Michael Tompkins and his family are no strangers to crossing Lehigh Street in south Boulder neighborhood, with one child at each of the neighborhood schools: Fairview High School, Southern Hills Middle School and Bear Creek Elementary.
“My wife and I have used the crosswalk on the north side of the Darley-Lehigh intersection with our three kids almost every school day for the last eight years,” Tompkins wrote in an email to the Camera. “We have seen many close calls at that intersection over the years, but never an actual collision.”
But on Sept. 4, Tompkins’ youngest daughter was in that very crosswalk when she was hit by a car going south on Lehigh.
“I was right behind her when it happened,” Tompkins wrote.
Tompkins said his daughter was taken to the hospital but luckily escaped any serious injury, and was back in school just two days later.
“After our ambulance ride together, my daughter was evaluated by the ER doctor on Wednesday and checked out again by her pediatrician on Saturday,” Tompkins wrote. “Her contusions and scrapes are healing and she has been cleared for head injury.”
But while Tompkins’ daughter will thankfully make a full recovery, the effects of the crash are still being felt in the neighboring community and Boulder at large, where cyclist safety continues to be a hot-button topic.
From a visit by the city’s resident plunger vigilante stopping by to restrictions on riding by local schools, it was the crash heard round the city.
‘Kids should only worry about kid things’
Brent Halsey lives in the neighborhood where the crash happened, and his daughter Sabrina is classmates with the girl who was hit.
“It was really scary,” Halsey said of hearing the news. “It’s one of the top fears as a parent, that your kid is going to get seriously injured in a crash.”
Halsey was already planning on going to a Transportation Advisory Board meeting on Monday night, but because of the crash he asked his daughter if she wanted to go as well.
“She said, ‘Yeah, if it can help make the streets safer,’” Halsey said.
And so, 9-year-old Sabrina stood before the board and read a letter, the gist of which Halsey said was, “Kids should only worry about kid things.”
“Safely getting to and from school shouldn’t be a concern for kids,” Halsey said.
For TAB member Mark McIntyre, it was a message that hit home.
“It was quite powerful to have her come and speak,” McIntyre said. “One, she was a great speaker. Two, it was her friend that was hit. She was speaking from the heart with experience. I really feel like it was an authentic message to the transportation board that, ‘I want to worry about things other than getting hit by a car.’
“It was a powerful message to me.”
So proud of Sabrina for speaking to the Transportation Advisory Board about making our streets safer after her classmate was struck by a car while biking to school. ❤️❤️ pic.twitter.com/poPeJshUw0
— Brent Halsey (@bhalsey) September 10, 2019
So powerful in fact, that TAB member Bill Rigler said he has invited Sabrina to speak at Tuesday’s city council meeting, when the Transportation Master Plan is presented.
“I was just so moved,” Rigler said. “We took what we heard (Monday) night very, very seriously. It was a very vivid reminder that it can happen to anybody.”
As for that Transportation Master Plan, early drafts emphasized the need for Boulder to reduce vehicle use in the city. But Rigler said safety must also be stressed if the city is to meet those goals.
“The very basis of the Transportation Master Plan is to get people to where they want to go safely, while at the same time trying to cut down on traffic congestion impacts,” Rigler said. “When things like this happen, parents are going to be less likely to send their kids to school on bikes. The result is the people who feel less safe taking bikes will revert to cars, and that’s the opposite of what we want.”
One of the primary issues that residents have raised is the speed of vehicles in residential areas, with many calling for a 20 mph speed limit in those areas. While Tompkins said speed was not a factor in this case, McIntyre said the crash renewed calls for the slower speeds to the point that officials added it to the master plan.
“Each crash has its own unique set of circumstances, and speed didn’t necessarily play a role in this one, but I think it did bring forth an extra effort on the part of the community to say, ‘We want to see this happen,’” McIntyre said. “As a board, we made a small modification encouraging a move toward 20 mph and slower speeds on residential streets. It’s an issue that’s been brought up by the community.”
— Henry Koren (@HKoren) September 5, 2019
Tompkins wrote that, “over the longer haul, it looks like several recommendations in Boulder’s 2019 Transportation Master Plan should help.” But he also thinks there are some immediate fixes that could be made, including more crossing guards.
“With the high (number) of kids that use that crosswalk from 8:20 to 8:30 every morning and 3 to 3:15 every afternoon, both the automobile traffic and the kids would greatly benefit from a crossing guard” Tompkins wrote. “Even with some parents coming and going with the kids, it can be quite chaotic and nobody is in charge. A crossing guard could force the kids to group up and make sure they all cross safely together rather than trickling across one by one as they arrive at the intersection.”
Tompkins called his crossing guard idea a “near-term” solution, but one school’s alternate short-term solution has created its own controversy. Following the crash, Southern Hills Principal John White sent out a letter to parents with a new set of restrictions for students on bikes, including dismount zones and restrictions on riding on campus.
Some parents saw the letter as White placing blame for crashes on students biking and not on drivers.
“I think it’s unfair they put the onus on kids,” Halsey said. “Yes, kids need to be responsibly taught how to safely navigate. But parents and the community at large need to do a better job of slowing down and looking out.”
Boulder Bike Twitter, help me calm down. Southern Hill Middle School emailed its response to kids getting hit by cars. The email has 4 new policies … that the kids on bikes have to follow to prevent more collisons. 🤬@BikeBoulderBike @ZaneSelvans @ericmbudd @AaronBrockett12
— Chaz Teplin (@ChazDoesEnergy) September 6, 2019
McIntyre echoed those sentiments.
“We have to be placing the burden of the safety of our children on the people driving a big, multi-ton vehicle,” McIntyre said. “It is our responsibility as adults driving cars to yield to and be on the lookout for kids and to give them space and to drive in a manner that both makes them feel comfortable and is safe, period. That’s just our responsibility, and that comports with code and law and everything else.”
Boulder Valley School District spokesman Randy Barber said the letter was not an attempt at shifting the burden of safety to students, noting White had sent out previous newsletters asking drivers to be safe.
We certainly understand your perspective on this letter.
We are just trying to put it into perspective. This is just the latest of several messages to parents on this matter. On Aug 19 & Aug 29, the school encouraged parents to drive safely in its newsletter. Attaching excerpts. pic.twitter.com/5qmiy6wrt1
— Boulder Valley School District (@BVSDcolorado) September 6, 2019
“We are most certainly advocates of out students that walk, bike, carpool, etc, to school,” Barber said. “We very much encourage staff and students to use alternate transportation.”
Rather, Barber said it was simply a principal trying to find an immediate way to keep his students safe.
“One of his key jobs is to keep kids safe,” Barber said. “He was trying to implement a measure to provide a little bit of a barrier.”
Barber noted White was not making his decision just based on this one crash. White noted in his email there have been three other similar crashes in the neighborhood, while Barber said there have been six total near Boulder Valley schools in the young school year.
“This fall has been unusual, and busier than normal in terms of how many crashes that we’ve had between bicyclists and pedestrians and cars,” Barber said. “It’s something we at the school district take very seriously.”
Landon Hilliard, the program coordinator for Boulder Valley’s Safe Routes to School program, said the measures Southern Hills took are not meant to be permanent.
“Safety comes first,” Hilliard. “The idea here is that we have to give some protective shield to students first, then work out the problems and then implement the solution so that we’re comfortable with students biking.”
To that end, in addition to classes on safe biking for students, the district is letting parents know about courses they can take on being better drivers.
“We’re trying to hit both parent drivers and student bicyclists with education so everyone will be equipped to be smart and confident users of the road,” Hilliard said.
But Barber said the school district agrees the burden should not be placed on kids.
“Drivers that are behind the wheel of multi-ton vehicles, they have a much bigger responsibility to the safety of students,” Barber said. “Their errors when they make them have a far larger impact. We really do want to send a message to the community to make sure that they know their role in this is critically important. That momentary lateness to work doesn’t compare to the life of a student.”
‘He made a mistake’
Thankfully, Tompkins said his daughter will not be deterred from riding her bike by this crash.
“We have replaced our daughter’s helmet and she intends to resume riding her bicycle to school,” Tompkins said.
The driver, David Ciarlo, 51, was ticketed for failure to yield to a pedestrian.
“I bear no ill will towards the driver,” Tompkins wrote. “He made a mistake and he handled the situation as gracefully as it could possibly be done.”
Tompkins just hopes Boulder can learn from this crash, so he and his family can safely cross the street for many years to come.
“If we are able to find a way to make the intersection safer for the kids as a result of what happened on (Sept. 4), then his low-speed mistake last week may end up saving a future life.”