Driver still copes with aftermath of fatal collision, 20 years after killing a cyclist

The 1997 collision on a California highway prompted her to write a book about deadly auto crashes.

Collision on California highway prompts driver to write book about deadly auto crashes

A cyclist travels side-by-side with a car in a painted bike lane. (CBC)

It's been two decades since Shane Snowdon accidentally struck and killed a cyclist while driving on a California highway, but that life-altering moment still haunts her.

"You don't want to go through the reality of having killed another human being in everyday life," she said.

It happened December 15, 1997.

Snowdon, then a 41-year-old public health advocate working at the University of California Santa Cruz, was 90 kilometres south of San Francisco, driving on scenic coastal Highway 1.

It was 5:30 in the evening — twilight. Snowdon, a teetotaler, says she wasn't drinking or listening to her radio and her cell phone was packed in a bag.

California Highway 1 pictured near Garrapata State Park. Snowdon struck a cyclist in her car north of the area. (Martin Adams/Unsplash)

Snowden was driving the speed limit — 60 miles per hour — on the two-lane highway that's bordered by farmers' fields.

"I came around a curve, looking ahead and undistracted. All of a sudden, I heard a horrible thud — a thud you just don't want to hear in life," Snowden described.

"I actually saw a young man flying over my windshield."

Snowdon slammed on the brakes and ran up the highway to see if she could find him.

The aftermath of the crash

At first, Snowden couldn't locate him.

She phoned 911 and flagged down other drivers. They found him lying face down, next to his crumpled bicycle. It was obvious he was dead.

"The overwhelming feeling I had was, 'I don't know if I can bear to go on living,'" said Snowdon.

Police attended the scene. She later learned the man she killed was an 18-year-old farm labourer from Mexico named Roberto Gonzáles. He was riding home on an old bike after working in the fields and died almost immediately from massive internal injuries.

You don't want any happiness you experience to remind you of the happiness denied the person you hit, her family, his friends.- Shane Snowdon

A month after the crash, an insurance investigator advised her that the police had closed her case. Because she wasn't speeding, distracted or impaired that night, she was declared not at fault.

Drivers in an accident are often advised not to think about victims or their families, she says.

But on the anniversary of the crash, she returned to the crash scene and erected a roadside alter to honour Roberto.

"No matter the weight of the insurance company or law enforcement or perhaps the helping professions, I felt, 'I need to remember this. I need to honour him. I don't want to throw him out of my heart or my mind,'" she said.

In the years that followed, Snowdon says she barely mentioned the accident to anyone and struggled every day to believe her life had meaning.

It wasn't until a close friend was killed while riding her bicycle in 2015 that she decided to break her silence.

She wrote an article about her experience in hopes it would raise awareness about auto fatalities in the United States.

"You don't want any happiness you experience to remind you of the happiness denied the person you hit, her family, his friends," she wrote.

The power of cars, the fragility of bodies

Snowdon says she's asked herself "a million times" what, if anything, could have prevented the crash. She wonders if bicycle manufacturers should be required to install rear and front lights on bikes.

"If cyclists don't want them, they can take them off. But if you supply motorcycles and cars with lights automatically, let's do that same thing with bicycles," Snowden said.

"Would it have prevented it? I don't know."

Snowdon wants bicycles to include lights, like this pair — a white light that mounts on the front of the bicycle, and a red light for the rear. (EcoSuperior)

She also feels drivers need to be reminded of the power of their cars and the fragility of human bodies.

She's currently writing a book about fatal automobile crashes, in which she talks to both motorists and the loved ones of those who died. She suggests 1 in 200 American drivers has been behind the wheel of a vehicle that has killed someone, yet their stories are rarely heard.

"I want to be a driver who says, 'Not only do you not want to hurt those families and their loved ones who've died, you don't want to hurt you,'" says Snowdon.

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