No one knows what happened the night Christian Gerard Schroom was struck and killed by two hit-and-run drivers while riding his bike home from work in St. Augustine last month.
Schroom’s sister, Terri Cox, came to Florida last week to return Schroom’s remains to southeast Michigan and try to understand the events leading up to his death early on the morning of Nov. 18 on Anastasia Island, just past the end of the Bridge of Lions.
Unfortunately, fatal bicycle accidents have been all too common with Florida’s outdoor culture, crowded roadways and drunken, distracted and aggressive drivers. Duval County has recorded eight fatal bicycle accidents this year, and St. Johns County has reported three.
Since 2005, Duval County has experienced 43 bicycle accidents resulting in death, according to state records and statistics from the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office. From 2005 to 2012, St. Johns County has reported six; Clay County has had two, including the hit-and-run death of a 13-year-old, while Nassau County has had one.
Statistics show Florida is the deadliest state for bike riders. In 2009, the latest year for which statistics are available, Florida reported 107 cyclists killed, compared with 99 in California. In 2008, Florida deaths totaled 125, compared with 109 in California.
In the Schroom accident, Cox has her theories on what she calls “that shadowy and dim night,” when Schroom, returning home from his job as a server at Red Lobster restaurant, was struck just around the corner from where he lived.
It was about midnight when he was hit by the first car, which dragged him 100 feet before speeding off into the darkness. Several people stopped to help Schroom after witnessing the horrific accident. Before they could reach him, a second car hit him and also drove off. Unfortunately, the shaken witnesses couldn’t give police any tag numbers or vehicle descriptions.
“This wasn’t an accident. It was clearly a vehicular homicide. How do you not know that you ran over a person?” Cox asked.
An experienced cyclist, the 49-year-old Schroom had ridden his bicycle from Westfield, Mich., about five years ago, stopped in St. Augustine on his way to Key West and decided to stay, his sister said. He did not own a car and commuted daily on his bicycle to work.
Mark Samson, a spokesperson for the St. Augustine Police Department, said police are still chasing down leads but have made no arrests.
“It’s very, very sad. We are reaching out and doing what we can,” said Samson, who added that he’s hopeful someone will provide information about the case to Crime Stoppers of Northeast Florida (1-887-277-8477).
It is the second hit-and-run bicycle death in St. Johns County in the past 20 months. On April 13, 2011, Bryan Wrigley, 23, a student at the University of St. Augustine, died when he was struck by a vehicle, believed to be a blue pickup.
Investigators found clues at that accident site, but so far they have been unable to locate the truck or its owner. They are hopeful a $5,000 reward might bring in some more leads, Samson said.
Cox believes a driver clipped her brother as he rode or walked along the road and then he was hit by another car.
But Samson said the SAPD and medical examiner believe Schroom was lying down in the road when he was first hit, possibly after falling off his bike, and then the second vehicle struck him. He was killed by the initial contact, according to the medical examiner.
“There was no damage to the bike,” Samson said.
Heather Neville, executive director of Velo Fest, a three-day bike festival scheduled for April in St. Augustine, works to promote bike safety and co-existence between bicycles and larger vehicles. She said the bicycling community has been devastated by the death.
“I never want to talk to the family of another cyclist who has been killed,” said Neville, who created the Ghost Bike memorial placed near the site of Schroom’s fatal accident and another where Wrigley was killed earlier.
“These collisions could have been avoided,” Neville said. Drinking, distracted driving and misinformation about the laws concerning bicycles (like riding against traffic) cause 99 percent of collisions, she said.
Bicyclists in Florida have the same rights to the roadways and must obey the same traffic laws as the operators of other vehicles. Those laws include fully stopping at stop signs and red lights, riding with the flow of traffic — not against it — yielding the right-of-way when entering a roadway and using lights at night.
Jennifer Kubicki, of the Jacksonville Bike Coalition, said there is an anti-bike mindset in Northeast Florida.
“I’d say the No. 1 most-prominent issue, not to mention the most difficult to tackle, is the mindset of our culture when it comes to alternate modes of transportation and especially bicycles. Jacksonville is the third-most dangerous city in the nation for cyclists and pedestrians, according to the Transportation for America’s Dangerous by Design report of 2012,” Kubicki said.
Every serious cyclist seems to have a story of a run-in or near-miss with motorists, who have been known to try to force bicycle riders off the road, chuck objects at them, hit them and threaten them. Neville said her husband had a knife pulled on him by a disgruntled motorist, during a ride. The Jacksonville Bike Coalition website, jaxbikecoalition.com, has a page dedicated to harassment stories.
“Approached from behind by a mentally unstable driver who honked several times for no apparent reason as there was plenty of room to pass me,” Kubicki wrote of an incident on Aug. 6, 2011.
“The driver then laid on the horn continuously for approximately a minute and stayed close behind me. At first, I was determined to stay on the road and not to allow myself to be bullied off. As his horn continued, I became frightened for my safety and had to run a red light to escape him.”
Troy Mayhew, another Jacksonville bicycle rider, said a woman in a car hit the back of his bicycle on the Riverside Avenue ramp from Water Street in 2009.
“The thing that bothered me the most was she never asked if I was OK or apologized. I have some permanent back damage, but I am happy to have survived. I always wear a helmet,” he said.
The Jacksonville City Planning Board is working under a new mobility plan and conditions should improve for bike riders, said James M. Reed, city planning supervisor, who is a bicyclist himself. He said the city has 170 miles of bike paths and more are planned in the future as the city attempts to correct gaps that exist between bike lanes.
In St. Augustine, the city has started a bicycle study to understand where cyclists are and what types of items would enhance the experience in the tourist and historic areas.
The Florida Department of Transportation has painted sharrows on the Bridge of Lions. A sharrow is a marking that tells motorists and bicyclists that the area is a shared lane.
In December 2011, the North Florida Transportation Planning Organization released a bike plan for the city of St. Augustine, recommending a series of steps to improve bicycling in the nation’s oldest city. They include development of a 50-mile network of bicycle lanes and improved bicycle parking.
The plan also examined crashes and determined the most common contributors were riding on the sidewalk, riding against traffic and riding without lights in non-daylight hours.
As bicycle organizations and governments are working to make riding safer, Cox is remembering her brother.
“He was a great joy. He loved to ride. He loved St. Augustine. He loved the beach. He was in a place that he loved,” Cox said.
“In the midst of tragedy, we are trying to make some sense of it,” she said, adding that she hopes that those responsible for his death will be caught. “There may be a murderer on the loose. Two people killed my brother and ran away.”