Concord September bike death was city’s first in a decade

  • A memorial sign for Patrick Bettens sits at the roundabout in downtown Penacook. Bettens, a correctional officer at the state prison in Concord, was killed in a bike-vehicle crash in September. Caitlin Andrews—Monitor photo

  • Months after his death, a memorial sign for Patrick Bettens can still be seen at the roundabout in downtown Penacook. Caitlin Andrews / Monitor photo

Monitor staff
Published: 12/30/2018 8:14:29 PM

Karen Stapley knew it was only a matter of time before Patrick Bettens was hurt on the road.

The Penacook woman said Bettens, who she dated for several years, would come back from running or biking down Route 3 with stories of close calls.

“He would literally tell me stories three or four times a week where he would be running across an opening and a car nearly hit him,” she said. “He would say, ‘I had to jump onto the hood of a car today.’ ”

Bettens, a correctional officer at the men’s state prison in Concord, father of two and a triathlete, died in September after a van driven by Jessica Warren of Concord struck him on Route 3. He was training, friends say, for his next triathlon.

According to city bike crash data from 2009 to September 2018, Bettens is the first bicycling fatality in a decade.

So far, there has been no resolution to the crash. Concord police Lt. Sean Ford declined to comment other than to say an investigation is ongoing.

According to witness accounts, Bettens was riding in the bike lane when he went into the road to drive around a UPS truck parked in the bike lane.

Joseph Noonan was slowing down as he approached the area when, he said, the van in front of him nearly side-swiped the truck. The van then bucked as if it hit a “speed bump,” Noonan told the Monitor in September, before jumping the curb and heading back across the road, striking another vehicle.

Bettens died during a period of decline in bike-vehicle crashes in the city: Concord police data shows incidents have decreased from 27 crashes in 2009 to six last year. As of September of this year, four crashes had been recorded.

The data does not reflect if ridership has changed in the city. The most recent information available is from 2010, when the city counted 150 bikes crossing the Delta Drive Bridge on a Wednesday and 50 on a Saturday.

The majority of crashes have resulted in non-incapacitating injuries, according to city data. Only 22 have resulted in a cyclist being taken to the hospital. The last fatality was in 2008.

As the community waits for answers, some question whether the city has become safer for cyclists.

David Cedarholm, city engineer for Concord, said it has, pointing to Concord’s status as the first “Bicycle Friendly Community” by the League of American Bicyclists in New Hampshire. It has maintained a bronze rating since 2010.

There has been no official conversation around bike safety in the city since Bettens died, Cedarholm said, calling the crash “an unfortunate accident.”

While avid bikers feel the city has made efforts to be safer, they think more could be done to protect cyclists.

Infrastructure efforts

What makes Concord the first “Bicycle Friendly Community” in New Hampshire is partly infrastructure and mostly policy.

According to city documents, Concord was lauded in 2010 for its implementation of a biking master plan, a comprehensive transportation policy, off-road cycling opportunities, training for city staff, donated bikes and classes for underserved populations, and participation in the League’s Bike to Work Week.

The city council approved its first signed and marked bike route, the North-South Bike Route (which skirts downtown, passes three schools and connects to Route 3, where Bettens died), in 2009.

Cedarholm said the city tries to add new painted bike lanes wherever possible, even on narrow streets, which he said can calm traffic. Concord has enhanced the shoulders on some roads, including Route 13 and Route 9, to make more room for cyclists. A bicycle master plan for 2020 is in the works.

Cedarholm said the details of the case – Bettens leaving the bike lane to move around an obstruction and the question of whether the motorist noticed him – make pointing to a direct cause tricky.

“If there’s not enough room, the big question is where is the safest place for bikers to be,” he said.

The safest place

There are debates about what keeps cyclists safe.

Bicycles are treated as vehicles in New Hampshire, and riders must stick to the road or a bike lane regardless of traffic conditions. If they don’t, they could be fined $150 under state law.

Some laws, like the far-right law and the three-foot law, are meant to protect cyclists by dictating how much space motorists need to give cyclists and where bikers should ride.

City data shows that cyclists were found to be at fault in 64 percent of the 139 bike-vehicle crashes that have happened since 2009. The leading cause was riding on the sidewalk.

In contrast, the leading cause in instances where motorists were at fault was a failure to yield and failure to use due care, described by city traffic engineer Robert Mack as “general carelessness.”

Loudon Road had the most recorded crashes, with 20 incidents occurring from 2009 to 2014; later data also identified Loudon Road as a “hot spot” but didn’t include numbers. Water/Manchester Street had the next highest number of recorded crashes with nine.

None of the city’s bike lanes are protected by a physical barrier separating motorist traffic from cyclists.

And bike lanes are only as good as the people who respect them, said Dick Lemieux, an avid cyclist who serves on Concord’s Public Transportation Subcommittee.

If someone is blocking the bike lane or drives into it – something Lemieux said he frequently sees when he rides on Route 3 – cyclists can be put in a difficult situation.

“They’re not guaranteed safety, that’s for sure,” Lemieux said in a recent interview. “... It’s treated like a shoulder when it’s actually a vehicle lane.”

Lemieux said he doesn’t have a problem avoiding obstructions. He has a rearview mirror he uses to monitor traffic to know when to make the safest move. The typical cyclist may be different, he said.

Jury’s out

It’s unclear whether painted bike lanes actually protect bicyclists.

“While there are data for perceived safety, and surrogate (behavioral) measures . . . that suggest improved safety, we don’t have actual measures of safety effects via crash outcomes,” notes the Pedestrian and Bicycle Information Center’s website.

The organization, supported by the Federal Highway Administration and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, says getting such information is difficult. Bicycle crashes with motor vehicles are relatively infrequent occurrences, it says, and data collection on crashes is “sparse.”

Some say the only solution is to give cyclists their own separate lanes.

There is some data to support the theory. A 2011 study of 690 cycling crashes by the University of British Columbia found that separated or protected bike lanes alongside major streets, residential street bike routes with traffic diversion and bike lanes on major streets where there were no parked cars were some of the features on the safest bike routes.

Meanwhile, route features such as streetcar or train tracks, downhill grades, construction, sharrows (shared car/bike lanes) and traffic circles at residential street intersections created more risk.

Craig Tufts, who cycles across Concord to his job at the Central New Hampshire Regional Planning Commission, said there have been efforts to introduce the idea to Concord.

The Central New Hampshire Bicycling Coalition donated materials to create “demo” protected lanes in the past, Tufts said, and for a while, TPAC and city staff were working on installing them.

At first, Tufts said, they tried for a demo on State Street. But the city said there would be too much impact on the area and would have affected important parking – like the governor’s parking spot.

Then they tried to put a demo lane on Broadway in conjunction with National Night Out. But a combination of uneasiness about introducing it during a busy event, expensive materials and other logistics ruled it out, Tufts said.

Tufts said the city hasn’t given up. A demo protected bike lane along part of South Street near Rundlett Middle School is in the works, hopefully for fall next year.

In the meantime, Tufts said everyone would be safer if motorists paid more attention to the road.

“Everyone wants to spend tons of money on bike infrastructure,” he said. “But it would be free if (motorists) followed the speed limits and weren’t distracted.”

Spinning wheels

David Burdette remembers well the feeling of being struck by a car.

“It felt like I was floating in air,” he said, recalling when a maroon vehicle drifted into the North State Street bike lane in August 2016 and hit him from behind.

He suffered a tweaked ankle, internal bruising, road rash all along his left side and a minor concussion. Had he not been wearing a helmet, things could have been worse.

Burdette never found out who hit him.

He said the incident hasn’t dissuaded him from cycling, and he wants to be careful about placing blame in the crash that killed Bettens.

“It appears to me that bikers are looking for someone to blame,” he said. “I just think it’s one of those freak things that happen to us as humans.”

Stapley said the thought of Bettens getting hurt was “always in the back of my mind” when they were together.

She said the crash is still a “hot topic” in the community. To her, the incident seems “pretty cut and dry.”

“I’m trying to give them the benefit of the doubt,” she said of police efforts. “I’m hoping they’re working on things behind the scenes.”

In the meantime, Penacook remembers Bettens in a small, visible way.

There is a small, white sign that greets visitors heading north into downtown with Bettens’s name. The word “REMEMBER” is bracketed by two angel wings and a halo, the wings black with a blue stripe, reminiscent of the way law enforcement officers honor a fallen colleague.

Stapley said she and other people who knew Bettens don’t know who placed the sign.

It’s another aspect of the crash waiting for resolution.

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