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 email@example.com.