Whether you're riding a bike to work, scaling a mountain or on a Sunday ride in the park, bicycling has its risks. In L.A., officials have struggled to find ways to make the road more friendly to pedal powered transit. Chief among those issues are hit and run crashes, which have killed or maimed dozens of Los Angeles cyclists each year.
Off-Ramp producer Kevin Ferguson went to a bike ride last weekend that aims to put a stop to hit and run collisions.
It's a cool Sunday morning in LA's Griffith Park, just across the street from the Zoo. Cyclists cross the finish line for a charity event called "Finish the Ride."
There are food trucks, live music, a silent auction, but most of crowd is focused on one rider: Damian Kevitt, the guest of honor and organizer.
"It was very nerve-wracking at the very beginning moments, and then at a certain point it just… it all fell together," he said. "It was just awesome."
Damian, 37, has on his helmet, of course, a red shirt, bike shorts and just below his right knee—a prosthetic leg.
Damian lost his leg last February. It was a Sunday pretty much like this one, less than a mile from where I spoke with him.
He and his wife had just gotten groceries and were biking around Griffith Park before lunch. There was a huge backup of cars. One of them—a light colored minivan — swerved into the opposing traffic lane to get ahead, colliding with Damian.
"The actual impact itself wasn't that bad," said Kevitt. "I saw him a split second beforehand and tried to get out of the way… but I ended up on the hood of his car, briefly. He definitely saw me. There was no way he didn't see me. He stopped at that point, just enough so that I slid down into the front, right in front of him, and he took off."
Damian was pinned under the car. He told me he could hear his ribs cracking, that the crash left his ankle "filleted." And then he blacked out.
The minivan took off. Even though the accident was in broad daylight, none of the onlookers got a license plate number. Damian spent four months in the hospital and the minivan driver still hasn't been caught.
Hit-and-Runs A Pervasive Problem In Los Angeles
Talk to enough people at Finish the Ride and you'll inevitably hear similar stories. Like Don Ward, who lives in nearby Los Feliz. One evening in 2009, he was riding near Echo Park Lake when he said he saw a car swerving and speeding behind him.
"I panicked and tried to steer to the right and bail, but I didn't even have a chance," said Ward. "I was just lucky enough to have landed with my head facing the left side where the car driver drove around me and managed to get six of the seven numbers. The guy took off, of course."
Hit-and-run crashes have been called an epidemic lately.
According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, between 2009 and 2011, deaths from all types of hit and run accidents went up 13 percent nationwide. The Los Angeles Police Department says 20,000 hit run crashes are reported each year, it's estimated that about 80 percent of those go unsolved.
If a driver flees the scene of the crash, not only are they unlikely to get caught, but the punishment is usually pretty lenient. The driver who hit Don Ward in 2009 was eventually tracked down—he did 30 days of community service and paid a $500 fine.
California State Assemblyman Mike Gatto wants to change that. He's introduced A.B. 1532 to the state legislature, which would mandate that hit and run drivers lose their license for at least six months if another person was involved in the crash.
"They're not treated as seriously as other crimes," said Gatto. "If you're driving under the influence, for example — and you're caught — there's always a license suspension as part of it."
Cycling advocates say it's more than just a sentencing issue, that historically car-centric cities like Los Angeles need a change in mindset.
"I think the main thing is the streets aren't designed for us," said Eric Bruins, who works for the Los Angeles County Bicycle Coalition. "It feels like we're not welcome there. And drivers get the sense that that cyclist in front of me doesn't belong there or isn't supposed to be there and they do just crazy things, they honk, they swerve, they yell, they throw things."
The city's responded by building bike paths and making streets more friendly for cyclists.
Damian Kevitt plans to keep doing as many events like Finish the Ride as he can. The goal, he said, is to create a safer city for pedestrians, bicycles and cars, too. He doesn't want to vilify the drivers who hit and run. In fact, he isn't angry at the driver who hit him.
"I pity him," said Kevitt. "I lost months of my life, but I'm able to bounce back and move forward. This guy — unless he comes forward — he'll never be able to close on that particular incident. That's gotta be, probably more painful than what I have to go through."
Kevitt says the next Finish the Ride is in the works, but if you want to see him up and at it again, he's training to run the Los Angeles Marathon next March.