Forward: This story has particular relevance to me as every week I ride my bike over the exact same stretch of PCH in Malibu as the two riders who were killed last Saturday. Every week I comment to my riding partner that the situation there is incredibly dangerous. For the past several months I had wondered out loud why no one was calling Caltrans or the contractor responsible for creating the dangerous encroachment. I was one of those people who never made the call and I will have to live with that the rest of my life. However, I can do something now which is to make sure that this story is told in its entirety and that pressure is put on all responsible parties to fix the section of roadway that has contributed to two deaths. As of today, five days after the fatal accident, nothing has been done to remove the obstructions which means this weekend, hundreds of more cyclists will be forced out of the bike lane into 50+ mph traffic. How can this be so?
Bicyclist deaths are always tragic and senseless. However, the killings of Stanislav Ionov and Scott Bleifer stand out in their senselessness. Bike accidents are often the result of a series of unrelated and unpredictable events that happen in such an unfortunate manner as to result in a catastrophe. For example, a driver just happening to be inattentive at the moment when they are drifting out of their lane while a cyclist is at that same moment veering into traffic to avoid road debris they were just coming upon (think “wrong place, wrong time.”).
However, unfortunate circumstances have nothing to do with the deaths of Ionov and Bleifer and their deaths were 100% avoidable.
Stanislav Ionov was a senior researcher and expert at laser technology at HRL Laboratories, which is located less than a mile from the accident scene. He received a bachelor’s degree after graduation from the Moscow PhysTech in 1981. Then he worked as a research assistant to Professor Kapitsa (a Nobel laureate) to get his master’s degree and doctorate. After that he became the director of an experimental group at the Research Center for Laser Technology at the Soviet Academy of Science. In 1989, he emigrated to the United States, where he did postdoctoral work at UCLA and USC. He became an American citizen in 1999, and had a wife, Irina, and a daughter, Sophi and lived in nearby Calabasas. Ionov often rode his bike to work and went on long rides with co-workers. It was a little unusual for Stas to even be on PCH, his preferred route for going to/from work was Malibu Canyon Road. It appears just back luck that after working a few hours that day he took off north on PCH instead of returning the same way he had ridden that morning.
Scott Bleifer (seen above in a photograh from the La Grange web site) worked in real estate finance and was a regular at the Peet’s Coffee Shop on 14th Street in Santa Monica. He was vice president at Union Bank of California and a member of a local riding club called Club Velo La Grange. He was planning to ride from San Francisco to Los Angeles next weekend for the Arthritis Foundation’s Amgen California Coast Classic.
The breathtaking ocean and hillside views on the Pacific Coast Highway in Malibu, California carries dangers for bicyclists who ride in on the narrow road as cars zoom past them at over 50 miles per hour. Despite the risks inherent with riding on any major thoroughfare, PCH is traversed by thousands of road bicyclists most weekends. For reasons that are not understood, Caltrans has never built a dedicated bike lane on PCH and worse has allowed numerous obstructions and encroachments along the highway shoulder that force cyclists to share traffic lanes with fast moving cars.
So far in 2005, eight cyclists have been injured on PCH, according to the Sheriff’s Department. Seven were injured in 2004 and six in 2003.
Google satellite image of the area of the crash location taken prior to construction.
There is a wide shoulder used by bikes on northbound PCH coming down from Pepperdine University where cyclists pick up speed having just climbed a long hill out of Malibu Colony. At the bottom of the hill the road starts to veer to the right. The speed limit is 50 miles per hour on this stretch and cars regularly exceed this speed.
At this point the paved shoulder becomes impassable as orange traffic cones (see above photo) force cyclists onto the right-hand traffic lane. The cones represent the start of a construction project for a synagogue at the Malibu Jewish Center. For the length of the construction site (several hundred feet), concrete barriers cut off the shoulder. It is a very dangerous situation and it is unfathomable that the State, the synagogue, and the contractor let it happen for the several months that they’ve been blocking bicycle passage.
The concrete rails blocking the bike lane were reportedly installed with a state permit for construction. Said one cyclist who had ridden there earlier that morning: “Those barriers literally force you onto the road … there’s nowhere to go.” (As a follow-up I am trying to learn more about the permit and will post as an update).
This dangerous situation has been in place for many, many months. As mentioned above, even after the deaths last week, there has been no attempt to mitigate the danger or even add signs asking drivers to watch for cyclists.
As Ionov and Bleifer rode northbound at about 10 a.m. on Pacific Coast Highway just passed John Tyler Drive (the entrance to Pepperdine University) traffic cones forced them into the right traffic lane where they were struck from behind by a catering truck travelling an estimated 50 miles per hour.
Witnesses said the impact flung the two cyclists 150 feet forward.
(photo: Nick Miehle of Malibu Times)
The driver ”barely stepped on his brakes,” and did not swerve to avoid the two men, who were riding abreast of each other in the right-hand traffic lane next to the barricaded shoulder, said Los Angeles Sheriff’s Traffic Sgt. Philip Brooks. “Witnesses say he pretty much plowed into them, that he just tapped the brakes.”
A shaken motorist, who asked not be to identified, said, “One guy went under the truck, and the other was stuck on the windshield for a moment before he went down.” Another witness in the car travelling behind the catering truck said he could see the bicyclists and wondered why the truck didn’t pull to the left to give them room.
Los Angeles County paramedics worked on both victims at the scene, and flew them to the UCLA Medical Center, where they were pronounced dead. (photo: Nick Miehle of Malibu Times)
The Killer Behind the Wheel
Victor Silva, a 37-year-old Compton resident, was the driver of the catering truck that killed Ionov and Bleifer. He was arrested at the scene and on Tuesday was charged was charged with two counts of felony vehicular manslaughter and two counts of felony hit-and-run in their deaths. Silva apparently has no prior record. He remains jailed in lieu of $100,000 bond.
Silva did not stop for a quarter mile down the road from the accident scene and said he hadn’t seen the men before the accident. He also explained he did not step hard on the brakes because his passenger was standing behind him and cooking hot food.
Cooking in the back of a moving vehicle is illegal, Caffrey said. Authorities believe Silva was travelling around the 50 mph speed limit.
Ionov and Bleifer were killed nearly a week ago, and while people at the local Starbucks are talking about it, and the city officials of Malibu are talking about it, absolutely nothing has been done to improve the safety and while I was taking photographs today I saw bicyclists forced back out into the same stretch that killed Ionov and Bleifer. I do not understand how this is possible. State permit or not, two people are dead because of those barricades so how can they remain? Furthermore, if you look at the pictures it would appear that they could easily be moved in three feet which would still allow the construction process to continue while allowing bicycle traffic to come through without going into a high-speed traffic lane. (see photo below.) Is this really too much to ask?
Malibu City Councilmember Pamela Conley Ulich brought up the issue of bike safety on PCH at Monday night’s council meeting, and it was decided that the Public Safety Commission would address the issue. Ulich is a proponent of bike lanes, or some other way bicyclists could ride safely on the highway. Caltrans had studied the issue before but decided against bike lanes. The city has no jurisdiction over highway projects and can only make recommendations to Caltrans. Does anyone want to guess how likely this is going to result in action?
Why were barriers put up for the complete length of the construction site with zero accommodations for cyclists, a situation they knew was both dangerous and would be heavily trafficked?
If it was a construction zone, why wasn’t there a reduced construction zone speed limit?
Why weren’t there any signs notifying drivers to watch for cyclists?
Why haven’t the barriers come down or been moved inward since the accident?[Update (9/30/05): the barriers have been removed.]
Please do not do what I did and think “somebody should do something” and then do nothing. If you live in California, write your state legislature or Caltrans, as an update I’ll get that contact information. Email the Los Angeles Times (firstname.lastname@example.org) and ask them to do a follow-up story on the obstructions to the bike passage way. The Times has the ability to call the synagogue, the contractor, Caltrans, and others and have a much greater impact than we could. Ditto with the Malibu Times. Please do something.
Photos: Insider (except where noted otherwise)
Scott’s water bottle was still at the scene serving as a chilling reminder what transpired 5 days before.
It should be noted that Velo La Grange lost Debra Goldsmith to a similar accident in Pacific Palisades several years ago.
If you have additional information on the riders or accident please post them in the comments or email them to us. Our contact information is accessible on our homepage.
Update: We understand that Malibu Times is working on another story. We will link to it when it is published and thank them for their comprehensive reporting of this story. If you read the comments below you will see that a dedicated group of cyclists immediately began calling media outlets as early as Sunday in what turned out to be a successful campaign to to get the media to look into the causes of the accident. This same group is forming a PCH bicycle task force to look into bicycle safety issues along the highway. As a follow-up to this posting, I had planned to take photos of what I considered to be the 10 most dangerous encroachments on PCH (some of which have been noted in the comments section). It appears now that there may be a structure for efforts like ours and our readers to support. I will post updates here as I learn about them. Furthermore, we are advised to continue emailing the editors at all local papers asking them to keep on the story. It also never hurts to email our local politicians. The sad news about my “10 most dangerous encroachments” is that I wouldn’t even have to travel far from home to get to ten–so a great deal of work needs to be done.
Update (9/17): There is now a memorial web site for Scott. We also posted a letter to the cycling community regarding the Malibu Sheriff’s department’s new policy regarding cycling on PCH “Malibu Sheriffs to cyclists: if the cars don’t get you, we will.”
Update (9/20): Commenter Merilin Monrovsk sent us a link to a photo of Stas Ionov, which we just added to the post. We thank him for his additional comments about Stas and the accident which can be found in the comments section below.
Update (10/1): Just posted a story on Scott and Stas’ Memorial Ride.
Update (10/3): A Wiki-enabled memorial has been put together for Stas with links and remembrances. Please check it out.
Please make sure to read the comments below as many of Scotts and Stas’ friends weigh in on the accident.
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