San Francisco Examiner * April 30, 2001

Mobile wake for biker killed by truck

By Dan Evans
of the Examiner Staff

A series of tragedies has galvanized San Francisco's mostly disorganized bicycling community, whose members are shouting louder than ever that cyclists are treated as second-class citizens.

On Friday, just before cyclists held a noon rally at City Hall organized by the Bicycle Coalition to call attention to the traffic death of a cyclist last year, a cyclist in Fremont and another in downtown San Francisco were struck by cars and killed.

The memorial for Chris Robertson, 30, who died in November after he was run over by a truck, coincided with the monthly Critical Mass ride, billed as a wake for the fallen biker.

As many as 2,000 cyclists met a Justin Herman Plaza on Friday evening and formed a trail almost a mile long. The cyclists rode up Market Street, around Union Square, on to Pac Bell Park, and through North Beach and Chinatown. The ride had its intended effect: it stopped traffic during the evening commute, and was fairly peaceful, barring a few stare-downs between drivers and helmeted bicyclists.

The tone of the noon rally, already in a dark and angry mood, deteriorated further when the crowd of some 200 were informed that a woman was run over and killed three hours earlier by a garbage truck while riding her bike near Oak and Franklin streets. She was later identified as Michelle Lyn O'Connor, 24, of San Francisco.

An hour earlier, Trudy Marie Haskett, 53, and her husband were riding their bicycles along Paseo Padre Parkway in Fremont when she lost control, fell into traffic and was struck and killed by a sports-utility vehicle.

San Francisco Supervisor Chris Daly, whose district includes the downtown area that cyclists say is the most dangerous, told the cyclists at City Hall that their anger was justified and urged them to organize better. He said pressure on politicians and police would better protect cyclists.

The crowd applauded -- some showed support by ringing their bicycle bells -- when Daly called on the board of supervisors to pass a ban on using mobile phones while driving.

Daly's reception was far sunnier than that given Supervisor Mark Leno, who was roundly booed when he asked cyclists to temper their rage. Leno, dressed in a gray suit and red tie, was unable to say much more, as the crowd shouted curses at him until he retreated into City Hall.  "This is a horror we're experiencing, an epidemic of disrespect," said Leno told the crowd through a megaphone. "The prescription is some basic courtesy."

Cyclists at the noon rally, many taking a break from their employ as messengers, held signs protesting Robertson's death. Rueben Espinoza, 42, the trucker who allegedly ran over Robertson, will not face felony charges. Espinoza admitted to throwing a block of wood at Robertson shortly before hitting him with his tractor-trailer Nov. 17, but has maintained the death was an accident. When he was killed, Robertson was part of a group of bicyclists attending the wake of another cyclist who had recently died.

On April 17, San Francisco Superior Court Judge Herbert Donaldson dismissed a felony vehicular manslaughter count against Espinoza. The judge, who retired from active duty on the bench in 1999, also reduced to misdemeanors two felony charges of assault.

The City Hall event served as a precursor to Friday evening's Critical Mass protest. A spokesman from the San Francisco Police Department's traffic division said the number of cyclists at the monthly ride varies widely, depending on the weather and if attendees have a any particular issue in mind.

On Friday, a number of attendees were first-time riders who said they came out specifically to protest Donaldson's decision. Peter Rathmann, of San Ramon, said bikers need to be able to get to work, home and to the store without fearing for their lives.
The judge's decision, he said, sends the wrong message.


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