A red pickup truck plowed into three experienced cyclists Monday night on Nicholson Drive, seriously injuring one before driving away as first responders tended to the wounded men.
One of the injured riders, Mika Torkkola, said Tuesday that he and another rider, Matthew Bartol, were in decent condition considering they were recently struck by a truck. A third rider, Justin Weber, remained hospitalized in serious condition after suffering a “minor brain injury and a skull fracture,” Torkkola said, adding that his friend is expected to recover.
Torkkola, a 29-year-old certified bicycle safety instructor, said the trio was riding on Nicholson Drive just north of GSRI Avenue about 9:30 p.m. when the crash occurred.
The three were participating in a regular ride dubbed “Monday Metro Madness” created partly to expose riders to biking in different parts of the city.
The group, adorned with flashing lights and wearing helmets plus bright-colored clothing, rode along the shoulder of Nicholson Drive for a while before checking for traffic and beginning to signal a turn onto GSRI Avenue, Torkkola said. After estimating the traffic behind them was 15 to 20 seconds away, the three scooted into the center of the southbound lane and rode for about ten seconds, preparing to turn.
It was then Torkkola heard “the sound of an engine approaching too fast, then two thunks,” he said.
The third “thunk” occurred as Torkkola’s bike was pushed from underneath him, followed by one or both of his companions being thrown onto him from the impact of the truck, he said.
After landing and looking around, Torkkola said he noticed the truck appeared to be accelerating even as a bicycle was stuck underneath the truck.
“I got up, pounded on his windscreen and stood in front of his vehicle, telling him that he could not leave,” Torkkola said. “He insisted he was just parking, and I got out of his way.”
The driver then pulled to the side of the road and parked.
“I kind of surprised myself, given that I had just been hit by a truck,” Torkkola said Tuesday of his immediate reaction to the crash.
After seeing the pickup pull over, Torkkola surveyed the scene and noticed his two companions seemed to be more seriously hurt than he was. Bartol was moving around, but Weber, a bicycle mechanic who recently won several mountain bike races, didn’t appear to be doing well, Torkkola said.
As Weber lay injured, his helmet apparently dislodged from the crash, Torkkola called 911 and held his friend’s hand. Torkkola ended up taking off his jersey and using it as a bandage to wrap Weber’s head before paramedics arrived and took him to a hospital.
Meanwhile, during the commotion, the pickup truck snuck away from the scene. A parked firetruck obscured Torkkola’s view of the pickup, so he didn’t notice the truck was gone until the ambulance with Weber drove away, he said.
State Police on Tuesday asked for help in the search for the pickup’s driver wanted in the hit-and-run, describing the vehicle as a red, four-door Nissan Frontier that likely is noticeably damaged on its front hood and bumper. Witnesses told investigators that the driver was a white man, about 6 feet tall, with short dark hair and a goatee. He was wearing brown shorts Monday night at the time of the crash, police said.
Beaux Jones, president of Bike Baton Rouge, a bicycling and pedestrian advocacy group, said the crash should serve as a reminder for drivers to be more aware of other people on the road.
“We’ve got other human beings on the road,” Jones said. “Whether you’re driving or biking, realize that you’re driving a deadly weapon at times. And pay attention.”
Jones asked the driver of the pickup to “come forward and put an end to this. And let everybody start to move forward and heal.”
He also said state laws should make clear “that it will always be worse if you don’t stop.”
Torkkola, who commutes daily from his home in the Goodwood neighborhood to work near LSU’s Innovation Park off Nicholson Drive, said attitudes need to change about blame in crashes involving bicycle riders and pedestrians.
He said guilt automatically lies with the vehicle in many places outside the U.S., but that isn’t the case here.
“If you get hit by a truck or a car ... they ask why you were riding at night or in the middle of the road,” he said.
“We’re always assumed to be at fault,” Torkkola said.
Follow Ben Wallace on Twitter, @_BenWallace.