TRIGGER WARNING. THIS POST INCLUDES DETAILS THAT THOSE SUFFERING FROM TRAUMA AS A RESULT OF ROAD VIOLENCE MAY WANT TO AVOID (see here for support services, if you are in need of them)
(photo above taken at the dedication of the ghost bike)
There were about thirty of us in the Fulton County courtroom yesterday, mostly virtually. In addition to Judge Rickman, Assistant District Attorney Mike Sprinkels, and several lawyers and defendants for multiple cases, there was Maria Borowik of Bikelaw (whom you met during the “You Go, Girl” series) and a woman named Anna Mayer tapping in from Germany.
Anna is the sister of Felix Mayer. Felix Mayer was killed by a man driving a truck on April 24, 2020 in the Metro Atlanta city of Sandy Springs, Georgia. Leonardo Angulo Banos of Norcross, GA is the man who was driving that truck. Felix Mayer’s wife, Gao, could not attend because she is too traumatized. Felix Mayer lived in my city of Dunwoody, Georgia with Gao and their young children.
His widow asked City of Dunwoody City Councilor Joe Seconder (you’ve met Councilor Seconder here previously) to encourage other people who ride bikes to attend. As Metro Atlanta Bicycle Mayor, a League of American Bicyclists Cycling Instructor, a People for Bikes ambassador, a mom and a wife like Gao, a citizen, a participant at the dedication of the ghost bike at the spot where this crash occurred (pictured below), and a survivor of road violence while traveling at the speed of bike, I chose to attend.
The hearing lasted a little over an hour and a half. The majority of that time was spent by ADA Sprinkels questioning City of Sandy Springs Officer Charles Needham, who was the officer who responded to the multiple 911 calls and served as the investigative researcher.
Office Needham is a crash reconstruction expert with hundreds of cases under his belt as well as hundreds of hours of training (core training of 280 hours plus at least 300 more hours), including additional specialized pedestrian and bicycle investigation training just one month before this incident.
Officer Needham offered what could be considered a master class in crash reconstruction yesterday. He explained in detail the obvious evidence — a man in a bright blue top with a white helmet and a red bike dead in the street in the light of a clear day, strewn motor vehicle parts, a shoe thrown off all the way across the road, and what turned out to be highly-revealing tire marks. (Those of us who attended the ghost bike dedication a month later saw Mr. Mayer’s water bottle still laying in the pine straw down a ditch on the side of the road.)
And then he took us on his journey as he studied the traffic camera evidence before, during, and after the entire crash.
In addition to determining that the truck driver displayed an inability to maintain his lane numerous times, as shown clearly on the camera footage, Office Needham applied numerous scientific tests to determine the average speed that the defendant was traveling, the speed at the point of contact, and the speed during his escape (as this was, yes, a hit-and-run) (if interested, you can see the hit-and-run I survived here).
By the way, this entire time a woman was serving in her professional role as an interpreter for the defendant. (The defendant had said he did not need an interpreter but his attorney, Ben Sessions, insisted upon it.)
Together, we learned that gravity accelerates an object towards the earth at a rate of 32.2 feet per second, and that speed can be calculated by triangulating three different tests, all of which Officer Needham went into in detail and which he applied to this case. Time, distance, superelevation, grade, and condition of road were some the many variables considered. Phrases like centrifugal force, coalition of friction, and critical speed scuffs dominated.
Officer Needham explained how he was able to follow the large white truck on traffic cameras to a place of work. He was able to see the man who is serving as a defendant on the traffic cameras (additionally identified by Officer Needham during the hearing as the man in the courtroom who was wearing a blue jumpsuit with white stripes).
Officer Needham was then able to actually go to that work location and speak with the foreman and the business owner. He was able to locate the truck and observe damage, and he was then able to bring the defendant into the Sandy Springs Police Department headquarters for questioning, during which the defendant stated he did not know he hit a person.
As a result of that interview and the existing evidence, Officer Needham was able to obtain a warrant to search the defendant’s phone and thus discover the defendant contacted a person named Petra right after the crash to say he was involved in a wreck and hit a bicyclist.
As a result of these investigations, Officer Needham is confident in stating that the driver of the truck was traveling at an average speed of about 56 mph (on a road with a posted speed limit of 35 mph), hit the person riding the bike between 53.869 and 57.593 mph, and fled the scene at a speed estimated to be between 72 and 78.9 mph.
The person on the bike was traveling an average of 18 mph but was moving along with the truck at its speed at the time of death.
The driver of the truck was traveling straight at the point of impact, and the person killed traveled a distance of 138.5 feet from that point.
The cause of death, according to the medical examiner, is listed as traumatic injuries to the head from a rear-end car crash. Officer Needham believes it occurred as a result of an overhanging tool box. He also believes that the final breathing that witnesses observed was something called aganal breathing, which are involuntary spasms of the diaphragm upon death.
A hearing is the time when the actual probable cause charges are determined, and I’ll list them shortly. It is also a time for the defense attorney to lay the foundation for the case he will try to build to reduce or eliminate charges during the upcoming grand jury trial.
The defense attorney, Ben Sessions, is identified online as being recognized in 2010 for the Greatest Trial Victory of the Year by the Georgia Defense of Drinking Drivers Group. In 2011, he was recognized as the DUI Lawyer of the Year by the Georgia Defense of Drinking Drivers Group.
So, I was curious how this would go.
Here’s how it went.
Mr. Sessions asked questions about the relevance of speed calculations to the cause of death (answer: to articulate the recklessness of the driving); if Officer Needham believes Mr. Mayer died immediately (yes); were there multiple occupants in the truck (doesn’t know); was Mr. Mayer appropriately marked in terms of clothing and was his bicycle in compliance lawfully in terms of the road (doesn’t know).
On Redirect (which is when the opposing attorney can clarify any of the points made during questioning), ADA Sprinkels (who, by the way, did an excellent job throughout this hearing, in my opinion) asked if Mr. Mayer was riding his bicycle in the middle of the road (no — see the fourth bullet below in the paragraph that starts “Additionally” for my rubber-hits-the-road comment about this question). He then asked if he was riding it on the right side of the road as nearly as practicably possible (yes).
ADA Sprinkels asked for these seven charges:
1. and 2: Homicide by vehicle in the 1st degree
3: Hit-and-run resulting in serious injury and death
4: Reckless driving
5: Driving with improper and erratic lane change
7: Distracted driving while operating a wireless device
The Court ruled in favor of all seven counts.
A grand jury trial date will soon be set. A trial will follow that. And those of us who are simply trying to get home safely on a miraculous machine known as a bicycle (as I recorded for a driving-safely-around-those-on-bicycles course that the City of Dunwoody recently created, literally five minutes before I, myself, was hit) will be there.
Note: There is no Vulnerable Road User (VRU) Violation charge in this case because there is no VRU ordinance in the State of Georgia, Fulton County, or the City of Sandy Springs.
Only two cities in the entire southeastern United States have them. My city was the first, adopted one week after this collision. I was the first victim of a collision where the driver was charged with it on July 13, 2020. Vulnerable Road User ordinances provide additional prosecutorial options against those who cause serious injury or death for those traveling not in motor vehicles or working on our roadways.
Here is why a statewide VRU law is needed. I am currently working in concert with other advocates to encourage the adoption of a statewide law, following the model provided by the League of American Bicyclists. Please join me.
Additionally, I have ridden my bike through the exact spot where this collision occurred. It is less than a mile from our major hospitals, one of which is (as I write this) on ICU/CCU diversion due to the surge in COVID-19 cases.
The route from that hospital to a few blocks beyond this “final resting location” (which is the euphemism used throughout the hearing) includes:
- too-narrow unprotected bike lanes that don’t meet NACTO guidelines;
- the beginning of a multiuse side path;
- a dark tunnel under the deadliest highway in the USA with no bike or pedestrian access at all;
- then the spot where the crash occurred, where I had to dip into driveways numerous times because the conditions feel so violent and where “taking the lane”, which means riding in the middle of the lane, would have been a legally-defensible decision — the photo below shows the nearest intersection and the size difference between a truck and an adult male on a bike (note: I’m 5’1″. Children are smaller);
- and eventually back to too-narrow-unprotected bike lanes, which, by the way, would not be admissible for Bicycle Friendly Community status (see The Width of a Prius).
So, that’s where we are, folks.
What I would have liked to have seen in the nine months that have passed since a person lost his life is action by the City of Sandy Springs to provide safe access in a spot now known to result in death. However, nothing has changed there.
A pop-up protected bike lane, wave delineators, local-art-painted concrete curbs, attractive planters, and even basic bollards are making communities across the USA safer at a time when essential workers are making their way to area hospitals, and others of all ages and abilities are riding for health and wellness during the biggest bike boom since the 1970s.
The City of Atlanta even released guidelines for Tactical Urbanism during COVID-19 and beyond. You can see it here. (Fun fact: I asked the City of Dunwoody for some of these considerations one week into lockdown back in March 2020 — AND offered to lead the effort — and was told a fast and firm no. Please also see Cone of Silence.)
IF NO CHANGES HAVE BEEN MADE AFTER A MAN WAS KILLED, CAN I EXPECT THAT CHANGES WILL BE MADE AFTER I SURVIVED? AND IF EVEN DEATHS DON’T MATTER, WHAT ACTUALLY DOES?
One can still hope.
Trust the journey,
League Cycling Instructor #5382
Update: January 27, 2021
Bearing witness matters. Words matter. You matter. The Mayor of the City of Sandy Springs, GA has arranged a meeting as a result of someone sharing this post. The outcome matters.
Additional related posts:
Your Awards Are Not More Important than Our Lives
Thank you for your support. 100% of proceeds from the sale of my book, Traveling at the Speed of Bike, as well as my original-art Artsy Bike Face Mask, are used to help more women and girls ride bikes.
Also, there’s a bib! You can order it here. See an adorable baby modeling it here. (Reminder: Kids don’t wait. They grow up. You can’t “feel like a kid again” when you ride a bike for the rest of your life . . . if you didn’t ride a bike as a kid. The time for change is now.)
* See more books about bike riding and its diverse issues and opportunities at Bike Books (the only book shop in the world carefully curated to feature only books about bike riding).