If it’s predictable, it’s preventable.
California Highway Patrol Officer Thomas Olsen uses that adage frequently when talking of traffic collisions. And across the board, it applies to the 14 fatal crashes the Modesto-area CHP has investigated so far this year involving bicyclists or pedestrians.
That’s nearly a third of the total number of collision fatalities investigated by his office this year, he said.
Most people who’ve lived in the Modesto area for a stretch of time know there are a lot of pedestrians who cross outside of crosswalks or walk along, or in the lanes of, roadways. Likewise, there are a lot of bicyclists — many riding recreationally or out of necessity — who follow or don’t follow the rules of the road.
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That makes it predictable, Olsen said, that they and drivers will sometimes cross paths.
Sometimes those on bikes or on foot make bad decisions, he said. Mix that with a driver who’s distracted and the result can be major injury or death.
According to UC Berkeley data for 2013-17, Stanislaus County had 860 collisions involving pedestrians, with 68 of them killed. For the same period in Stanislaus, there were 818 vehicle-vs.-bicycle crashes, which killed 18 cyclists.
“Whether you’re at fault or not, no one ever wants to be that person who takes someone’s life,” Olsen said by phone Wednesday morning. “It’s a life-changing event.”
Most of the fatal bike and pedestrian crashes in the Modesto area happen when it’s dark out, Olsen and Modesto Police Department spokeswoman Sharon Bear said. And with days growing shorter and daylight-saving time ending early Sunday, the CHP chose this time of year to launch its Be Seen Modesto campaign.
The CHP is seeking donations of new bike lights and reflective clothing, such as vests, to be distributed to those who don’t have the ability to purchase the safety items themselves. Olsen also will be teaching a TREDS (Training, Research and Education for Driving Safety) pedestrian class at Modesto Gospel Mission on Friday evening. He plans to lead the class at other locations throughout Stanislaus County, as well, he said.
Similarly, an MPD community service officer who works with the Traffic Unit has over the past year visited homeless shelters and other locations to provide safety seminars, Bear said. The department also has been awarded a grant by the state Office of Traffic Safety to provide vests and bike lights.
The Modesto department so far this year has investigated eight fatal collisions involving pedestrians and cyclists.
Common threads among the crashes? In the majority of Modesto’s cases, the cyclist or pedestrian has been at fault, Bear said. They’ve walked or ridden out from between parked cars, crossed streets out of crosswalks, or walked in traffic lanes. In several cases, the victim was under the influence of alcohol or drugs. Mental health has been a factor. Typically, there’s not good lighting in the areas where they’ve been struck, she said.
Olsen said the CHP is seeing an uptick in people of lower income walking or riding at night without reflective attire or bike lights. While there’s no law requiring reflective clothing, there is one requiring bike equipment including a flashing red light at the rear and a forward-facing headlight, he said.
The bulk of the local CHP cases have been in areas where there’s a high “walking population,” Olsen said, like off Moffet Road in Ceres, South Seventh and South Ninth streets, Pecos Avenue and Yosemite Boulevard in Modesto.
Two of Modesto’s pedestrian fatal collisions were on Tully Road, the first in January in front of Big Valley Grace Community Church, the second in April, just north of Rumble Road. In August, a woman was struck while crossing Pelandale Avenue just east of Tully. In early October, a female pedestrian was struck and killed on Claratina Avenue near Oakdale Road.
Driving on his way to his morning workouts, typically 5 a.m. or earlier, Olsen said that “almost daily, I see people that you don’t see until you’re right up on them. I’m aware as an officer that those hazards exist, so I do my best to be extra vigilant in areas like downtown Modesto and on McHenry.
“We encourage the public to be good defensive drivers ... I stress having a high visual horizon — looking down the roadway, not five feet in front of your car.”
He also encourages drivers to remember that a posted speed limit refers to ideal conditions. “So if you’re on McHenry and the speed limit is 35 but it’s nighttime, that’s really not a safe speed.”
People interested in donating bike lights or reflective wear may drop them off weekdays between 8 a.m. and 5 p.m. at either the CHP office, 4030 Kiernan Ave., or Modesto Gospel Mission, 1400 Yosemite Blvd. The CHP will give the items it collects to the mission for distribution.
For more information, call Olsen at 209-545-7440.