The "Danger: Railroad Crossing Ahead" sign has taken on a whole new meaning for Petaluma bicyclist Helene Spivak.
In April, as she rode her bike to work like she has done every morning for years, Spivak's front tire got stuck in the newly laid track at the Madison and Lakeville streets railroad crossing. Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit — known as SMART — laid the new rail in February to prepare for the coming commuter train set to debut in 2016. When her tire got caught, Spivak catapulted over her bike's handlebars — landing hard on the concrete — and fractured her arm and cracked her pelvis in two places.
While many bikers have praised upgrades SMART has made to train crossings in Petaluma, the tracks at Madison and Lakeville streets pose a unique safety threat to cyclists. Set next to a city bike route, the tracks run along a curve in the road and are almost parallel to the bike path in certain spots. Though bicyclists are always advised to cross train tracks at a perpendicular angle, the direction of the train tracks makes that almost impossible at this particular intersection.
"When you cross the train tracks at that location, you're at a terrible angle," said the Kaiser Permanente obstetrician who has been out of work for three months because of her injuries. "It's very difficult to cross them perpendicular, without going into oncoming traffic. Plus, the tracks follow the curve of the road and have wide gaps on both sides of the rail."
SMART spokesperson Carolyn Glendening said that the agency had only recently become aware of Spivak's accident. "We're investigating this particular incident and what happened," said Glendening. "There are standard track inspections that occur and that location is in compliance with California Public Utility Commission sign regulations. But we're handing this complaint like we would any other complaint, trying to get to the bottom of the situation."
Spivak said that when her accident occurred three months ago, there were no signs warning bicyclists to walk across the tracks. Just last week — at the request of City Engineer Curt Bates — Petaluma's streets Supervisor Mike Ielmorini put up a sign at that crossing warning bicyclists to walk their bikes across the tracks.
"It's the way the tracks curve on that road," Ielmorini said. "You can't go straight across them. It's always at an angle. If it's raining, the track becomes wet and riders could slip or have other types of accidents."
Spivak was relieved that a warning had been posted. "I spoke to a safety engineer at SMART who said he had to call the state and the California Public Utilities Commission to see if they would allow a sign," said Spivak. "It seems to me that everyone (at SMART) should have known better, given the nature of this crossing. I've been out of work for more than three months and experienced thousands of dollars in lost wages. Putting up a sign would have only cost a few hundred dollars."
And Spivak isn't the only one who feels this way. Petaluma psychiatrist Naomi Richman — another avid bicyclist — had a similar accident at this intersection two and a half years ago, before SMART controlled the railway.
"I went over my handlebars and broke five bones — both my wrists and three bones in my hands," said Richman. "I was in casts for six weeks. It was awful. I'm someone who is always careful when I ride — always obeying the signs. But this track literally follows the road and pulled my tire in. I'm glad they're finally putting up a sign. But it should have been up all along."