90-year-old charged with homicide in Eau Claire crash

 Update: the 90-year-old who hit and killed Kirk Cartwright was ordered to surrender his drivers license and keys directed to be moved to an assisted living center (arranged by his sons) to allow time to evaluate his competency, according to the Eau Claire Leader Telegram.

 

Eau Claire police officers gather information Sunday at the scene of a vehicle-bicycle crash Friday along West Clairemont Avenue that killed an Eau Claire man. Eau Claire Leader Telegram photo by Shane Opatz

Archie R. Vanwormer, 90, faces charges of homicide by negligent operation of a vehicle and hit-and-run involving death for driving his car onto the bike path in Eau Claire and killing 51-year-old Kirk D. Cartwright while he was riding his bicycle. Two weeks ago, Tracy A. Kruzicki, 42, was charged with a felony for driving his car into and killing Tammy Gass on Highway KK near Mosiniee on the morning of May 23rd. Marathon County District Attorney charged Kruzicki with operating a motor vehicle with a suspended license and causing the death of another person. With these charges, two of the four drivers who killed people riding bicycles this year have been charged with felonies and the other two crashes remain under investigation.

Vanwormer is scheduled to appear in Eau Claire County Circuit Court this Thursday to face the charges. According to the police report, he was heading south on Rudolph Ave.  when he turned west over the pork chop island, through the right turn bypass and onto the bike path, rather than the parallel Clairemont Street.  He then drove down the path and hit Cartwright. His car dragged Cartwright more than 350 feet until the 90-year-old Vanwormer was forced to stop by an off-duty police officer and other bystanders, who took his keys out of the ignition. When you look at the map of the area below, it is clear how a confused or impaired person could have made this mistake.

My emotions are mixed about this news.  While part of me is glad a person’s killer stands a good chance of being held accountable by our legal system, another part of me would prefer we fix the broken system that allows people unfit to drive to get behind the wheel at all. Certainly strict enforcement of the current laws and perhaps enacting a vulnerable users law should help to reinforce the responsibilities we all shoulder when we get behind the wheel and buckle up, but I fear our priorities are so far out of balance that much more is needed if we are to prevent more innocent people from being killed.

While I believe that enforcement is necessary, our permissive culture that so heavily subsidizes motor vehicle travel, but under-funds safety and education efforts is the real place to start.  Do we really want to require that every tavern have a parking lot?  Maybe we should require that taverns can only have a few parking spaces.  Do we really want to cut transit service at midnight, but keep our bars open until 2 a.m.? I understand the efforts to limit government spending, but is it a good idea to cut back on driver’s exams when people are living so much longer?

This is the cross that marks the spot where Greg "Super G" Bednorski, was killed in 2008 when he was married to Tammy Gass. Tammy was killed just down the road in May of 2012.

My daughter is 16 now, and is just finishing drivers education.  She didn’t have any questions on her exam about bicycling, and her instructor said nothing about the laws regarding people riding bicycles or walking in the classroom course. I have a friend who is a pilot and a police officer. He often makes the point that he had to get 100% on his pilot’s exam, “Is it OK to only understand 80% of how to land a plane?”  Not only can people pass a driver’s exam with a less than perfect score, but my daughter is convinced that none of the other students in her drivers education class have any idea what the laws are regarding people in a crosswalk or people riding bicycles on the road.

So while I believe that it is only proper that district attorneys bring charges against the drivers who, through their own simple carelessness or negligence, kill people riding bicycles (or anyone else actually), I would prefer our legal system was better at preventing poor unfit drivers from getting the chance to kill. If we had taken Mr. Kruzicki’s car from him (or booted the wheel) when he lost his license, perhaps he would not have knowingly broken the law and killed Tammy Gass.  If we invested more money in testing older drivers, perhaps Vanwormer would not have been driving down a bicycle trail. If we invested in more transit, or made bicycling more attractive to the mainstream (as it is in many other countries), perhaps the Muskego teen who fell asleep and killed Bob Gunderson would have been riding a bike or on the bus instead.

Since they easily could have been prevented, these are crashes not accidents. As a society, we make choices about what we feel is important. We do this through our legal system and how we invest our tax dollars. Currently our priorities seem to be to subsidize and encourage the most inefficient, most expensive, most dangerous form of travel at the expense of our quality of life and even life itself. Motor vehicles are vital elements of our transportation system, and certainly have their place, but the real cost of providing roads and parking so 99% of all trips, no matter how short, can be done by motor vehicle is tremendously more expensive than providing safe, attractive facilities so people can make short trips on foot or by bike. We are investing more in roads that encourage sprawl while we cut funds biking, walking and for transit.

Is that really what we want?

 

About Dave Schlabowske, Deputy Director

Dave was the first full-time staff member hired to open the Bike Fed's Milwaukee office 15 years ago. A former professional photographer and life-long Milwaukee resident, Dave likes wool, long rides, sour beer, and a good polar vortex once in a while.

7 thoughts on “90-year-old charged with homicide in Eau Claire crash

  1. I have to argue a point here. A bike path is not a road, is not as wide as a road and does not look like a road. Also who drives 350 feet after hitting a person on a bike or otherwise?

    I agree we need testing, and am all for it, and I will gladly do it when it is my time. When the state figures out a nominal fee wont break anyone’s bank and they can get extra revenue, we will all be periodically tested, as I have said should be the case for years.

    I do not come at this from a point of anger at the 90 year old driver, but have to wonder what he was doing behind the wheel in the first place if he is so confused he did not know he was on a bike path, or did not have the cognitive faculties to stop his car after hitting a bike rider!

    Driving a car is a privilege, not a right!

    • Hey Ralph, I don’t think we are disagreeing here. FYI, the police report also notes the 90-year-old is supposed to be wearing prescription glasses and he was not. He had them on the seat of his car while he was driving.

  2. I think I’ve been making the same point you do about “drivers” exams for 20 years. If we want to see real change, learners permit exams will have at least 20% of the questions about how to bicycle in traffic and operate a motor vehicle around bicycles and pedestrians (meaning the test will need to be longer since it is barely enough to qualify people now) and driving tests will be given in a car and on a bicycle. Those with licenses should be required to take a test about cycling and operating a car around bicyclists and pedestrians at license renewal.

    • R.

      I agree with you. This might be worth adding to the Bike Fed’s legislative agenda. I will suggest it to our ED and ask that we add that to our efforts for legislative change. FYI, the head of WisDOT Bureau of Transportation Safety has been asking for the same thing for years. Thanks for reading and the suggestion.

  3. 1. Unfortunately, I have seen motorists occasionally mistake road adjacent bike paths for frontage roads or use them for short cuts to avoid having to pull out onto a busy road to get to adjacent disconnected parking lots or roads.

    2. Wisconsin is now joining several other states that use rumble strips to make it safe to sleep and drive on 2 lane roads, see
    http://www.dot.state.wi.us/opencms/export/nr/modules/news/news_3493.html_786229440.html

    3. This is the price we pay for being an motor vehicle dependent society.

  4. Agree with the article, but have a related comment: why aren’t bollards (e.g., http://tiny.cc/bollards) used more frequently at trail/road intersections here in Wisconsin? A car generally cannot drive over a bollard and, when well-placed, generally isn’t going to be able to drive around one either. And, they generally are collapsible so that legitimate vehicles (police, rescue, maintenance, etc.) are unimpeded by their presence. They strike me as relatively cheap, cost-effective ways to keep cars off of trails…and to keep tragic events like this one from happening.

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