TRIBUTE: A fresh vase of flowers and day-old balloons adorned with personal messages mark the spot where Liz Garcia died on her bike last October.
Is biking under the influence taken seriously in wine country?
By Denis Lindsay
While the amount is still in question, no one disputes that Liz Garcia had been drinking the evening of Oct. 22, 2008. After dinner with friends at Santa Rosa's Tex Wasabi's restaurant, she stopped at the Round Robin bar just south of College and Mendocino avenues. Upon leaving the bar, she rode her BMX bike through a red light at that same intersection. Her bike did not have lights. She was not wearing a helmet. Struck by a young motorist who did not see her in time to stop, she slammed against the vehicle's windshield and then landed on the road. The next day, Liz Garcia was pronounced dead.
The death of this 26-year-old woman left friends and family members heartbroken. Garcia's memory is still so fresh in the minds of her loved ones, a close-knit group of friends who call themselves the "A-Team," that they have decorated the northeast traffic pole of the intersection with pictures, candles, flowers, balloons and letters in her honor, a vigil that has stayed intact for over three months after the accident. Driving by, you can still see Garcia's friends visiting the site to pay respect and mourn their loss.
In the North Bay, people are increasingly leaving their cars at home and taking their bikes when possible. An ancillary to this new carbon-saving revolution is that people are also taking their habits out with their bikes. Combining biking with wine tours, trips to local breweries and the general abundance of wineries throughout the North Bay prompts the question: Is drinking and biking an issue?
On paper, the answer is yes. The legislation aimed at drunk biking is very similar to that of drunk driving. Drunken bikers can be taken into custody and have their driver's license suspended just like a DUI. Santa Rosa officers mounted their first-ever sweep of biking infractions on Nov. 6, just weeks after Garcia's death, issuing 27 citations and 13 warnings in an effort that they admitted was prompted by the young woman's death.
To get a Sonoma County law enforcement perspective, it made sense to begin the search for information at the Sonoma County Sheriff's Department. Surely, of any law enforcement agencies in the North Bay, they should have some useful information. "Oh, well we deal mostly with Windsor and Sonoma. You'll want to try Santa Rosa Police on Sonoma Avenue," the officer explains.
The Sheriff's Department may not be aware of this issue, but Santa Rosa Police must have some idea. Anyone can see the bicyclists cruising up and down Santa Rosa's downtown strip of bars on Fourth Street. The officer at the desk explains that no one is available. No one is available later either, but the officer at the desk does speak to a rise in biking accidents, cautioning that there is no information linking the accidents to drinking.
"I have never been caught by the cops. I did have a wreck, but that was because I didn't have lights. I couldn't see where I was going and I hit a parked car," admits Santa Rosa resident Dani Lantta. Lantta has had four to five biking accidents while intoxicated; she can't remember how many. It has been about a year since she biked drunk, but during this time her drunken cycling stints were about two to three times per week. Lantta also only biked within a mile from her home, which is where all of her accidents took place.
Christine Culver, the executive director for the Sonoma County Bicycle Coalition, is unaware of any potential problems. "I haven't thought about [drinking and biking]. It has not been brought up as an issue," Culver says. She adds, "[Sonoma County Bicycle Coalition] reaches out with safety campaigns and helmet use. We urge people to follow the rules of the road, use proper lighting. The rules of the road do include not biking while intoxicated, but," Culver says, "it's low on the radar."
Santa Rosa resident Bryce Paulson regularly rides while intoxicated. Like Lantta, Paulson has been in multiple accidents and has never been in trouble with the police. "I wave to them," he says. "I also have these intense lights. They are gnarly. Cops love them." Lights do seem to make a difference, and as far as injuries, Paulson remains unscathed. "I have hurt cars and I have hurt my bike, but I have never been injured."
Kim Baenisch, the executive director for the Marin County Bicycle Coalition, feels that drinking and biking is low on the radar as well. "I have not heard of it being an issue. It could be that we don't have wineries," Baenisch says. She later adds, "There has never been a need to address drinking and biking, though we have addressed it in a more general way by educating people on the rules of the road."
Downtown Santa Rosa resident Joe Hyland says that he rides under the influence almost every night. "I am not necessarily drunk, but have been drinking," Hyland says. Two weeks before Hyland's interview, he had his first run-in with Santa Rosa police while intoxicated on his bike.
He had purchased a six-pack from the market inside of the College Avenue 440 Club. Hyland had been drinking, was riding against traffic and had run a red light when police pulled him over. "The officers were laughing amongst themselves and asked me, 'Have you been drinking?'" Hyland recalls. The police ran his information and found that Hyland was on probation. He tried negotiating with officers and let them know he was just going to see a girl. The police officers told Hyland if this girl was able to pick him up within five minutes, they would let him go. The girl showed up. The police let him go.
Healdsburg police officer Allison Hurley says that drinking and biking is not an issue for Healdsburg. "I have been here 12 years and have only had one arrest," Hurley says. What about the wine country bike tours in this area? These tours, designed for visitors to take scenic bike rides to and from the wineries of Sonoma County must have had an incident or two.
"Bike tours are in the county jurisdiction," Hurley says.
There are two wineries, Mill Creek Vineyards and Winery and Alderbrook Winery, within 1.3 miles of the Healdsburg police station. These same wineries are considered to be "out of Healdsburg jurisdiction," and there are many more just up Westside Road.
Could it just be that there are not enough eyes on the road? Lisa Mott, who serves wine at Mill Creek's tasting room, says, "These roads are patrolled by the county, but I work from 9:30am to 5:30pm and I only see about one sheriff drive by a day."
Mott also expresses her concerns for wine bike tourists. "I just know one of these days there is going to be an accident. There are blind turns [along Westside Road]. It's really dangerous," Mott says. When asked if she had ever run into intoxicated cyclists while working at Mill Creek, she says, "No. It hasn't been an issue yet."
Tasting-room servers from Alderbrook also say drinking and biking has never been an issue for them. "Bikers come in, taste and spit, find the bottle they like and take off," says server Shannon White.
John Mastrianni of Wine Country Bike Tours assures that drunken cycling is not and has not been an issue for his company. In the company's literature, there are a lot of cautions about drinking and biking. Flyers and brochures include slogans like "Don't drink and ride" and "Ride sober—spit if you are tasting wine." Wine Country Bike Tours also requires participants to sign an agreement limiting alcohol intake.
Nick Wierzba of Napa Valley Bike Tours has a similar take. "It's a sensory experience. It's not a bar-type experience," says Wierzba. "Our guests are responsible people, and we do four tastings over six hours and we have lunch somewhere in there."
Rock 'n' Roll Sunday School, a weekly dance party held at the Zoo off of Santa Rosa Avenue, recently held a raffle to promote bicycle-safety and awareness. The prizes included helmets, bike lights and other bike-safety paraphernalia that Davina Barron, close friend of Garcia, gathered from various bicycle stores as donations.
Barron and the other members of the "A-Team" are now making an effort to reach out about bicycle safety. In addition to mourning the loss of Garcia, Barron and other members of the "A-Team" have felt a social backlash. "We read the comments on the Santa Rosa Press Democrat website, and people are slamming us. It doesn't help that there is a lot of false information that has been released," Barron says. She also insists that Garcia had only had one drink the night of her fatal accident. She attributes the accident to bicycle safety more than intoxication.
Barron and other members of th "A-Team" are making sure that Garcia's death was not in vain. They are taking action and educating people about the importance of bicycle safety.
Three months later, police awareness seems to have increased as well. After speaking with Sgt. Douglass Schlief, who heads the traffic bureau, it becomes clear that a new attention to bicycle safety has been applied.
"We have a two-year grant for bicycle safety, which includes drinking and biking that seeks to educate people on the consequences. We have taken law enforcement action on stopping cyclists who aren't obeying traffic laws." Schlief explains, "We are taking a stronger posture than we have in the past."
"I think it's an issue everywhere," says Schlief of intoxicated cycling. "We are doing a lot to educate people."
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