Early Summer Tragedy

Between 1987 and 2004 there were five fatal bicycle accidents on the Vineyard, according to Gazette records. On Tuesday this week one more was added to the archives and today’s edition is unmistakably colored by sadness as it carries the news of the death of Dina Dececca, age forty, who died in a horrific accident on State Road in Vineyard Haven while riding her bicycle on a day trip to the Island early Tuesday afternoon.

A sweltering summer day with temperatures in the upper nineties, Islanders will forever recall Tuesday as a textbook example of the Vineyard at its most hazardous, with thousands of people out on the roads, in cars, on foot, pushing strollers and riding bicycles. Many were in transit in the course of doing their daily work. Many more were vacationers headed for the beach or downtown shops. The intersections around the Five Corners and just above Main street in Vineyard Haven were jammed, as ferries unloaded their cargo in the main port town, adding even more to the river of humanity that pulsed along narrow roads, many with no shoulders.

These were the conditions in play when Dina Dececca fell from her bicycle heading west on the upward climb on State Road in Vineyard Haven a little after two o’clock, into the path of an oncoming tractor trailer owned by the E.C. Cottle Company that had just come off the ferry.

The result needs no repeating here, and while state police have not yet completed their investigation it appears that the incident was a very tragic accident where no one was at fault. The many Islanders who witnessed the tragedy will never forget what they saw and heard. The driver of the truck will carry an unimaginably heavy burden for the rest of his life.

And we wish we had a magic wand to wave and change all of this.

But we don’t.

What we do have is our sensibilities and we can use them at this time, first to send out the deepest sympathies for the family of Dina Dececca, who by all accounts was a lovely person, a devoted young mother and wife, a vibrant, active and community-minded citizen in the city of Melrose where she lived. Second, to send out thanks to the many Island emergency responders for the tireless, unparalleled work they do, often under the worst circumstances.

And third, but not least, to hope this early summer tragedy can also serve to bring heightened awareness about safety on a resort Island which for ten weeks of the year sustains a population that is far too big for its infrastructure.

The accident this week hauntingly called to mind a fatal bicycle accident in 1987 when a Maine cyclist died after he was hit by a Goodale Construction Company truck; both truck and cyclist were headed up the hill near the Tashmoo overlook — a road that has since been changed and widened — when the accident occurred. Early reports that the cyclist had suffered a heart attack and fallen into the path of the oncoming truck proved to be untrue, and Dr. Michael Jacobs, the Island medical examiner and also an avid cyclist, spoke to the Gazette about the accident.

“He was an expert rider,” Dr. Jacobs said. “He was wearing the right equipment. He was riding in a straight line. His acceleration was appropriate for that hill.

“Both men [the biker and the driver of the truck] were very experienced in what they do. And they do it well. There just isn’t much margin for error on these narrow country roads that can barely accommodate two cars. And I think it behooves both cyclists and motorists to be alert to that fact.

“I try to put myself in the place of both, and I realize it could have been any one of us. We have all had close calls, as automobile drivers as well as cyclists. As drivers we all have to think the unthinkable. And I can identify with the victim. He had my build. He rode as often as I do.

“When that critical distance is reached, the rule is, you get killed.”

This is not a pitch to widen Island roads, and it is natural that the advocates for added bike paths and improved safety measures at various traffic hot spots should react strongly and speak out at a time like this. They are not wrong, but the improvements they seek cannot happen overnight.

A search of Gazette archives on serious bicycle accidents over the years shows that in nearly every one the cyclist and motorist were traveling in the same direction on the road. To that end, this is a plea for extreme caution on Island roads this summer: If you are a driver, please slow down and give an extra wide berth to cyclists on roads; if you are a cyclist, please avoid the most heavily congested areas of the Island, and if you absolutely must ride in them, get off your bike and walk. If you don’t know the way, ask someone for directions. It could save your life, or the life of your child.