Questions linger in collision that has Army physician clinging to life

More than five weeks after being struck from behind by an SUV while riding his bicycle in Beech Island, S.C., Dr. Matthew Burke remains comatose and fighting for his life. His riding partners, four of whom were also taken down in the collision, continue to rehabilitate from their physical injuries, while it is uncertain whether the psychic wounds will ever heal.

THE COLLISION THAT put Dr. Burke in the neuro-intensive care unit at the Medical College of Georgia has provided an opportunity for some to lay blame for the crash squarely on the cyclists. That this particular incident has served as a call to arms by anti-cyclists shows an abject lack of knowledge about the incident, and has shown that many among that set have a callous disregard for the condition of Dr. Burke and his family.

Almost immediately it was established that the driver of the SUV, Daniel Johnson of Beech Island, was at fault for running down the group. According to the South Carolina Highway Patrol, the driver claimed to be distracted and did not see the pack of cyclists at the moment he slammed into the group of 15 riders. According to reports, Mr. Johnson's source of distraction has changed as his story continues to evolve.

With evidence to the contrary, it is appalling that anyone would still place blame on the bike riders. Yet, there has been no shortage of polemics in the weeks following this tragic occurrence.

A commenter on The Augusta Chronicle's website posted the following comment at the end of an article Oct. 4: "The bike riders broke the law and this poor driver is paying the price. If I was on the jury working this case I could not find him guilty. No way in hell."

It is sad that individuals are more concerned for the welfare of an at-fault driver than they are for an innocent 37-year old husband and father who may not survive his traumatic brain injury.

What seems to be lost on Mr. Johnson's defenders is that it has been clearly established that the riders were riding legally and taking the appropriate precautions as they rolled along Beech Island Avenue. The SCHP has acknowledged as much.

The section of road where the cyclists were hit is straight and offers clear visibility for more than a mile. The posted speed limit is 35 mph, and there was sufficient daylight because the sun had not yet set behind the group as they rolled along, unaware of the pending disaster. The bike riders all were wearing helmets and had flashing red taillights on their bikes, which were clearly visible to a driver following Mr. Johnson.

MARKINGS FROM the crash investigation show that Dr. Burke was just right-of-center of his lane of travel as he rode two-abreast with Scott Moore, who was riding on the white line on the right side of the road. In South Carolina, cyclists are allowed to ride two-abreast, and drivers are to give at least three feet of clearance when passing cyclists.

As Mr. Johnson collided with the group, Mr. Moore was forced off the road, while Dr. Burke absorbed the direct impact of the Dodge Durango and was catapulted approximately 40 feet. Damage to the Durango indicates that Mr. Johnson hit Dr. Burke almost center with his vehicle.

At this time, no charges have been filed against Daniel Johnson, and the crash remains under investigation by the SCHP. There is concern, however, that this incident will be considered merely an "unfortunate accident," and the driver will be undercharged. Before the investigation is completed, it is imperative that several questions be answered:

- How did Mr. Johnson not see a group of 15 cyclists when they were clearly visible to the individuals in the vehicle following the SUV?

- How fast was Mr. Johnson driving at the time of the crash? One of the cyclists heard the driver behind Mr. Johnson confess to a patrolman on the scene that he was following the Durango at approximately 50 mph right before the crash. Could the high rate of speed explain why, according to Mr. Moore, the driver did not brake until after he slammed into the group?

- Most importantly, why did some of the cyclists state that they heard the vehicle accelerating in the moments before the impact?

It should be noted that Daniel Johnson Sr., the driver's father, openly questioned why the cyclists even rode on Beech Island Avenue. And a number of anonymous comments on local websites indicate that some residents in the area feel the cyclists got what was coming to them.

As cycling continues to grow in popularity in the CSRA, the potential for incidents will continue to exist. And there is no doubt that this episode will serve as a wake-up call for area bike enthusiasts. As a lifelong cycling advocate, I think it is vitally important that cyclists respect the rules of the road, as we expect the same courtesy from drivers. But those who choose not to follow the law should not run the risk of taking their punishment by anyone other than law enforcement.

AS THE DEBATE over "sharing the road" continues, U.S. Army Maj. Matthew Patrick Burke, M.D., continues his fight for life at the Medical College of Georgia, while his wife, baby daughter, parents and siblings maintain a vigil at his bedside. It is such a waste that the talented orthopedic surgeon may not survive to see his daughter's first birthday. It is unfathomable that, after admirably surviving in Iraq, his greatest battle was caused by an incident less than 30 miles from his home.

Matt Burke was not a mailbox carelessly struck on the side of the road. He is a valued member of this community and deserves to be treated as such. He willingly supported the country during a time of need. As he continues his fight for life, we owe him the same respect.

(The writer is event manager of the Augusta Sports Council.)

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