Palm Beach County can be a deadly place to ride a bike. Will the 'carnage' never end?
Updated: Jul 5, 2021
WARNING: This story contains graphic images of injuries sustained by bicyclists who survived after being struck by motor vehicles. Survivors shared the images so readers will understand the scope of the problem and the consequences of motorists who are distracted, reckless, impatient, impaired and speeding.
THE JEEP CHEROKEE HIT Jerry Mandello first. Its side mirror sheared off a chunk of his left ear and launched Mandello and his bicycle into the hedges outside a mansion along South Ocean Boulevard in Manalapan.
Steve Barry, pedaling south in front of Mandello, was hit next. The SUV smashed into the rear wheel of his black S-Works, split the bike in two and dragged Barry several yards along the pavement as two other cyclists in their group watched in horror.
Mandello, before fetching the severed chunk of his ear from the side of the road (doctors would sew it back on), ran to his friend.
“His bike was a pretzel and his legs were shredded,’’ he recalled. “I’m shaking him. He’s not moving for a while. I thought he was gone.’’
But Barry, a former Navy officer who did reconnaissance river patrols in the jungles of Vietnam before becoming a successful West Palm Beach accountant, might be the epitome of resiliency. A devoted cyclist, he also climbs ice walls in Montana and snowboards from helicopters on unbroken British Columbia powder.
“One tough dude,’’ said Mandello, who snapped a photo of Barry sitting on the curb after he regained consciousness, his legs black and bloody, a slight grin on his face.
“When I came to, I looked down and I could see my knee and my ankle out of my right leg. I could see bone and shredded muscle,’’ said Barry, who had his football-damaged knees replaced in 2013. “It wasn’t pretty.”
He looked at his left leg.
“I could see eight inches of my lower leg bone through a massive cut,’’ he said.
“As I got thrown off the bike, my pedal and shoe stayed on my foot and separated from the bike. The whole frame was broken in half and there were ragged pieces of carbon everywhere. My legs got sliced and diced on the inside because as I went off the bike I must have hit these carbon pieces that were split sideways.’’
The driver of the 1995 Cherokee, an 80-year-old Briny Breezes man, tried to leave the scene, but Barry’s companions blocked his vehicle with their bikes until police arrived.
He was cited for careless driving that day, Feb. 11, 2020. He said he was headed south at 5 p.m. “behind a large line of vehicles when he suddenly heard a thud on the side of his car,’’ according to a Manalapan police report.
He pleaded not guilty. That summer, a judge dismissed the case because "a witness" failed to attend the driver’s traffic infraction trial, which was held on Zoom, court records show.
By then, Barry was in Big Sky, Montana, going through grueling physical therapy sessions that helped him regain his strength after his wounds were closed with 400 staples and 300 stitches.
“I won’t go back onto the road,’’ said Barry, who mounted the mangled pieces of the bike on the wall of his garage as a reminder. “It's not worth the risk.’
There was one more insult from the crash, Barry said: The police report said he was responsible for $1,000 damage to the hedges he landed in.
“Our system has no respect for the so-called “rights” of cyclists to be on the road,’’ said Barry’s wife, Carey O'Donnell.
PALM BEACH COUNTY IS fast becoming one of the deadliest places to ride a bike.
Avid cyclists like Barry have long known that the county's roadways, like those in other parts of Florida, can be dangerous. But recent statistics show a disturbing trend in fatalities.
Eleven bicyclists were killed in 2020, more than double the number of bicycle fatalities recorded in 2019, according to the Florida Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles.
And with three fatalities through March 24, the county is on pace to exceed 2020’s deadly toll.
Pedestrian fatalities also rose last year, with 41 deaths compared to 40 in 2019.
The rise in bicyclist and pedestrian deaths is part of a national trend related to the rise in bicycle use during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Even though vehicular traffic was down earlier in the year as people stayed home, National Highway Traffic Safety Administration statistics suggest the reduced congestion and open roadways may have exacerbated risky driving behaviors.
“There is an uptick in the number of accidents involving pedestrians and bicyclists because of surges in health and fitness during the pandemic combined with speeding and empty roads. It’s critical that both vehicles and bicyclists be more aware,” said West Palm Beach attorney Michael Pike.
But that awareness hasn’t been consistent among drivers and bicyclists.
Though bicyclists and pedestrians represent just 2 percent of commuters in Palm Beach County, they made up 30 percent of all transportation-related fatalities on county roadways from 2018-2020, according to the Palm Beach Transportation Planning Agency.
“These are our most vulnerable users and they’re a large disproportionate share of the total fatalities,’’ Andrew Uhlir, the agency’s director of program development, said at a TPA governing board meeting in February.
“We are not heading in the correct direction when it comes to safety.’’
ON THE MORNING OF July 6, 2018, Sandra Prestia was enjoying “a beautiful ride” as she pedaled south on South Ocean Boulevard in Manalapan.
Without warning, a white construction van heading north turned in front of her to enter a condo building on the west side of the road.
“I saw white, and then I was in an ambulance,’’ said Prestia, a triathlete who has been riding competitively for 11 years.
The impact snapped her bike in two, but that wasn’t the only damage.
“I T-boned him. It was like my face made an imprint in the van,’’ said Prestia, 41, who was rushed to Delray Medical Center with a concussion.
“My top lip was in three pieces. A plastic surgeon had to sew my lip back together. I had bruises on my knees and legs for at least six months.’’
She didn’t break any bones. But the crash resulted in $70,000 in medical bills, most of it paid by her insurance.
The driver of the van stopped to offer help and, according to what the police told Prestia, “he apologized profusely.’’
Still, she can’t understand how he didn’t see her.
“It was 8 a.m. The roads were completely empty,’’ she said. “There was nothing to take his attention away and not to see me. He just turned in front of me.’’
Six weeks later, she was back on her bike.
“Am I overly cautious now? Oh, yeah,’’ she said. “But to stop doing what I love, cycling, I don’t want to live like that.’’
AMONG THE DEADLIEST STATES for bicyclists, Florida has consistently ranked at or near the top.
In 2019, Florida’s 161 bicycle deaths were the highest in the nation, 28 more than the next highest state, California.
Deaths among Sunshine State bicyclists age 20 and older have tripled since 1975, according to the National Highway Traffic Administration.
In Palm Beach County, a 2017 Pedestrian and Bicycle Safety Study by the Palm Beach TPA identified 10 “high crash corridors.’’ Only one was an area frequented by road cyclists.
The other nine “high crash corridors” were in areas where everyday people ride.
“It’s not road cyclists who are being injured and killed at alarmingly high rates in Palm Beach County,’’ lawyer and bicycle safety advocate Bill Bone writes on his firm’s website.
“Instead, the overwhelming majority of crashes, injuries, and fatalities involve everyday people commuting and running errands on their bike out of necessity or principle.’’
Many bicyclists don’t always wear proper safety gear.
“A lot of it we see is no helmet, safety gear missing, no lights at night. Improper clothing, the color of clothing when you ride your bike and dusk or dawn hours,’’ Delray Beach police Sgt. Hannes Schoeferle said.
But cyclists aren’t always at fault.
PEDALING NORTH ON A1A with another cyclist, Rhonda Wright saw a white car pass them.
“I was in the lead position. We are in the bike lane,’’ recalled Wright, who was about a mile south of the Lake Worth Beach pier on the morning of July 7, 2019.
“And he just turned straight in front of me to go into a driveway.’’
With nowhere to go, Wright slammed the brakes. “I tried to pull my bike to pull down to the right to get out of his way and I went straight into the side of him,’’ she said.
Her bike’s front aero bar -- an extension mounted close to the center of the handlebar that cantilevers out over the front of the wheel -- got caught under the car’s front wheel. Wright was dragged 25 feet across the asphalt before the car stopped.
“My left arm got dragged along the side and I was half underneath his car. I turned onto my bike and thought, ‘I’ve got to get out of here.’ As I flipped myself around, my hand got caught under the car.’’
Her right hand was broken. Her left shoulder was dislocated and the labrum torn. Her helmet was smashed.
“My broken helmet saved me from severe head trauma,’’ said Wright, 66.
She missed two months of work as a home health care aide. She had hand surgery and racked up close to $80,000 in medical bills.
“I can’t hold weights and things like I used to because I have permanent screws and pins in my hand,’’ she said.
She said the driver, “an elderly guy” who worked as a condo security guard, was cited for reckless driving.
“He said he didn’t see us. He was probably in his 80s and I don’t think his peripheral vision was very good,’’ Wright said.
Wright, a triathlete who lives in Boca Raton, still rides competitively but only in races where the roads are closed to motorists.
“I will not ride on A1A because it’s not safe,’’ she said. “You have people out there who have no respect for bikers at all. It’s really a sin.’’
As bad as the accident was for Wright, she said she worried about the friend who had cycled with her that morning and witnessed it. The friend, Maria Price, had survived a horrific bike accident six years earlier.
IT MAY SEEM FUTILE, but local safety advocates remain dedicated to their mission to reverse the trend. Raising awareness is one strategy.
As part of Florida Bike Month in March, the Palm Beach TPA held several educational events, including a bike ride March 26 to emphasize safe practices.
On March 22, Palm Beach County Vice Mayor Robert Weinroth, the TPA governing board’s vice chairman, hosted a safety webinar at the suggestion of Melissa Perlman, president of BlueIvy Communications.
A competitive runner with close ties to the South Florida cycling community, Perlman is aware of the alarming trend of both pedestrian and bicycle crashes and fatalities over the past year.
She decided to try to do something about it.
With help from Pike, she enlisted a panel of advocates including Price, Sgt. Schoeferle, TPA Bicycle and Pedestrian coordinator Alyssa Frank and Boca Raton Triathletes President Kristy Breslaw.
“We all share the same urgent yearning to prevent tragedy and accidents on our South Florida roads,’’ Perlman said.
The panelists acknowledged that some bicyclists may share responsibility for crashes when they blow through red lights or ride at night without proper lights.
But like most avid bicycle groups, Boca Raton Triathletes reminds its members about the rules of the road and how cyclists are supposed to obey the same traffic laws that apply to motor vehicles, Breslaw said.
A big problem is the fact that just about all roads were designed for motor vehicles, not for cyclists.
On most parts of A1A, the most predominant place for road cyclists, there are no bike lanes. Cyclists are forced to ride on the shoulder, inches from motor vehicles and often over hazards such as sewer holes and traffic reflectors.
“There is a lot of distracted driving. There’s a lot of people not paying attention when they’re driving,’’ Breslaw said. “The road is just not built for cyclists.’’
State law requires motorists to give bikers a three-foot buffer. Cyclists also are allowed to read two abreast on bike lanes. But many motorists aren’t aware of those laws.
Cars are supposed to follow behind a bicycle until they can safely pass. Those waits often test the patience of motorists, Sgt. Schoeferle said.
“Right or wrong -- wrong, obviously -- but at some point the motorist is really getting worked up,’’ he said. “It’s an emotional issue, and they're going to start passing in a reckless manner. This is when we see crashes.’’
Many cyclists say accidents can be avoided if motorists would be more respectful of bicyclists.
“I’ve had people blare their horns at me, speeding past me within inches, just angry, and I’m right on the line on the shoulder,’’ Prestia said.
Her advice to motorists?
“Be patient. Nothing is serious enough to hurt or kill somebody over. We are all just trying to enjoy A1A.’’
MARIA PRICE WAS PEDALING west in the bike lane on the 14th Street Causeway in Pompano Beach on Feb. 1, 2013. It was 6 a.m. She had just left her house a half mile away.
She remembers the road being well lit, her bike lights on.
The next thing she remembers was waking up in an ambulance.
“I was a hit and run. They never caught the driver. They just hit me and left me in the road to die,’’ Price, who was 51 at the time, recalled.
She went face first into the pavement when the vehicle smashed into her back wheel, mangling the rim and spokes.
“I slide across on my face,’’ she said. “I lost all my front teeth, cracked all the bottom teeth, split my lip open from the bottom of my nose to my mouth.’’
After she was hit, Price was told, at least three cars swerved around her before one finally stopped to help.
She needed more than 80 stitches to close her facial wounds. “The muscles sheared on my L7 (vertebrae) and I was in a neck brace for four months,’’ she said.
Her mouth was repaired after two years of surgeries, including implants. She needed three root canals. And she needed more reconstructive surgeries on her gums.
“I didn’t have teeth for two years’’ she said.
She racked up $20,000 in medical bills, most paid by insurance.
She got back on the road again in 2017. But after witnessing her friend Rhonda Wright’s accident in 2019, she stopped riding on roads.
She has ordered a gravel bike, which can handle a variety of riding surfaces, and plans to ride off-road trails unless she is competing on a closed course.
“I’m not gonna let it stop me from racing,’’ she said, “but I'm not going to go back out onto the road. It’s just not worth it.’’
BICYCLISTS HAVE A POWERFUL ally in Pete Buttigieg, the new U.S. secretary for Transportation.
“In the ‘50s, the mentality around roads was that they existed for one purpose and that was to move as many cars as you could as fast as you could. Design reflected that. Whole cities were shaped based on that assumption,’’ he said in a keynote address, done remotely, March 18 at the South by Southwest Conference in Austin, Texas.
“It turns out we are better off if our decisions revolve not around the car but around the human being. Sometimes that human being is in a car, (but) ... sometimes that human being is on foot or on a bicycle.’’
Like local bicycle advocates, Buttigieg said he wants to replace the motorists-first trend with “a truly forward looking approach on infrastructure’’ that emphasizes bicyclists and pedestrians.
“One thing that I don’t think a lot of Americans are aware of is how far behind we are on bicycle and pedestrian safety. Other developing countries are safer to walk or bike on than American streets,’’ he said.
Nick Uhren, executive director of the Palm Beach TPA, saw that first-hand on a 2016 visit to Copenhagen.
“Everything was centered around safety for people. The car yielded to bicyclists, and the bicyclist yielded to the pedestrian’’ said Uhren, who took the trip with a West Palm Beach city official as part of a Knight Foundation grant to support bike friendly cities.
Bringing Copenhagen values to Palm Beach County may seem like an impossible dream for local bike advocates, but progress is being made.
For one, most new roads in the county are now being built with bike lanes. The Florida Department of Transportation led with changes to their design manual for state roads in the early 2010s and Palm Beach County followed, including bike lanes in their county roadway standards in 2018.
"The TPA Board has also adopted a Complete Streets Policy and a Vision Zero commitment to ensure that all transportation projects funded by the TPA include safe and comfortable facilities for transportation users of all ages and abilities,’’ Uhren said.
“As we build projects, we are connecting communities and providing a safer, more equitable and more prosperous mobility future for Palm Beach County."
AS ALAN SNEL REMEMBERS, he was pedaling along Old Dixie Highway in St. Lucie County, halfway through a 40-mile ride.
Then he woke up in a hospital.
“You were hit by a car,’’ the EMT told him that March day in 2017.
A car had plowed into Snel from behind. He suffered a concussion, multiple contusions and two broken vertebrae that came within a half inch of paralyzing him from the neck down.
He recovered, moved back to Las Vegas (where he had worked as a reporter before moving to Vero Beach) and launched a popular website called LVSportsBiz.com.
Motivated by the accident, Snel wrote his first book, Long Road Back to Las Vegas.
He writes candidly about how investigators never charged the man who struck him, even though the driver admitted he wasn’t paying attention when he struck Snel.
“This book's message is simple,’’ writes Snel.
“If I can overcome trauma, you can, too. But it’s not going to be easy. Overcoming trauma is hard. In fact I can understand how it can be easy to get emotionally stuck and not move forward.’’
Snel, a veteran journalist, is known around Las Vegas as a bicycle safety advocate. (He was honored in 2016 with a plaque mounted at the bike racks outside T Mobile Area.)
But his passion has no boundaries.
"Florida should be a bicycle mecca. It isn't. Too many car-centric roads with high speeds do not go well with slower-moving vehicles like bicycles,’’ he said in an email.
“We have to educate motorists better on the fact that bicycles are simply slower-moving vehicles and have a right to be in the traffic lane and punish motorists more when they kill and maim bicyclists,’’ he said.
“Somewhere along the line, we have come to terms that there is an acceptable number of killed and injured bicyclists, that it's part of the normal collateral damage of doing business on our roads.
"That's bullshit and needs to end.’’
STATE LAWMAKERS HAVE A chance to provide some added layers of protection for bicyclists this summer.
One proposed bill would require, among other things, that a vehicle making a right turn while overtaking and passing a bicycle proceeding in the same direction, to do so only if the bicycle is at least 20 feet from the intersection.
If the bill becomes law in July, the Florida Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles will launch a public awareness campaign informing motorists about required safety precautions when passing bikes and pedestrians.
The department also would be required to include the precautions in driver’s license educational materials and to ensure that 20 percent of the questions for the Class E drivers test relate to bicycle and pedestrian safety.
The bill -- sponsored by Sen. Lauren Book (D-Plantation) with a companion bill sponsored by State Rep. Christine Hunschofsky (D-Parkland) -- aims to reinforce measures requiring motorists sharing the same travel lane as bicyclists and pedestrians to exercise care when passing.
If there’s no room to pass, motorists are supposed to remain behind bicyclists and pedestrians until it’s safe to do so.
But more needs to be done, said Weinroth, the Palm Beach County vice mayor.
He called on local leaders to take “a more proactive approach” aimed at preventing bike and pedestrian accidents, similar to the intense focus investigators give to airline crashes.
“We know statistics don’t fully represent the pain that’s being inflicted on the victims and families of these tragic events,’’ Weinroth told members of the TPA governing board last month.
“We need to drill down into these incidents to figure out what it is that is common about these accidents that are causing the carnage on our roadways and what can we do in fixes rather than just continually look at the wrong direction of these trends.’’
STEVE BROWN LOVED HIS family, his friends and his bicycle.
He enjoyed back road biking adventures with his wife Dana and riding around his Boca Raton neighborhood or to the beach for exercise. And as the popular co-founder of Brown’s Interiors, he took any opportunity he could to leave the car at home and pedal to a client’s house with a swatch or sample.
On the morning of April 9, 2014, Brown strapped on his bike helmet and set off to see another client. He was bicycling north on the shoulder of Lyons Road around 9 a.m. when a 68-year-old woman driving a minivan lost control and struck Brown from behind.
Brown hit the windshield and was thrown onto the sidewalk. He was pronounced dead at the scene, less than three miles from home. He was 58.
More than 1,500 people attended his funeral. His death inspired congregants at Temple Beth El in Boca Raton to launch an annual charity bike ride in his memory.
But nearly seven years later, his family remains scarred from the tragedy.
“It affects us every day,’’ said Andrew Brown, one of three children. “He was head of the family, head of the business. My mom and he had been happily married for many many years. They were high school and college sweethearts. My sister was pregnant at the time of the accident, so he never got to see his first grandchild. It was devastating on the family.’’
The driver, Marion Rosenstein, pleaded no contest and was found guilty of unlawfully overtaking and passing a vehicle. Her driver’s license was revoked and she was ordered to complete 120 hours of community service.
In 2011, Rosenstein was cited for running a red light and causing a crash, court records show.
“South Florida can be a hard place to live because it’s so beautiful and you want to bike all day every day, but it’s just... these cars…,’’ Susan Brown Siegel, a daughter, said.
“I just can’t handle distracted drivers on the road,’’ she continued. “Listen, I know every single person checks their cell phones, but you never think it’s going to be you. I never thought it would happen to my dad. He rode his bike but he wasn’t one of those cyclists on A1A. It was just awful.’’
Temple Beth El's annual Steve Brown Memorial Bike Ride, postponed by the pandemic, will resume next year. But Brown's family continues to speak out about the need for better safety measures such as more dedicated bike lanes or barriers separating cars from bikes.
As for the current trend of bicycle fatalities, the Brown family is not surprised.
“The numbers will keep going up because not enough preventive action is being taken and more and more people are using bicycles, especially during the pandemic,’’ said Andrew Brown.
“Unless measures are taken on the safety prevention side, the numbers are gonna keep going up. There’s just no way around that.’’
(NOTE: Joe Capozzi worked as an aide for Palm Beach County Vice Mayor Robert Weinroth from Jan. 4 to March 12. Capozzi is close friends with Alan Snel.)
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