemed the flashing lights, ringing bells and nearby security arms on Zia Road enough to alert pedestrians and cyclists of an oncoming train.

But safety measures can only go so far, said Stephen Newhall, a bicycling safety instructor and a manager at local bike shop, Rob and Charlie’s.

“I am still utterly mystified,” Newhall said. “There are times in life when we don’t end up with good answers. The only thing I can think of is that she was trying to beat the train.”

Newhall said he appreciates the family’s desire to install a safety gate at the crossing, but it comes down to spending priorities. He said prior to the accident, no one had raised concerns about the crossing. He said LeBeau’s death could have been “one of those one in 10 million chances.”

And gates would be costly. In Santa Fe alone, Newhall said, there are several similar crossings: near Rodeo Road, St. Michael’s Drive and the crisscrossed web that is the St. Francis Drive and Cerrillos Road intersection.

Clemente McFarlane, also an avid cyclist and the owner of Sirius Cycles off Rodeo Road, said he thought, based on the video, that LeBeau simply failed to see the train until the last moment — at which point it was too late.

“She doesn’t slow down fast enough,” McFarlane said. “It does look like she wanted to stop.”

Instead of gates, he proposes a simpler measure — a flashing light on the trail rigged to the security bars. He said such a measure would be in a rider’s immediate sightline, and he believes it would be cheaper than installing safety gates.

McFarlane also said he could understand how the incident occurred. He said LeBeau could have been finishing a long ride or could have been suffering from dehydration.

“Things change on a bike,” he said.

Contact Chris Quintana at 986-3093 or cquintana@sfnewmexican.com.

(16) comments

Khal Spencer

An engineer friend of mine and fellow cyclist just sent me this on my blog:

"Another thing I noticed from watching (the video) a few times. The angle between the train and cyclist stays almost constant the whole time. What that means is there is no change in position in the field of view or no motion to detect in the cyclist's peripheral vision. The train just gets larger. That is one of the reasons we have mid-airs with airplanes and is why pilots are taught to scan and move their head to look for traffic. A spec in the sky stays in the same place out the windscreen and slowly gets bigger and bigger and many times not noticed until its too late. "

Khal Spencer

She was not trying to beat the train. She was coasting, not pedaling.

A gate would likely have gotten the rider's attention, which is the reason we provide them for motorists.

After watching the video, I think the principle cause of this fatal crash was rider error:

The cyclist ended up on the oncoming side of Zia. Did she ride diagonally across the intersection? This put her facing the tracks but she doesn't seem to be scanning anything. I stopped and took a long look at the site yesterday and cannot see how an engaged cyclist could miss the main gates and lights, which are nearly in front of you.

The rider does not look both ways and only turns to look North when she is about to hit the yellow stripe, which is probably too late. OTOH, a proper vehicular crossing of St. Francis with traffic could have avoided this.

The geometry of the bike path encourages wrong behavior by cyclists heading west on Zia, since the path entrance is on the oncoming side of the road. Given the complexity, I concur with Tim Rogers to add active warning devices. At least a flashing light wired to the main ones.

A lack of situational awareness and in my opinion, poor design led to death. I'm constantly reading about people being hit by trains in New Mexico. We have to take those tracks very seriously. Stop, Look, and Listen.

My condolences to the LeBeau family, and I implore cyclists to always practice situational awareness.

Carolyn DM

Such a mystery. The article states she tried to change her trajectory upon hitting the yellow rumble strip. Although photos can certainly be deceiving, in the photo it looks like there is plenty of space between the strip and the tracks to have time to stop or steer off the path. Sad, tragic.

Steven Salemi

I'm not at all sure that a "sense of entitlement" applies to this incident, which might better be described as a case of "tragic carelessness."

But it is an interesting idea -- the nanny-state is evolving as a response to a growing belief that people are "entitled" to physical safety -- in many cases, a greater degree of safety than nature, civilization, and technology can provide.

Shall we sue the medical profession for failing to save us from cancer?

This idea deserves it's own article.

Khal Spencer

I wouldn't heap the entire blame for this on individuals or individual cyclists. There are vested interests that want the public to embrace the Nanny State concept. There was a great series in the Albuquerque Journal last week about NM recieving billions of dollars per year in Dept of Homeland Security largesse, including SWAT equipment, antipersonnel carriers, and other paramilitary equipment. Who makes your and my money off of that? The manufacturers of these toys.

Likewise, organizations like People for Bikes encourage cyclists to take a passive attitude towards their safety. Why? Because PfB is run by the bike biz, and they want cyclists to think this is all too easy. Meanwhile, urban planners and sellers of this sort of safety pocket the check.

To be sure, there needs to be a graded approach to safety systems. But the nanny state has its supporters, i.e., those who make money selling those high tech baby bottles.

Pat Shackleford

http://www.abqjournal.com/390438/news/homeland-security-a-runaway-train.html

The link above will (hopefully) connect to the Albuquerque Journal series "Mission Creep"-Homeland Security a 'runaway train'. The second part came out today. Thanks for mentioning it.

Jill Meyer

I want to fully agree with the first four letter writers here. While it is a shame Ms LeBeau was killed, we simply can't have crossing gates on bicycle paths. And can you imagine the uproar about noise if the trains had to blow their horns at each crossing? Bicycle riders should stop, look, and listen when at a train crossing. We cannot protect them against their own judgement. And if Ms LeBeau was dehydrated, maybe she should have stopped to rehydrate and rest a bit before continuing on?

Khal Spencer

"...we simply can't have crossing gates on bicycle paths..."

Well, why not? I see no evidence of you supporting your opinion with a logical explanation.

The easiest way to reduce the number of engineered systems at intersections (including railroad crossings) is to simplify the intersection. That is the idea behind roundabouts. This is a hideous intersection, as is Cerrillos-St. Francis. Clean up the design, and we can leave out the whistles and bells.

Heck, even the tinny little railroad crossing sign at the sidepath is mounted too high for most cyclists on road bikes to see it, as one would have to look up, not forward.

All that said, I reiterate: Stop, Look, Listen.

sonnyglare

I am a motorist and a biker. When I am in my car I drive defensively. I observe stop signs, traffic lights and the signals at rail crossings. I watch for bicyclists and motorcyclists even when they are not watching for me. When I am on my bike, I do the same but I am in the minority. When biking, I adopt an attitude of caution and fear instead of the sense of entitlement that many of my biking friends adopt. This "accident" was senseless. This woman simply tried to beat the train. See train tracks, assume there might be a train. Look left, look right. Flashing lights and ringing bells - more clues? I mourn this loss of life but what is the sense of surviving 60 years only to die saving seconds?

David Ford

I agree with Steve. Why but up barriers that bicyclists will just ignore like they do stop signs, red lights, or any other traffic safety devices that they ignore. It is still astonishing to me that bicyclists demand full unfettered access to the roads but the vast majority refuse to follow the rules of the road. Since they are on the roads they should also be required to carry insurance.

Pat Shackleford

"The only thing I can think of is that she was trying to beat the train.”

You should watch it again on YouTube/full screen, and you'll see that she is coasting (NOT pedaling at all) from the time she clears St. Francis Dr. Not quite what you'd expect of someone intending to "beat the train".

Thank you SFNM for leaving the video posted. This should become a very good learning lesson for thousands of viewers for years to come. Make the train blow its horn; but putting up gates for people who won't move their head to the left and right or catch other obvious visual clues seems extreme. Can you imagine the outrage when a gate fails to close, and someone gets killed because they don't practice watching where they're going and to check for cross-traffic? Why should we lead people to become dependent on nanny-state technology when they should learn to pay attention?

Khal Spencer

MUTCD Part 8 has something to say about gates or lights in this situation: "...Separate active traffic control devices may be omitted at a pathway grade crossing that is located within 25 feet of the traveled way of a highway-rail or highway-LRT grade crossing that is equipped with an active traffic control system.". Here is the link, the prose is near the end of the chapter.

http://tinyurl.com/pht5jmd

Pat Shackleford

I looked over at that crossing from the left-turn lane while waiting at the stop light on northbound St. Francis, before turning west onto Zia Rd. She must have been fairly oblivious (or was wearing view-constricting sunglasses?) not to have noticed the approaching train to her right, but maybe adding some flashing lights for the bike/pedestrian path would be appropriate. I think a gate could be problematic.

Khal Spencer

I was headed home from the Sunport yesterday and stopped to walk around. If a cyclist is crossing Zia westbound, you are riding directly towards the roadway lights and gates, albeit at a shallow angle. Not sure how someone could miss it, which is why MUTCD probably allows the waiver.

But a tend to agree. Its a busy place, and a busy place should probably have additional safety features that I would generally agree are not necessary.

As I said a week ago, I can sympathize with the situation. I once almost rode my mountainbike off a cliff up here in Los Alamos as I was fiddling with something on the bike, looking up, thankfully, before doing that Wile E. Coyote imitation. Had to go home after that and change bike shorts! We can't ask society to protect us from every opportunity we take to make a mistake. There has to be a reasonable person standard for these things, and folks GOTTA pay attention.

Khal Spencer

Oops. It was Friday, not yesterday.

Steve Spraitz

amazing, simply amazing bicycle riders want crossing guards here in town. to protect ignorant bike riders from hitting trains head on due to ignorance.
we were taught 'stop, look, and listen' in the 60's and 70's about trains.
every single school bus, public transit bus, etc, has signs that say ' THIS BUS STOPS AT ALL RR CROSSINGS'
how bout rail crossings in Ribera, Lamy, Cochiti, and all across the country for cyclists living in a false sense of security who think trains will stop for them at unmarked crosswalks. ha! here in 'La La Land' [ santa fe],

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