A Young Cyclist's Death Spurs Changes, Lawsuit in Cupertino
An outpouring of flowers and candles were left near the site of the collision last year, where a ghost bike stood in Ethan Wong's memory. (Courtesy of Anthony Label )
Update, 9/21/15: Last week, the Cupertino City Council decided to make earlier waste and recycling pick-up in the Tri-School area permanent, but will revisit the issue in three to four months. When asked if the "no truck" signs had been posted, Public Works Director Timm Borden said: "We've been putting the signs up just over the last few weeks. So if they're not all up yet, it's pretty close."
When Ronald and Athena Wong heard that a young cyclist had been killed near their son’s high school in Cupertino last October, they sent a series of frantic texts begging him to call home. But 15-year-old Ethan Wong was a careful person -- who even refused to let his mom handle her cellphone when she drove.
The crash site was nearly a half-mile from Monta Vista High School in a residential neighborhood. Worried parents flooded the school with calls. Hundreds of students pedal to Monta Vista every day.
According to the Santa Clara County Sheriff’s Department, the driver of a big-rig hauling gravel was stopped at the light on McClellan Road, waiting to turn north onto Bubb Road. When the light turned green, the truck moved forward, began to turn and "made contact" with a bicyclist's handlebars on McClellan Road before a pair of railroad tracks. The young rider “lost control” and was “thrown onto the pavement.” He was pronounced dead at the scene.
That rider would later be identified as Ethan Wong.
His death left his family “broken,” according to a lawyer representing them. It also jolted a community and galvanized a strong push to make the streets safer to bike and walk.
"It was really an inflection point," said Larry Dean of Walk-Bike Cupertino. "The parent community, especially, was incredibly alarmed, concerned and distraught."
Nearly a year after Wong's death, Cupertino has made some progress on its streets, according to safe streets advocates and city officials. But a wrongful death suit filed by Wong's parents Aug. 27 in Santa Clara County Superior Court alleges that public agencies failed to warn of dangerous street conditions and "caused a trap for students attempting to ride bicycles.”
The suit by the Wongs names the driver, Manvinder Sandhu, of Tracy; his company, Moonlight Express; four companies that "owned and maintained the truck and instructed truck drivers in the use and operation of the truck at issue;" the city of Cupertino; and Santa Clara County.
The crash at 8:18 a.m. on Oct. 27 occurred in a neighborhood with five schools, including De Anza College, where Sandhu was headed to deliver gravel, and Monta Vista, where Wong was a sophomore.
A spokeswoman for the Santa Clara County coroner said Wong, who was wearing a helmet, died of cranial cerebral injuries, or head trauma, due to a "bike accident" with "unclear circumstances."
After reviewing the case, including video surveillance, prosecutors said they were unable to determine fault in the fatal collision, and declined to file vehicular manslaughter charges against Sandhu.
"We decided that there just wasn't sufficient evidence to determine the driver was at fault, and that this was anything more than a tragic accident," said Assistant District Attorney Brian Welch, who added that Sandhu was not cited for any traffic violations.
The lawsuit alleges that the 44-year-old driver made several cellphone calls while driving and was "engaged in a telephone conversation" during the crash. The Wongs' attorneys, Anthony Label and Steven Kronenberg of the Veen Firm, say that information was contained in the police report, which indicated Sandhu was using a hands-free device, which is legal under California’s cellphone law.
The suit also claims Sandhu violated California's Three Feet for Safety Act. That law, which went in effect a month before the crash, requires drivers to maintain a safe distance of at least 3 feet when passing a bicyclist. If street conditions don’t allow enough safe space, the law requires drivers to slow “to a speed that is reasonable and prudent," and only pass when it is safe to do so.
The Wongs’ attorneys believe it may be one of the first lawsuits in California to claim a violation of the 3-feet law in a wrongful death case.
A woman who answered the phone at a number believed to be Sandhu’s residence said he wasn’t available to comment. Attempts to reach Sandhu at his business were also not successful. A Mercury News report quoted a Sheriff’s Department spokesman who described Sandhu on the day of the collision as “shocked that he was involved in an accident” and cooperative with investigators.
Sandhu had to be flagged down by witnesses, and reportedly said he never saw Wong, who was riding westbound in the McClellan Road bike lane, which narrows before the railroad tracks, according to the Wongs attorneys.
The driver told sheriff’s investigators his GPS system directed him to travel onto McClellan Road, which is not a designated truck route. However, the city’s truck route restrictions make exceptions if another route is the most direct to a destination. The suit claims Sandhu's route was not the most direct, and that the driver should have taken Stevens Creek Boulevard, the most direct route that is also designated for truck traffic.
Had signs been in place that said “no trucks” allowed, and if the city had done something about the dangerous conditions, the crash could have been prevented, the suit argues.
"McClellan Road where the collision occurred was and continues to be an inadequate, unsafe, and dangerous trap for both bicycles and motor vehicles," the suit reads. "Long before Ethan Wong was killed, the city of Cupertino ... could have warned of or repaired these dangerous conditions at low cost."
The suit alleges the city ignored an ordinance passed in 1977 that requires signs to be posted warning drivers with large trucks that weigh 3 tons or more that truck travel is allowed only on designated truck routes.
In the wake of Wong’s death, the Cupertino City Council strengthened the ordinance in March to restrict truck travel near schools between the hours of 7:30 and 9:30 a.m. However, as recently as a few weeks ago, the signs had not gone up, which means the ordinance can’t be enforced, Cupertino public works director Timm Borden said in a recent interview. He did not say why the signs haven’t been posted, and city officials would not comment on when the signs might go up.
The city also approved a pilot program that required garbage and recycling pickup at 6 a.m. in certain neighborhoods to prevent bins from obstructing bike lanes. The hope was that residents would retrieve the bins earlier “to increase safety on our streets for pedestrians and cyclists." The pilot ended in June, but on Tuesday the City Council will consider making the early pickup permanent.
Borden would not comment on the lawsuit. A spokeswoman for the Cupertino city attorney also declined comment, saying the suit has not been reviewed.
A 'Broken' Family
Ethan Wong loved to tell jokes but was also quiet and shy, his father wrote in an email. Anthony Label, the family's attorney, said Ronald Wong and his wife, Athena, were too distraught to do an interview. He described their family as "broken." Ethan was especially close to his mom, Wong wrote, and even though going off to college was still a few years away, he had already fretted about leaving her.
A pianist who completed advanced classes at 14, Ethan loved to play Beethoven and pop. He had taken a recent interest in running and cross country and was active in the Boy Scouts. He had been working toward becoming an Eagle Scout and was planning his last outdoor adventure requirement, a trip he never got to take. His father and his only sibling, 12-year-old Gavin, plan to take it in Ethan's honor.
The morning he died, he ate a Swiss cake he liked. A presentation he'd be doing the following week -- tied to a book about Julius Caesar he was reading for his English class -- had been on his mind for days.
"We heard him practicing in his room often the week before and during the weekend," wrote Ronald Wong.
Label said the Wongs described the teen as a “safe and cautious” bicyclist, who taught his younger brother “to be careful when riding his bike around town.” The whole family would sometimes go on rides together.
“Ethan Wong was an amazing and talented young boy who was doing nothing more than riding his bike to school that morning,” said Label. “Many people failed Ethan that day, and on behalf of his family, we intend to make sure that everyone who failed him is held responsible.”
Wong’s death left many parents and students in the tight-knit community shaken, said April Scott, principal of Monta Vista High School. Thousands of students at other schools wore purple and yellow, Monta Vista’s official colors, in Wong's memory and hundreds of students attended a memorial.
“His death certainly was an emotional time for all of us,” said Scott. “As a community you just immediately project, ‘This could have been my child, this could have been my neighbor.’ ”
The bike racks at Monta Vista High are often full, Scott said. About 400 of the school's 2,450 students ride their bikes to school daily while hundreds walk. The school district’s facilities coordinator says he’s gotten requests for more bike racks at other schools.
Cupertino, the home of Apple headquarters, is a quiet suburb of mostly single-family homes with a population of 60,000. City officials say there has been a “steady increase” in bicycling,” due in part to Apple’s encouragement, and new infrastructure that has gone in. The city encourages students to bike to school.
After Wong’s death and a community meeting that drew 400 people with more than 200 ideas to improve safety, the city hired its first Safe Routes to Schools coordinator, said Borden, the public works director.
"It was definitely a tragedy, but the good that comes out of it is, it has lit a fire to get some of these things done that we wanted to do for long time," said Borden.
In the last year public works crews have painted a number of bike lanes green, and added buffers along bike lanes near some schools, filled in gaps in the bike network and other improvements. In March, the city updated its bike plan and is now working on a long-term strategy that could include protected bike lanes.
"While we're a long ways away from a leader community, I would say that we're catching up quickly, and making some very good, quick progress," said Borden.
Larry Dean of Walk-Bike Cupertino agrees the city has been making progress, but he still can't describe the streets as safe and friendly.
"It basically hasn't been safe to ride, or a lot of times, to walk in the community,” said Dean, who founded the safe streets organization after witnessing the aftermath of another collision involving a young bike rider.
In the last two years, there have been 46 collisions in Cupertino involving bicyclists, including the crash that killed Wong, according to Borden. Thirty-three resulted in injuries. During the same period, 27 pedestrians were hurt in crashes.
City officials and safe streets advocates say communication among the schools and city agencies has dramatically improved. The city has also been working with safe streets advocates, including the Silicon Valley Bike Coalition, to increase bike safety education.
With new developments in the city, including Apple's headquarters expansion, there is a growing demand for a bicycle-and-pedestrian-friendly environment, said Dean.
“I think there’s a great deal of room for optimism going forward, as long as the community and the city executes on all of these initiatives,” said Dean.
For Ronald and Athena Wong, their hope now is to prevent another fatal collision like the one that killed their son.
“They really want two things," said Label. "They want to know who is responsible for their son’s death, and they want to help make sure this never happens to another family.”
According to Ethan‘s father, his parents didn’t get a chance to talk to him on the morning that he died.
The last time they saw him was the night before, around 11 p.m., when he came to their room, gave a hug and kiss to his mother, and said, "Good night. I love you."
Athena Wong told her son: "Good night. I love you, too."
Edited by David Weir, Patricia Yollin and Dan Brekke.
The original version of this story has been clarified to reflect that the crash happened before the railroad tracks, not at the intersection.