Tuesday, June 6, 2023

Death of bicyclist brings safety concerns to forefront in York County

After the death of a bicyclist in York County on Oct. 25, the safety for those on bikes in the area is being questioned.

“It’s hard to get your head around when it’s someone who took safety so seriously,” said Patrick Johnston, vice chairman of the Historic Triangle Bicycle Advisory Committee. “Usually when you hear of an accident it’s someone who doesn’t know what they’re doing. But now it’s someone who took the precautions and we’re all just looking at each other saying, ‘How…how?’”

Brian Leonard Utne, 50, was a skilled and precautionary cyclist, racking up thousands of miles each year in the area, Johnston said. Safety was his main priority and something that he even taught to new members of their cycling group.

And yet, after all of the experience and knowledge he was killed following a hit-and-run while riding his bike.

“What people forget is the danger of riding a bike sometimes,” said Lt. Jeff Kerr of the York-Poquoson Sheriff’s Office. “A vehicle weighs 3,000 pounds, a bike weighs 20.”

Kerr and Johnston are avid riders in York County and they both agree on one thing — the area isn’t very safe for bicyclists.

Virginia law states that motorists are required to stay at least three feet to the left of a cyclist when passing them. This means three feet from the individual on the bike, not just from the shoulder. But many drivers either aren’t aware of this rule or forget about it, Kerr said.

“Drivers need to know that it’s people’s personal safety they’re putting at risk when they don’t follow the three-foot clearance,” Johnston said. “They forget that cyclists have a right to the road too.”

Mourners have placed a "ghost bike," a memorial bike painted white, at the site of the accident to remember Brian Utne who passed away on Oct. 25 after a hit-and-run. (WYDaily/Courtesy Patrick Johnston)
Mourners have placed a “ghost bike,” a memorial bike painted white, at the site of the accident to remember Brian Utne who passed away on Oct. 25 after a hit-and-run. (WYDaily/Courtesy Patrick Johnston)

In fact, the situation has become so bad that many bicyclists are documenting the close encounters with bike cameras. An extra precaution which Utne had planned to ask for as a Christmas gift this year.

Kerr said the sheriff’s office have received numerous calls from bicyclists expressing safety concerns, with a higher concentration in the Yorktown, Seaford and Dandy areas.

Part of the issue is that a lot of the roadways don’t have bike lanes for bicyclists and it makes the road more crowded, Johnston said. This causes cars to get so close to bicyclists.

“It’s not a comfortable feeling,” Johnston said. “Suddenly you’re very aware of how close they really are.”

Utne was a well-known bicyclist in the community, often riding with the Back Alley Revolution cyclists group. Many of these groups exist not only to bring a community together but to provide safety in numbers, Johnston said.

In response to Utne’s death, Johnston has planned a 25-mile memorial ride Saturda, starting at 9 a.m. at the Washington Square Shopping Center. In addition, there has been a “ghost bike,” placed at the site of the crash.

The York-Poquoson Sheriff’s Office and the Virginia State Police are still investigating the case and searching for the driver of the vehicle that struck Utne, but as they do, bicyclists throughout the county are reminded not only of a person dedicated to life on a bike but also the dangers that come with it.

“Brian was all about safety and if this tragedy could happen to him, it could happen to any of us,” Johnston said.

According to State Police, Utne was struck by a grey “large Ford truck, an Excursion, or larger size truck, between the years of 1999-2001.”

State Police spokeswoman Sgt. Michelle Anaya said the suspect’s vehicle “has damage to the front-end bumper, maker lights and possibly front right quarter panel damage.”

Authorities are asking anyone who may have witnessed the crash or have any information on the whereabouts of the driver to contact the Virginia State Police at 757-424-6800 or at question@vsp.virginia.gov.

Alexa Doiron
Alexa Doironhttp://wydaily.com
Alexa Doiron is a multimedia reporter for WYDaily. She graduated from Roanoke College and is currently working on a master’s degree in English at Virginia Commonwealth University. Alexa was born and raised in Williamsburg and enjoys writing stories about local flair. She began her career in journalism at the Warhill High School newspaper and, eight years later, still loves it. After working as a news editor in Blacksburg, Va., Alexa missed Williamsburg and decided to come back home. In her free time, she enjoys reading Jane Austen and playing with her puppy, Poe. Alexa can be reached at alexa@localvoicemedia.com.

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