Cycling death of Omaha doctor crash underscores need for road awareness

Cyclist groups and law enforcement in Omaha are stressing the importance of awareness by motorists after a fatal bicycle accident.
Published: Sep. 12, 2023 at 10:52 PM CDT
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OMAHA, Neb. (WOWT) - Every cyclist knows the dangers of the open roads.

“The roads that are in western Douglas County going up to Fremont, they’re basically two-lane roads without a shoulder,” local cyclist Jeff Quandt said. “You have to be aware of where you’re riding, forward and back, and I have a little mirror on my sunglasses so I can see what’s coming up behind me and I’m listening as well.”

Quandt and fellow Bellevue Bicycle Club rider Scott Ussery have ridden along the very stretch of open road near Valley where 47-year-old Methodist Health cardiologist Dr. Matthew Latacha was cycling when he was hit and killed by a truck Sunday.

The Douglas County Sheriff’s Office Accident Investigation Team has yet to release the findings of their investigation.

“It’s a pretty stretch, flat, beautiful farmland,” the president of BBC Ussery said. “This is a favorite area for cyclists to ride when they want to go out and do 40 something, 50 miles in a good low traffic situation.”

And according to Quandt, a past president of BBC, the roads in the area are generally paved and good.

As for any rides of distance, understanding where you’re riding, and riding in groups, can be lifesavers.

“A lot of times I don’t do those kinds of roads unless I’m with a group,” Quandt said. “And when I do ride solo, and I do that a lot, I have a tracking beacon on my phone that sends a message to my wife that basically she can track me on the ride.”

“Being familiar with the road (is very important), maybe the route before you even go, so you know what you’re gonna be riding on, whether you have a shoulder or not,” Ussery said. “Some of the roads our group rode the other day, riding on Highway 50, got a nice shoulder. turn on to Buffalo Road, you got nothing. Having members, experienced riders in the group, help other riders know what to expect.”

City of Papillion police sergeant Kurt McClannan is a cyclist himself, and commutes to work when he can. He’s able to stay on paved trails and roads with bike lanes.

Everyone, especially motorists, needs an understanding of Nebraska’s “three-foot law.”

“The ‘three-foot law’ just says that, when a biker is riding along the road, they are supposed to ride as far to the right as they can, and cars have to give them three feet of distance in between the side of the car and the bike,” McClannan said. “As a car is passing, a car cannot pass right next to the bike. It’s got to give the bike space. So motorists are responsible for doing that. But as a bicyclist, we have to try to protect ourselves too. It’s great that the law says that, but the law says lots of things that that not everybody follows, or they don’t remember to follow. Just because I know the bike law doesn’t mean that every motorist on the road understands it as well.”

Road awareness goes both ways, and drivers should learn that cyclists don’t always have much breathing room themselves, particularly when passing.

“You want to pass them at the speed limit for that street, you wanna try and pass them slowly because you don’t know if they’re thinking about turning or changing lanes,” McClannan said. “As a motorist, if you’re trying to be careful of cyclists as you’re coming up behind them, give them space. Watch what they’re doing. Try to see if you can tell that they noticed that you’re there and try not to speed past them.”

“Your head’s got to be on a swivel,” Ussery said. “You got a mirror, you’re looking back there, you’re talking other people let you know, ‘hey, car back, there’s something coming’, be ready for it because it might affect you, you know, a gust of wind and push you over a little bit.”

Patience is often challenged, particularly if drivers aren’t accustomed to waiting on a group of cyclists. But sun over the horizon and slow uphill rides can lead to dangerous decisions.

“A lot of times when you’re going up a hill, you’re doing less than 10 miles an hour, that’s not fun for a driver, they have to have some patience,” Quandt said. “And cyclists, I have at times when I know that there’s a bunch of cars, I will pull off the road, go on to the grass, and wait and let them go ahead. It’s being courteous all the way around.”

State and national statistics regarding cycling deaths due to collisions with motor vehicles are difficult to parse; there is little data differentiating how many deaths are on rural, two or three-lane roads. But those very roads, McClannan said, are getting busier and busier for cyclists.

“What I can tell you in my experience, it seems like it happens about every two to five years where we get somebody that unfortunately gets hit (and killed) that to my ears sounds like a road cyclist who is commuting somewhere or they were just trying to ride for distance out to another city and back,” McClannan said. “And it’s unfortunate every time it happens, and I never want to point my finger at that cyclist, they were out doing what they loved, and the motorists, they’re not accustomed to seeing bikes out on those highways.”

“(Drivers) need to be aware of bicycles, motorcycles on the road, okay, that’s just the way it is,” Quandt said. “And cyclists really need to be aware of the vehicle. When I’m traveling on some of the trails, I want to make sure that if I’m crossing an intersection, I am seeing the driver. I want to try and make eye contact.”

The Bellevue Bike Club recommends simple safety measures such as wearing colorful clothes and using bright lights front and back, even during daylight hours. And for those new to cycling, they recommend you go to social media and find a local club to help speed up the learning curve to better bike road safety.

As for Nebraska’s readiness for an increase in biking and long-range cycling, the League of American Bicyclists thinks the state has a distance to go.

Using categories including infrastructure commitment, laws, policy, and planning, they rank Nebraska 49 out of 50 states in their Bicycle Friendly Rankings.

They also offer “rules of the roads” as guidance for all levels of bicycling.