On September 6, nineteen-year-old David Gobellan was hit by a car while riding his bicycle down a poorly-lit stretch of road on his way home from the gym. Four days later, he died in the hospital. Gobellan’s death isn’t the first fatal bike accident in the Rio Grande Valley this year, but it’s the first to lead to a viral discussion. Gobellan’s friend, nineteen-year-old Lauren Pitts, was attempting to address the Mercedes city commission about factors she believed contributed to Gobellan’s death. Members stood up and walked out of the room while she talked about the need for increased bicycle safety measures in their town.
— 𝕂𝔸𝕐𝕃𝕀𝕋𝔸. (@ml_kayla) September 12, 2018
The optics were bad. Pitts, speaking passionately about the speed limit and the need for street lights on the road in question, turns to address the other citizens as the officials behind her all file out, seemingly uninterested in what she has to say. In the nearly two weeks since it was posted to Twitter, the video of her speaking to the room as it rapidly empties of its leadership has been viewed more than 1.6 million times. This week, the men who walked out on her responded.
Mercedes Mayor Henry Hinojosa told the Monitor that, while people may have seen what was depicted in the video “as a sign of disrespect,” it “was not what was in our hearts.” A request for comment from Hinojosa has not been returned.
The city agreed to add street lights to the stretch of the road where Gobellan was killed, according to the Monitor. But the problem of cyclists being killed by cars in the Rio Grande Valley extends well beyond that part of Mercedes. According to cycling organization Share The Road Texas, Hidalgo County—which includes Mercedes, as well as McAllen, Edinburg, and other large RGV cities—had fourteen fatal crashes between 2007-2012, which puts it in a tie with Bexar County for the third-most cycling deaths in the state. That’s more deaths than Travis County, which has the highest percentage of bike commuters in Texas by a wide margin, and which is home to nearly 400,000 more people than Hidalgo. It’s only two fewer cycling fatalities over that same stretch than Dallas County, which has nearly three times as many people.
A few factors go into making the Valley particularly dangerous for cyclists. The region is a unique blend of urban and rural—cities like McAllen, Mission, and Edinburg are urban areas with large, often undeveloped stretches between them, where speed limits are high and visibility can be low, especially at night. Urban areas tend to have the greater density of cyclists, and thus the greater number of collisions, while collisions in rural areas tend to be fatal more often because of higher speed limits on roads that typically don’t see as many riders.
That bears out in the Valley, where Gobellan’s death is the third high-profile fatal collision involving a cyclist in 2018. In February, 32-year-old Melissa Robles was riding her bike in the early morning in McAllen. She was wearing a reflective vest with front and back lights when she was struck and killed. Friends in a cycling group honored her birthday the following month with a group ride. In August, 47-year-old Rosa Romo was killed just outside of Harlingen, in nearby Cameron County, during a 7:30 a.m. bike ride.
Charges are rare in traffic fatalities involving cyclists—and not just in the Valley. In Houston, of at least 23 fatal collisions involving cyclists between 2013-2018, only four of them resulted in criminal charges. Three of those resulted in deferred prosecution convictions, which result in no permanent record of the conviction if certain conditions are met. The other involved a failure to stop and render aid charge, rather than a moving violation, according to the Houston Chronicle.
In Mercedes, meanwhile, it’s good to see that the city has opted for additional street lights to make the next cyclist on Mile 2 East more visible to passing motorists. But as the numbers show, there’s still a lot left to talk about when we talk bike safety in the Rio Grande Valley, and the rest of Texas.