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Near-fatal bicycle crash inspires road users group


Barbara Toth founded Vulnerable Road Users New Mexico (VRUNM) in 2020 after her husband was struck by a vehicle and nearly killed while riding his bicycle in a Las Cruces neighborhood.

A vulnerable road user “includes anyone using roads that is not protected inside a motor vehicle, such as bicyclist, pedestrian or road worker,” VRUNM said in a news release.

Toth’s husband, Jim Toth, an avid bicyclist, was struck March 20, 2020, by a 17-year-old driver and suffered a broken back and a partially severed spinal cord. Jim, who had ridden more than 100,000 miles on a bike without incident, was struck about two blocks from his home in the Elks Club area, Barbara Toth said.

She received a call on her cell phone from the Las Cruces Police Department telling her Jim had been stuck and was being taken to the hospital.

“I gathered my wits about me and followed the ambulance,” Barbara said.

“The damage was very bad,” she said, as part of Jim’s spinal cord had to be rebuilt. The Toths had celebrated their 49th wedding anniversary two weeks before the accident, and Barbara wondered if there would be a golden anniversary.

Jim’s first reaction to Barbara was, “How long before I’ll be back on my bike?”
His surgeon’s post-surgery answer was, “You got your miracle today. He will ride his bike again.”

Jim, who was up and walking a day after his surgery, “is incredibly fortunate to still have some function,” Barbara said, and continues to ride his bike whenever he can.

Jim spent weeks in the hospital recovering, and, because of the pandemic, Barbara was not able to visit him very often.

“You cannot imagine what happens to someone’s life,” she said.

The driver who struck Jim was not cited by the police, Barbara said.

“It was so painful to read that report,” she said.

“A very strong bias against bicyclists and pedestrians” was part of Barbara’s motivation to begin VRUNM, she said. “I knew some kind of organization would grow out it. I think there’s a responsibility in having that voice. Something’s got to happen out of this. This is my heart. This is my passion. Encouraging people to take shared responsibility for everyone who uses our roads is a vitally important message.”

Barbara is the president and executive director of VRUNM. Donald Wilson is vice president of both VRUNM and the nonprofit Velo Cruces, which is also advocating for “a great bicycle and pedestrian community.” The VRUNM board also included an LCPD bicycle patrol officer, Barbara said.

“We’re bicycle people,” she said, but “we’re going to represent everybody,” including bike riders, pedestrians, runners and kids walking to and from school.

The organization has received a New Mexico Department of Transportation (NMDOT) grant and made a Nov. 6 presentation to the Las Cruces City Council. It is also partnering with Las Cruces Public Schools’ Safe Routes to School, which is one of the most successful walking and biking to school programs in the country.

The VRUNM news release said vulnerable road-user fatalities in the United States have increased more than 30 percent in the past 10 years, averaging about 200,000 each year, with an injury or fatality occurring every two minutes.

New Mexico has the highest rate of pedestrian traffic deaths among all states according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Association.

The City of Las Cruces’ Share the Road program has a brochure that includes tips for safe bicycle riding. The brochure includes this message: “Bicycles and automobiles share the roads. They both must operate responsibly and respectfully and obey all traffic laws.” Visit www.lascruces.gov and in the search box at top right, enter “Share the Road.” Then, click on the “Share the Road Brochure (PDF).”

“Pedestrians and bicyclists are reminded to be aware of their surroundings and be as highly visible as possible when interacting with vehicle traffic, while drivers are reminded to be alert and cautious in areas with pedestrian and bicycle traffic, the NMDOT Traffic Safety Division said on www.dot.nm.gov/planning-research-multimodal-and-safety/modal/traffic-safety.

NMDOT said the state averaged 155 distracted-driving fatalities a year 2016-20, and that figure was expected to grow to 172 a year, 2019-23.

The NMDOT 2023 Highway Safety Plan identified districted driving as a high-risk behavior for drivers, along with alcohol use, not using a seatbelt and speeding.

In Las Cruces and throughout the state, VRUNM will press for more traffic signage, better marking of traffic and bike lanes and crosswalks, enforcement of traffic laws and more sidewalks, Toth said.

“Hold everyone accountable,” she said. “This is about all of us.”

Contact Toth at barbara@vrunm.org.

Visit vrunm.org and www.facebook.com/VulnerableRoadUsersNM. Also visit www.velocruces.org and www.dot.nm.gov/planning-research-multimodal-and-safety/modal/traffic-safety.