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Survivor of Kalamazoo bike tragedy remembers the day five years later

Kalamazoo Bike Tragedy
Posted at 6:03 PM, Jun 07, 2021
and last updated 2021-06-07 18:45:14-04

KALAMAZOO COUNTY, Mich. — Monday marked the five year anniversary of the Kalamazoo bike tragedy which killed five cyclists and injured four others.

Around 6:30 p.m. on June 7, 2016, a group of nine cyclists were riding north on N. Westnedge Ave when a driver under the influence hit them with his pickup truck.

Since that day, one of the survivors said he has helped push for changes in legislation to keep other cyclists safe.

“I would give my life for the people that I murdered and killed, maimed and everything else and I just want to say I'm sorry," said Charles Pickett Jr., the man sentenced to 40-75 years in prison after hitting and killing five cyclists with his pickup truck.

It has been five years to date since Charles Pickett Jr. hit and killed five cyclists and injured four others with his pickup truck in Cooper Charter Township.

"I remember pretty much the whole ride coming up North Westnedge, coming up the hill towards Markin Glen. I remember going past Markin Glen and seeing the signs. It is hard to actually pin the timeline but I remember prior to actually going up that hill that people were yelling car back," said one of the four survivors of the Kalamazoo bike tragedy Paul Runnels.

"Car back" is a term cyclists use to notify the rest of the riders a car is approaching from behind. That's one of the last things Runnels remembers before waking up in a hospital bed.

Out of the nine cycling that day, the five killed were Debbie Bradley, Fred (Tony) Nelson, Larry Paulik, Melissa Fevig-Hughes and Suzanna Sippel.

Runnels said he still thinks about them.

"In a lot of ways just about every time I get on my bike. When I got a new bike, I bought it at Pedal, I had them make a decal that has everybody’s names on it," said Runnels.

"I think it brought to light with that tragedy that we need to do a little bit more for the safety of cyclists. I think that while that was tragic, I think some good came of that," said Kalamazoo Bike Club Vice-President Paul Guimond.

Paul Guimond is the Kalamazoo Bike Club Vice-President and said local lawmakers have been working since that day to keep cyclists safe.

"We all understand that there's a risk, when we're gonna ride our bikes on the road. I think we also understand that that risk can be lessened if cars would understand that we need a little bit more space," Guimond said.

More space for cyclists is a topic Michigan legislators listened to when a state senator from Kalamazoo introduced a bill to create a five foot passing law. Runnels and the other survivors took part in pushing for the bill to pass.

"All four of us went up and testified and read statements supporting the five foot passing law. As it turns out, what actually got passed was a three foot passing law which is not the best but it is better than what we had before," Runnels said.

Additional legislation was also passed making it mandatory to spend at least an hour in driver's training on vulnerable roadway users.

Runnels said even with those changes, there is still a lot more needing to be done.

"Distracted driving I think is probably the biggest threat to all vulnerable roadway users whether it is a bicyclist, a runner, a walker or somebody even in a motorized wheelchair or scooter," Runnels said.

"Folks saw the tragedy and are trying their best to make Kalamazoo a safe place to cycle," Guimond said.

A group of cyclists with the Kalamazoo Bike Club will be holding a memorial ride on Tuesday at 6 p.m. They're planning to ride the same route as the group of nine were riding that day.