This week, the woman who broke her hip while bicycling on Bella Vista Drive in Montecito on July 14 filed a claim against the County of Santa Barbara, arguing that the algae-slicked stretch of road near the Romero Canyon trailhead was well known before her incident and should have been fixed years ago. “My main concern in doing any mediation with the county is that they do something affirmative, that they actually correct it,” said attorney Brian O’Connor, who hopes to avoid a full-fledged lawsuit over the crash of his client Erin Tague. “They need to put a culvert in.”
The strongest argument in Tague’s case is a 2006 letter penned by another Bella Vista crash victim named Elizabeth Ridlington, an experienced cyclist who also urged the county — specifically, former Public Works director Phil Demery, former County Counsel Shane Stark, and 1st District Supervisor Salud Carbajal — to install a culvert at the site after she severely broke her leg there. “The current road condition is a hazard,” she wrote in October 2006, also noting others who had fallen there. “I’m an experienced cyclist and am generally undaunted. I ride 3,000 to 5,000 miles per year, including in the rain, at night, and in freezing conditions, but I have always considered the stream crossing on Bella Vista at Romero Canyon unsafe. (There is a similar stream crossing on Mountain Drive at the Cold Spring trailhead that is equally hazardous.)” With medical bills topping $60,000, Ridlington spent three days in Cottage Hospital, 18 months in recovery, and still is suffering from the effects of her September 2006 fall, which are detailed on the website MyBrokenLeg.com.
By Tuesday afternoon, the county had clammed up about the situation due to the possibility of a lawsuit. But last Friday, Public Works deputy director Dace Morgan explained, “We have gone out there—I’ve personally done a site visit as well. We are working with the traffic folks to get a complement of signs out there for bicycles in particular, alerting them that it will be slippery when wet. It’s going to take a bit of time, but we’re definitely working on it.” Morgan said that they were also looking into more possible remedies, but worried that the $220,000 in backlogged projects makes keeping up with the existing needs tough. “It’s a daily challenge,” she said.
A call to Supervisor Carbarjal’s office led his staff to investigate what the response was to the 2006 letter. On Monday, Jeramy Tittle explained that the record showed some maintenance was done at the time, specifically the scraping off of the algae, but that a more expensive fix appeared to have been put into the maintenance backlog.
An attempt to speak with Public Works director Scott McGolpin for clarification on Tuesday afternoon was unsuccessful. “The rules of the game of engagement have changed a little bit,” said McGolpin. “Since there’s an official claim now, counsel has advised staff at this point not to make any statements to the press.”
O’Connor, who also happens to be Tague’s boyfriend, says that he hopes the county will not just reject the claim, which tends to be the routine response of the city and county governments. He is hoping that the county will cover Tague’s more than $50,000 in medical bills — she did not have health insurance at the time of her crash — but says that he’s more concerned about getting the problem fixed so it doesn’t happen again. “I want to mediate the case since they’ve already admitted to liability,” he said, pointing to the letter as well as the new signs going up.
But O’Connor, who has been bicycling in the area for 20-plus years, doesn’t think the signs about a slippery water crossing will help much. He explained that the problem is water-fueled algae growth combined with a sharp curve at a spot where the downhill turns to uphill. “Most incidents take place outside of the water completely,” said O’Connor, because algae sticks to the tires and causes bicyclists to slide after they believe the danger has passed. “The water itself is deceiving.”
Since The Independent published the first story about Tague’s crash last month, she has been contacted by a number of people who had nearly exact experiences. One, Nicholas Bouche, crashed and was taken to the emergency room on August 1, just two weeks after Tague. A rider with 20-plus years of experience Bouche also wrote to county officials, explaining, “I anticipated the danger, slowed down, and then, bang, I was on the ground. This is more slippery than anything I have ever known or experienced.”
Though she’s more sore than ever from rehab swimming, Tague explained, “I’m just really happy that I’ve been able to get in touch with these other people who have been injured.” One woman, who did not want to be named, had essentially the same injury with corresponding cuts and bruises. “Her recovery is a month-and-a-half ahead of mine,” said Tague. “We’re going through the same emotional stuff.”
Tague is considering forming a support group of sorts, but is still concerned that the Santa Barbara Century — which is the 100-mile ride she was training for when she crashed — has not changed their route for the October race. “They’re just banking on the fact that there isn’t going to be water there come October,” she said.