While he awaits the sheriff's reports laying out the details of the October 1 crash that caused the death of cyclist Jeff Littmann, Waukesha County, Wisconsin, District Attorney Brad Schimel has been fielding calls from local cyclists worried about the dangers on local roads.
He shares their concerns.
While unable to talk specifics about the Littmann case, the veteran prosecutor was forthright about cycling issues and escalating conflicts in a phone conversation in early October. He had met Littmann - a well-respected racer and owner of Attitude Sports in Pewaukee - a couple times, and like most everyone else, considered his death to be "a terrible tragedy."
"It's been a rough year for cyclists in this county," Schimel said, referring to the three bicyclists killed in crashes involving cyclists and motor vehicles.
In particular, the district attorney said he is troubled by the increasing use of cell phones and other electronic devices that distract motorists. "It's unacceptable, the percentage of people who drive with the phone to their ear," Schimel said. "I don't see good things coming from that. Drivers need to be focused on the task at hand: driving."
To be clear, Schimel has not yet received any information to show whether the driver in the Littmann crash was using a phone when he drove into the 56-year-old cyclist on Wisconsin Avenue in Nashotah.
If there was a phone in the car, Schimel expects to receive the records on that point through the driver's consent or a subpoena.
The driver, Kyle Dieringer, 25, of Nashotah, told sheriff's deputies he was blinded by the morning sun and hit Littmann and training partner Lauren Jensen before he saw them traveling eastbound in front of him. Jensen was injured, but is home recovering.
At some point, Schimel will decide whether he believes Dieringer committed a crime.
Netke crash similar
In a somewhat similar case earlier this year, the district attorney determined no criminal charges were warranted against Samuel Weirick, who drove into Brett Netke on U.S. Highway 18 in the Town of Summit on Father's Day. Netke died, and Weirick paid a $114 citation for failing to yield the 3 feet of clearance required by law when overtaking a bicycle.
Because the infraction resulted in a death, Weirick also had his license suspended for one year.
Schimel said Weirick made a mistake when he misjudged the time he had to pass Netke, who was pedaling eastbound ahead of him. Oncoming traffic closed the gap sooner than Weirick had anticipated. As Schimel viewed it, the mistake didn't rise to the level of a crime, spelled out in the state statutes under homicide by negligent use of a vehicle.
Juries weighing that charge are instructed to consider whether the driver knowingly created an "unreasonable and substantial risk of death or great bodily harm." That requires prosecutors to show the driver's actions went beyond an error in judgment.
Vulnerable user legislation
To provide authorities with another alternative, a number of states have adopted vulnerable user laws. The statutes provide additional penalties for motorists who kill or severely injure bicyclists, pedestrians and workers while committing driving violations.
The Bicycle Federation of Wisconsin will seek to have a similar law introduced during the next legislative session, according to Kevin Hardman, the executive director.
It's likely to be several weeks before Schimel receives the reports from the sheriff's investigation in the Littmann case. When that happens, he'll look to determine if the driver was reckless, impaired or inattentive.
Regardless of the outcome, the prosecutor made it clear he understands that cyclists have a right to ride on the road and need to obey the rules.
Brett Netke didn't violate any traffic law and the preliminary reports show that Jeff Littmann also was riding legally when he was killed, Schimel said.
And, living in the Town of Genesee, he often sees groups of cyclists on the road; some of them training in full team gear, others enjoying the scenery. Sometimes, motorists have to wait a bit to pass them safely, and they should, he said.
Those packs of colorful bicyclists aren't a nuisance, but "part of the ambience of living in the country."
Littmann encouraged and coached dozens of area athletes. He was regarded as a leader and ambassador for the sport, particularly in the Lake Country of Waukesha County. He served as president of the Wisconsin Cycling Association and competed on the Chiropractic Partners/LAPT team in the road racing series. In March, Littmann and his wife, Kelly James, opened Attitude Sports in Pewaukee.
Dozens of cyclists gathered at the bike shop and biked in his honor the Sunday after he passed away at Froedtert Hospital on October 5. It was a day after his funeral in Cudahy.
That same day in a tribute to her stepfather, Ashley James raced in the Cincinnati UCI3 Cyclocross Festival in a gray skin suit, an oversized version of the kit that Littmann favored. Her race was more impressive than her clothing, a fourth-place finish among the elite competition.
A week later, Green Bay Duathlon racers received event T-shirts with "In memory of Jeff Littmann" printed on the back. The announcers implored participants to follow the example of Midwest Sports Events, which staged the duathlon in the parking lot of Lambeau Field, to donate money to the Bicycle Federation of Wisconsin in Littmann's honor.
Littmann was the eighth bicyclist killed by a motor vehicle in Wisconsin in 2010. The total for 2009 was seven.
Tom Held is a Milwaukee-based freelance writer and blogger at TheActivePursuit.com. This piece appeared on the November 2010 issue of Silent Sports.
No charges in in bicycle-police car crash
No criminal charges or traffic tickets will be issued in a crash in which a Waukesha police officer seriously injured a bicyclist on July 13, District Attorney Brad Schimel said. Travis Weber, 17, of Waukesha was riding across State Highway 59/164 when he was hit by a squad car going 57 mph in a 45 mph zone en route to the scene of a car burglary but with no lights or sirens.
Schimel said he could have ticketed the bicyclist for not having a light or reflectors while riding at night. But due to Weber's serious injuries, Schimel said there was no point sending him a message about safe bicycling - the consequences he suffered should be enough.
A state trooper who investigated the crash said it was not unreasonable for the officer to be driving 12 miles over the speed limit to get to the scene of an alleged crime. The investigator also did not believe the circumstances warranted a flashing of lights and sirens.