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Sheriff Files Charge Against Driver Whose Truck Hit Bicyclist

The Greeneville Sun: Sheriff Files Charge Against Driver Whose Truck Hit Bicyclist

Published: 11:28 AM, 10/02/2009 Last updated: 11:33 AM, 10/02/2009

BY BILL JONES

STAFF WRITER

After an investigation of more than two months, the Greene County Sheriff’s Department has filed a misdemeanor criminal charge in connection with a July 14 traffic accident that seriously injured a local bicyclist.

A criminal summons served Thursday morning on Andrew V. Chase, 31, of 3305 Lita Drive, Johnson City, charged him with violating the Jeff Roth and Brian Brown Bicyclist Protection Act of 2007.

The criminal summons says Chase was the driver of a Comcast truck that struck a bicycle being ridden north along Jones Bridge Road on July 14 by Jay Q. Westbrook, 40, of Holley Creek Road.

After the accident, Westbrook was flown to the Johnson City Medical Center by a Wings Air Rescue helicopter, where he was initially listed in serious condition in the hospital’s intensive-care unit.

The criminal summons filed on Monday by Deputy Sheriff Toby Price, who investigated the accident, said Chase told him after the accident that as he attempted to pass the bicycle, an oncoming vehicle forced him back into the northbound traffic lane.

At that point, the summons says, the outside rear-view mirror of the truck struck Westbrook, "causing serious injuries."

The summons alleges that Chase violated the Jeff Roth and Brian Brown Bicyclist Protection Act, which states that an operator of a vehicle "shall leave a safe distance between the vehicle and the bicycle of not less than three feet while passing or overtaking a bicycle until safely past the overtaken bicycle."

Chase was summoned to appear in Greene County General Sessions Court today on the charge.

Westbrook remained a patient at the Johnson City Medical Center for almost two weeks, and was still listed in serious condition when The Greeneville Sun contacted the hospital on July 20.

During a telephone interview on Monday, Sept. 28, Westbrook said he was released from JCMC on July 24 after 10 days as a patient and has been recovering at home since then.

INJURIES DESCRIBED

Westbrook, who was a competitive cyclist before the accident, said he was confined to a wheelchair until Sept. 2, and has been on crutches since that time.

He said that, despite having "graduated" to crutches, he still cannot place weight on his broken left leg and ankle.

Westbrook also suffered a broken left scapula and broken ribs in the accident, he said.

A nurse anesthetist by training, Westbrook said he likely will not be able to return to work until the first of the year. His next appointment with his surgeon, he said, won’t be until Oct. 14.

Westbrook said he does not understand why charges were not initially placed by the investigating officer in the case.

He noted that he was involved in another traffic accident earlier this year while driving his car. In that case, he said, the other driver, who he said was at fault, was cited the same day for several traffic violations.

SHERIFF COMMENTS

Greene County Sheriff Steve Burns said during a Sept. 24 interview with the Sun that the Sheriff’s Department’s investigation was then nearing completion.

The investigation, he said, has included interviews with Westbrook and Chase, the driver of the Comcast truck, in addition to other steps.

The sheriff said he had consulted with the office of Third Judicial District Attorney General Berkeley Bell on Sept. 23 about a legal issue related to the case, and that, as of the day of the interview, the department was following up on two additional requests by the DA’s office concerning the accident.

THE ACCIDENT

A report filed by Deputy Sheriff Price said Chase, who was not injured, told him that he was forced to steer to the right just before the accident took place because he met a southbound vehicle that was "riding the centerline" of the road.

The accident report said the truck’s passenger-side rear-view mirror struck cyclist Westbrook as he rode his bicycle north in the "emergency lane" of Jones Bridge Road.

The impact knocked Westbrook from his bicycle and caused him to suffer what appeared to be a compound hip fracture, Deputy Price reported.

After being treated at the scene by Greene County-Greeneville Emergency Medical Services personnel, Westbrook was flown to the Johnson City Medical Center by the Wings Air Rescue helicopter.

NO CHARGES AT FIRST

No charges were placed initially.

However, as the The Greeneville Sun’s July 15 article noted, Tennessee’s Jeff Roth and Brian Brown Bicyclist Protectionist Act of 2007 provides that a person riding a bicycle upon a road has the same right to that road as the driver of a motor vehicle.

Specifically, that law says that "the operator of a motor vehicle when overtaking and passing a bicycle proceeding in the same direction on the roadway shall leave a safe distance between the motor vehicle and the bicycle of not less than three feet and shall maintain such clearance until safely past the overtaken bicycle."

A violation of that section of the Bicyclist Protection Act is a Class C misdemeanor, the law says.

Several concerned bicyclists have contacted The Greeneville Sun to ask why no charges were placed against the driver of the vehicle that struck Westbrook.

WHY NO CHARGES?

During a Sept. 21 interview, Sheriff Burns said a charge was not placed initially because officers were not sure the Bicyclist Protection Act applied in Westbrook’s case.

Burns said he was uncertain the law applied since Westbrook was not actually in a traffic lane at the time he was struck from behind by the truck’s outside rear-view mirror.

As the accident report noted, Burns said, Westbrook was riding his bicycle in the emergency lane -- not a traffic lane -- when the accident occurred.

The sheriff said then that he hoped to get clarification on the matter from the attorney general’s office.

Burns said later that the district attorney’s office had advised him that the law did apply in the Westbrook case.

The sheriff said a summons was then issued on Sept. 28, but Chase, who lives in Washington County, could not be served until Thursday.