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Cyclist’s death raises questions about improving safety on the Pumpkinvine trail

Signs are to be placed along roadways crossing the Pumpkinvine trail to heighten motorist awareness in the wake of a deadly car-bike accident.
Posted on Oct. 13, 2013 at 1:00 a.m. | Updated on Oct. 13, 2013 at 4:10 p.m.

It was a clear, late summer afternoon.

There was no rain, the sun was still out and the temperature that September day had recently peaked at around 80 degrees. About as good as it can get for cycling.

What happened next, though, on C.R. 127 northeast of Goshen, just off the Pumpkinvine Nature Trail, was anything but idyllic. For reasons no one can say exactly, cyclist Dale Ewers, 38 and from Goshen, crossed from the trail onto C.R. 127 into the path of an oncoming southbound sports utility vehicle and was hit and flung from his bike. He suffered head injuries, was transported to Memorial Hospital in South Bend and five days later, on Sept. 10, died.

Ewers’ family and friends are left reeling. Elkhart County officials are redoubling efforts to install warning signs for motorists along county roads that cross the Pumpkinvine trail. At the same time, the crash underscores the import, particularly for cyclists, to be ever vigilant, even within the relatively safe confines of bike paths.

“You get so lulled,” said Lynn Nafziger, a Goshen retiree taking a break from his bicycle ride on the Pumpkinvine trail, near the spot where Ewers was hit. It can be so relaxing and pleasant cycling amid the foliage of the trail, he said, “that sometimes you forget.”

The path itself isn’t necessarily the problem, said Ewers’ mother, Kelly Foreman, who lives outside Bremen. It’s the many places where the 16-mile Goshen-to-Shipshewana Pumpkinvine trail crosses county roads, particularly the unmarked spots in Elkhart County, like the C.R. 127 crossing.

“The path itself, that’s safe,” she said. “It’s the roads going across it that aren’t.”

A PUMPKINVINE REGULAR

Ewers, who was a purchasing agent at KIK Customs Products, had been on a health kick, as Foreman, a receptionist at a recreational vehicle company in Nappanee, puts it.

Monica Brock, Ewers’ girlfriend and a cyclist herself, said they would exchange notes on their bike rides. Though originally from northern Indiana, she lives in Indianapolis and theirs was a long-distance relationship.

Heidi Davies, a close friend along with her boyfriend, Craig Yoder, said Ewers had lost maybe 50 pounds in recent months. He jogged sometimes, went to the gym, but cycling seemed to be his favorite. And the Pumpkinvine — completed in segments over the years, most recently around Middlebury — was his preferred destination.

“He took that bike path a lot, I guess,” Foreman said.

It’s no surprise Ewers would be on the trail. And he was no novice to the subtleties of the path, formed along the abandoned corridor of a railroad line. He knew its contours.

Thus the questions. What happened? Why did an experienced cyclist, someone familiar with the Pumpkinvine, die from an accident while traveling the trail?

‘V2 DID NOT STOP’

Davies, who visited the crash spot after the accident, noted the vegetation growing along the Pumpkinvine trail, hindering the ability of eastbound cyclists to see C.R. 127 traffic, at least on the approach to the crossing over the road. Brock, who also visited the spot, noted the absence of warning signs for vehicles traveling C.R. 127 on either approach to the trail’s crossing point over the roadway.

“When I went there in my car, I wouldn’t have known that trail was there if I wasn’t looking for it,” Brock said. Indeed, she initially drove past the trail when she visited without seeing it.

Still, cyclists bear responsibility, too, and the initial Elkhart County Sheriff’s Department report on the matter, in its dry, clinical language, hints at negligence on the part of Ewers, who wasn’t wearing a helmet. There’s a stop sign on the path at C.R. 127 for cyclists and other users, and the report indicates Ewers didn’t stop before crossing the roadway.

The motorist, 68-year-old Milton Bontrager of Louisville, Ky., is referred to as D1 (Driver 1) in the report narrative, and his car, a Toyota Highlander, is V1 (Vehicle 1). Ewers is D2 and his bicycle is V2.

“D1 stated that V2 did not stop at the privately posted stop sign for traffic on the bicycle trail and that he could not stop V1 in time to avoid the collision,” says the report. “D2 was taken to Memorial Hospital for head injuries and a fractured leg.”

MANY CROSSINGS IN ELKHART COUNTY

The sheriff’s department inquiry continues, according to sheriff’s officials.

But Scott VanOmmeran, superintendent of parks for the Elkhart County Parks and Recreation Department, said such a scenario as outlined in the sheriff’s department narrative wouldn’t be unprecedented. Since Ewers’ accident, he’s heard from motorists and others who have witnessed cyclists seemingly dashing without stopping from the Pumpkinvine trail across county roads.

In Elkhart County, the Pumpkinvine trail crosses S.R. 4, C.R. 28, C.R. 127, C.R. 26, C.R. 31, C.R. 37, C.R. 22, S.R. 13 and C.R. 43. Cyclists use actual roadway — C.R. 33, C.R. 20 and C.R. 35 — in one short segment.

“People are just blasting off the trail,” said VanOmmeran. “They’re not yielding. They’re not stopping.”

When the Ewers accident occurred on Sept. 5, Cheryl Rassi’s sons were the first ones on the scene. She lives just south of the trail off C.R. 127 and was out on the path late one morning recently walking her dog. The boys later conveyed the scene to their mother — Ewers’ dangling earbuds, Bontrager’s shock immediately after the crash.

“The gentleman jumped out of the car (and said), ‘Did I miss a stop sign?’” Rassi said. He hadn’t.

‘A PEACEFUL TRAIL’

In the wake of her boyfriend’s death, Brock would like to see warning signs installed for motorists on the approaches to the spots where the Pumpkinvine crosses county roads. She’d like to see marked cross walks painted, as well, and speed limit reductions where county roads intersect bike path sections.

Elkhart County officials aren’t going that far. Signs, though, are coming.

The Friends of the Pumpkinvine Trail, a nonprofit group that promotes the path, secured $1,000 in grant funds last May to put up signs on roadway sections that cross the path, according to John Yoder, the group’s president. The Elkhart County Highway Department was going to complete the task, but the employee who makes signs departed.

VanOmmeran said officials have redoubled their efforts to install signs since the accident and the work ought to be done this year. It’s a matter of determining where exactly at each crossing to put signs, making the signs and putting them in.

Davies doesn’t blame the driver, Bontrager. Still, in an email, she wonders if things would have been different if signs had already been in place on C.R. 127 on Sept. 5, warning the Kentucky man a path loomed ahead.

“My best friend died because he was hit by a vehicle and maybe he’d have survived had there been adequate warning to the driver,” she wrote.

Yoder, asked if Ewers would be alive had signs been in place, isn’t so sure. “Who knows. It’s really tragic,” he said, his voice trailing.

If cyclists are ever-attentive, though, that’ll go a long way in addressing the matter, he said. And others on the trail seemed to echo that, noting the almost hypnotic effect of traversing the trail, which winds through cropland, trees and dairy farms. If you’re not careful, you too might get caught up in the natural beauty and drive inadvertently in front of a car.

“I can see how it could happen, especially if you’re riding alone,” said Kelly Gross of Churubusco, resting momentarily at the C.R. 127 crossing while on a bike ride with her son Cameron and daughter Haleigh. “You’re in your own little world because it is such a peaceful trail.”


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