The Unnecessary Death of Vilhelm Hesness
Bicycling fatality leads to renewed calls for tougher laws
How could 43-year-old motorist Richard Alan Lee crash into a highly visible bicyclist riding lawfully along the side of the road and then manage to lose control of his sport utility vehicle, rolling it over, on a clear, dry morning near a school zone and a "T" intersection?
According to police and toxicology reports, Lee was speeding and apparently wasted on a cocktail of highly potent, incompatible prescription drugs.
Around 10am on July 11, the victim, local bankruptcy lawyer Vilhelm Hesness, was bicycling on a route he traveled frequently near his home in far South Austin. On this Wednesday morning, he was riding his recumbent bike, upon which he had just affixed a tall, bright-yellow flag to increase its visibility. Moments later, he was struck from behind by a Dodge Durango on Manchaca Road near FM 1626. He died in a helicopter en route to the hospital.
Cycling advocates have been watching this case closely, as it represents just one example of an Austin-area cyclist victimized by a lawbreaking motorist, an incident they say occurs far too frequently, often without appropriate enforcement. Ultimately, the cycling community seeks to change the prevailing local belief that cycling is too dangerous to be a viable mode of transport – in part by assuring just penalties for unlawful drivers who endanger the lives of cyclists. Advocates and friends of Hesness became frustrated when the Department of Public Safety, the state agency with jurisdiction over the accident, took more than 10 weeks to process Lee's blood-toxicology test and advance the investigation. Two weeks ago, the DPS issued a warrant for Lee's arrest, charging him with intoxication manslaughter, a second-degree felony punishable by up to 20 years in prison. By then, Lee had gone missing, and at press time, he was still at-large.
Failure to control speed in a 45 mph zone was listed as a factor in an initial accident report. Another likely contributing factor was the combination of drugs Lee had in his body, including the sedatives Xanax and Soma, as well as Zoloft, an anti-depressant, and meprobamate, a tranquilizer. In Lee's arrest affidavit, troopers said he "appeared to be intoxicated or under the influence of drugs," his "speech was slurred," and his eyes were "red, bloodshot, and glassy." At first Lee claimed to be unaware of what had happened but later told troopers he saw a couple of vehicles move over to avoid something before coming up on a bicyclist he was unable to avoid.
Luke Kimble, a friend and riding partner of Hesness, said, "Vilhelm was not the fastest cyclist I have ridden with, but he was one of the safest I have known. He always wore a helmet, he knew the rules of the road, and more importantly, he always obeyed them." Kimble fumes over the fact that Lee's arrest affidavit included four observations that he was under the influence, yet he was not held or charged with any crime. "They had him in the hospital; they had him in custody. Now it appears that Richard Alan Lee has fled. That's exactly what I would do if I killed some guy on a bike while stoned and the DPS gave me 12 weeks to get my affairs in order and leave town. This system has got to change." The DPS attributed the 10-week-plus delay in analyzing Lee's blood test (and the resulting delay in charging Lee) to typical backlogs at its crime lab.
"More advocacy needs to be put into place as more people ride for transportation; we need to make more safe space for cyclists available," said Dale McCormick, another friend and riding partner of Hesness. He echoed Kimble's frustrations over the DPS allowing Lee to go free.
Last year I reported on the case of bicyclist Casey Miller, hit from behind by drunken motorist Rudy Saenz, who left the scene of the accident. Saenz was convicted of failure to stop and render aid, a felony punishable by up to five years in prison and $5,000 in fines. His sentence: eight years deferred adjudication (probation), restitution of $141 in clerical costs, and 240 hours of community service. Because police hadn't reached Saenz until he had already returned home (where he called 911 to report that a body had been thrown at his car), Travis Co. prosecutors were unable to convict him of driving while intoxicated, explained Assistant District Attorney Claire Dawson-Brown. Assistant DA Judy Shipway, who prosecuted the Saenz case, said she doesn't believe bicycling cases are being treated any differently than others, citing the recent example of a drunken driver who ran a red light, hit a car driven by an elderly woman, killing her, and was only sentenced to probation by a jury. Shipway said that Saenz can violate his probation by driving without a valid license or insurance. "All we can do to protect future victims is force him to have insurance."
According to DPS records, Saenz's driver's license is still active, and wasn't suspended as a result of the incident. Miller expressed disappointment in the prosecution, explaining that his case seemingly "fell through the cracks." Still struggling with medical bills, Miller has been unable to afford physical therapy. He's involved in an ongoing civil case with Oilcan Harry's, the Downtown bar where Saenz told police he'd been drinking prior to the crash.
Veteran cycling-safety expert Preston Tyree, the education director for the League of American Bicyclists and a member of the city's Street Smarts bike mobility task force, has testified in several bicycle-related accident cases. He says, "Forty percent of bicycling fatality cases involve motorists who are above the legal alcohol limit – [a] disheartening if not frightening statistic." More troubling, he said, "We allow people who drive while intoxicated to continue to get behind the wheel." He called for tougher enforcement and penalties, such as the revocation of drivers' licenses after the first driving under the influence offense and more police citations for both motorists and cyclists who break the law. "There's no question that courts need to toughen up," he said. "Courts are leery of taking someone's license, even after multiple DUIs." That's partly because of the public perception that people must have a car to survive – and also an economic and transit system heavily based on vehicle ownership. Tyree suggests providing bike and transit-use training for DUI offenders stripped of their licenses. "Driving is a privilege," he said. "In this case someone took advantage of it, and a cyclist paid the price."
The League of American Bicyclists offers a local monthly class for cyclists who desire to ride safely in traffic, known as Road 1. The next courses are on Nov. 23 & 24. See www.streetcycling.org for info.