Naples bicycle crash results in safety campaign

By Janine Zeitlin
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Chuck Kelly led a pack of dozens of cyclists pedaling north on Crayton Road through a Naples neighborhood.

A cloudy morning in late January, the temperature hovered below 70 degrees. The 57-year-old lawyer pulled at a fast clip, his strong thighs bringing the speed to around 24 mph. The speed limit on this stretch is 30. He spotted a green light and moved into the left-turn lane.

Kelly was just about to turn when Mitch Norgart, a few riders behind, heard frantic shouting from the rear of the group: Car back! Car back!

Norgart heard acceleration and saw a white Dodge pickup next to him. It had crossed the solid double-line into incoming traffic to pass the group. Then, in a second that felt like five, the truck plowed toward Kelly.

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His head and shoulder smashed into the truck. Kelly yowled, like his life was being torn out. His body then slid down the quarter-panel, ripping off the antenna and mirror. He bounced to the passenger door and flipped. He landed, a limp mass of bones, on the road.

He's dead, Norgart thought. He had never seen those kind of blows, even in movies.

Norgart rushed to Kelly. He checked his wrist for a pulse, surprised to find a racing heartbeat. He and others set up a perimeter to protect him while riders sprinted off to stop the driver. Many approached in tears. Norgart saw Kelly's adult son drop to his knees near his father, pleading for him not to die.

Kelly awoke dazed on the road. He remembered only starting to turn. At the hospital, doctors shared their surprise at his survival. A shorter rider would have been decapitated by the mirror, one told him. Instead, the 6-foot-3, 210-pound rider ended up with at least 11 fractures to his ribs, a complex fracture to the scapula, a pulmonary contusion, two broken vertebrae and a break to the collar bone.

"It's hard to watch a big, strong sturdy guy in a pile of rubble," said his wife, Tish Kelly, also a competitive rider. That day, she had finished the ride with an earlier group and was waiting for him. "It's not just that bad day. It's a lot of bad days afterward for a lot of people."

The minor consequence for driver, Scott Hutton, infuriated her and many others. A Naples police officer cited 34-year-old Hutton with improper passing. The crash report and eyewitnesses indicated speeding along with the violation of at least five other laws, said Ted Zelman, a Naples personal injury attorney and avid cyclist who represents Kelly. Zelman believes the driver should have faced a criminal charge of reckless driving, though he doesn't recall any local crash where an unimpaired motorist who did not leave the scene has been charged criminally for running over a cyclist.

The punishment: a $170 fine. That evening, Patrick Ruff, then president of the Naples Pathways Coalition, fired off a letter to the mayor and city council of Naples. He was sick of heading out to exercise as people around him wondered if he'd return.

At every angle of our county a person in a car can't stand a person enjoying the day either on foot or on a bike. One or two athletes with any level of colorful gear on is an immediate target for harassment by a motorist, he wrote. This incident must be a platform from which we, as leaders in the community, must initiate a cultural shift and educate all in our community.

Naples Pathways Coalition joined with Naples Velo cycling club, Naples Area Triathletes and Gulf Coast Runners to launch a share-the-road campaign and safety fair that attracted nearly 300 people.

"We've just got to keep the momentum going," said Norgart, president of Gulf Coast Runners.

Naples police responded with increased enforcement and signage and embedded master officer Buddy Bonollo in the weekly group ride during which Kelly was hit. He promotes safety among cyclists and calls in motorists who are breaking laws.

"We're absolutely horrible based on the statistics, and we have taken on the challenge to do something about it," said Bonollo. "We hope other agencies grab onto it."

On a recent morning, Kelly and his wife chatted with other cyclists outside a North Naples cafe after a ride. Kelly is determined to return to his pre-crash condition. He had been clocking more than 200 miles a week. He eased into riding about six weeks ago, but he can't walk more than 200 feet without pain. He sees ample space for change.

"If they keep with not punishing drivers for reckless behaviors, then the drivers are going to continue to behave recklessly," he said. "Until they make more stringent laws and enforce them, every cyclist, every pedestrian, everybody outside of a caged vehicle is going to be at risk."

Zelman & Hanlon, P.A. Florida Legal Elite 2013 ABA American Bar Association