What can we learn from the death of a 23-year-old killed biking to work?

The Ice Age Junction Path running along County Highway M on Madison’s west side seems like an ideal route for a bike ride to work on a spring morning, with sunshine sparkling on Morse Pond and a quiet roll over a bridge leading to Raymond Road.

For Emilly Zhu, that path proved deadly.

Emilly Zhu

The 23-year-old software developer, musician, artist and author with a “rallying enthusiasm,” suffered fatal head injuries just a few miles from her home, when she was hit by a car about 7:24 a.m. on June 10.

Earlier this month, an alderman, the Deputy Mayor representing Mayor Soglin’s office, engineers, friends and family gathered along the roadway to remember Zhu and install a memorial bench at the crash site.

The site would be an ideal location for cyclists and pedestrians to stop – and for motorists to slow down – and reflect on the tragedy, how it happened and how similar deaths could be prevented.

Several key factors emerge from the police reports and the account from the driver, Brian Hodgson.

Too many trees: Thick vegetation along the east side of the path severely limited Zhu’s ability to see traffic from her left as she biked south toward the roadway. The view opens slightly but only within 15 feet of the intersection. Similarly, motorists approaching the crossing have limited ability to see people moving toward the roadway and prepare to stop if necessary. However, there is also an advance yellow warning sign on Raymond road to warn drivers to slow down for bicyclists/pedestrians when approaching the marked crosswalk of the Ice Age Junction Path.

Click image to open in Google Maps

This video shows the approach to Raymond Road from the north.

Too fast: At 45 miles per hour, the stopping distance for motorists encountering a cyclist crossing into the road would be nearly 150 feet, and Hodgson reported he was unable to stop in time to avoid hitting Zhu. He estimated that just one second elapsed from the time he spotted her until they collided near the middle of the road.

Police estimated Hodgson’s speed at 52 to 55 mph, based on the skid marks left by his Kia Spectra, which stretched for 125 and 130 feet. Hodgson maintains that he was driving at 35 to 40 mph, and approaching the intersection cautiously.

 

Too much confusion: A stop sign directs people on the path to halt before entering the roadway. But state law requires motorists to yield to people in crosswalks. That too comes with a caveat. The law prohibits people crossing from going into the path of a vehicle that is so close it is difficult for the motorist to yield.

No one will know for certain whether Zhu stopped before entering the roadway and determining whether she or Hodgson violated right-of-way laws is difficult.

Improvements: In the weeks after the crash, Madison city officials took steps to improve the dangerous crossing. They removed some of the trees that limited sight lines and reduced the speed limit to 35 mph.

Who’s to blame? Some cycling advocates and Zhu’s parents blame Hodgson for the crash. In their view, the 33-year-old who lives in Madison and works as a retail technology developer for Land’s End was driving too fast and failed to yield to a cyclist in a marked crosswalk.

They also note Hodgson received a text message minutes before the crash and suggest he was distracted. On that count, Hodgson said he never took the phone out of his pocket while approaching the trail crossing.

Police issued no citations in the case and the Dane County District Attorney’s office declined to pursue criminal charges.

Thomas Young, a Colorado attorney who joined Zhu’s parents in a teleconference with Dane County prosecutors, said the family was unhappy with the lack of action against Hodgson.

“I think what they were looking for from the district attorney was a recognition that at the very least, the driver was culpable of negligence,” Young said. “I came away from that conference thinking that the DA lacked a certain amount of courage.”

Young said Zhu grew up in Fort Collins, Co., earned a degree in chemical engineering at Princeton and turned her focus to computer coding. She took a job Epic Systems in Verona to work in that area, but also considered going to graduate school.

“She played the piano and the clarinet,” Young said. “She was a terrific graphic artist and painter. She self-published a book, a story of a Chinese folk tale she had known from her childhood. She was a real go-getter.”

Hodgson understands that Zhu’s parents, blame him for the death of their only child. He sent us his perspective on the tragic fatal crash via email.

“I think about her family more than Emilly herself,” Hodgson wrote in response to questions about Zhu’s death and his role.

“I have heard from crash investigators and through the media that they are angry and blame me for the accident,” he said. “If true, I understand their anger, sympathize with them, and forgive them completely. I wish for them to be happy and at peace, and hope for the opportunity to communicate with them in the future.”

Hodgson has struggled with the trauma and after-effects of killing someone, and suggests that people objecting to the lack of charges against him are misguided.

“Those advocates have never had a conversation with me, so they don’t have full understanding of the situation,” said Hodgson, who bikes with his son. “People who jump to conclusions and summarily assign blame are of no concern to me, nor will I give their uninformed declarations any credence by arguing against them.

“I would advise that they direct their passion studying sources of unbiased analysis and then apply their knowledge to build awareness and cooperation.”

Both motorists and cyclists need to improve their behavior to prevent future crashes, Hodgson wrote.

“Far too many drivers are too concerned with comfort, convenience and vanity,” he said. “Driving your giant SUV or your speedy coupe is inherently dangerous, and one should be active, alert, conscientious and deferential at all times.”

Cyclists’ have a responsibility also, to avoid putting themselves in dangerous positions, he said.

His overriding view: “Fostering relationships, goodwill, forgiveness and cooperation is the best way to improve the situation.” Emilly’s parents want people to imagine how deep their grief is, after losing their lovely only daughter. This grief can never go away in their life. Emilly’s mom has never stopped her crying. She cries everyday. She has been overflowing with tears that would make a river and her heart has been broken.

8 thoughts on “What can we learn from the death of a 23-year-old killed biking to work?

  1. This incident and others like it are tragic. I bike through this area regularly and live within a stone’s throw of where this accident occurred. Even as an experienced cyclist, I am uncomfortable approaching this trail intersection whether on the trail or the road. Although the speed limit was reduced within 2 months of this incident, simply installing flashing caution lights (similar to other community intersections) would be a greater improvement to awareness and safety. I personally can attest to the fact that motorist don’t heed to the speed limit through this area and are regularly driving at speeds in excess of 50 mph.

  2. Please review the main sentence below – I believe it is not correctly written. Thank you.

    Who’s to blame? Some cycling advocates and County Highway M’s family blame Hodgson for the crash. In their view, the 33-year-old who lives in Madison and works as a retail technology developer for Land’s End was driving too fast and failed to yield to a cyclist in a marked crosswalk.

    • Thank you Bonnie. I fixed the sentence to read “Some cycling advocates and Zhu’s parents … ”
      It was jumbled during a rewrite. I appreciate your note.

  3. From all that I have read and from my own experience as a driver, the size and feel of a road determines how fast someone will drive on it. If it feels safe to drive 50 mph, then lower speed limits, flashing lights, orange pedestrian flags, or sings alerting me about crossings, bicyclists, or animals are just secondary bits of information not likely to slow me down to 35. Especially if I am rushing to work. In designing our roads to be extremely safe, drivers are comfortable driving fast. Redesigning this stretch of Raymond Rd. (by narrowing it, or adding medians near the path) so that drivers only feel safe at 25 mph would make it a safer crossing.

    That said, I also use the southwest commuter bike path several times per week as a bicyclist and take precaution in crossing Midvale Blvd and Odana Rd. I will only cross when it is completely clear or if drivers have fully stopped and made eye contact or waved me through. I think it is dangerous to believe that drivers, moving at 40 mph, will stop within two seconds and trust them to follow the yield law. Driving is too comfortable for that to happen. Path crossings at major roads require extreme alertness from people on foot and on bikes.

  4. Similarly, motorists approaching the crossing have limited ability to see people moving toward the roadway and prepare to stop if necessary. Where did you get this information?

  5. I think someone should take re look at Mr Hodgson’s record. Speeding ticket in Sept 2016.
    Loose cannon.
    The DA should re evaluate.

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