It was an ugly October for cyclists up in Portland. If you haven't heard, two were crushed to death by right-turning trucks in separate incidents less than two weeks apart. Final reports have been issued for both tragedies and each report sports some eyebrow raisers.

In the first incident, on October 11, a 19-year-old rider named Tracey Sparling pulled up alongside a cement truck at a red light in downtown Portland, apparently intending to continue straight. The driver didn't notice her ride up next to his truck, and where she stopped she didn't appear in any of his mirrors. When the light turned green the truck turned and she didn't stand a chance.

I happened to be in Portland when this occurred about two blocks away from our hotel. I went over to the corner in question and looked around. There was heavy sadness in the air. A news crew there was asking everybody for a man-on-the-street interview; they begged when I refused. I relented and answered a few questions. They didn't use any of the interview, apparently because I was pretty much incoherent as usual and said nothing about bike lanes or bike boxes, which was the reporter's angle. Something on that corner just didn't feel right.

Although the victim here legally did nothing wrong (the driver received a citation for failure to yield under Portland's unique bike lane law), many have been quick to criticize her decision to position herself next to the truck in the driver's blind spot. Many have been quite nastily announcing (on various interweb fora) that the 19-year-old got what she deserved. I find it interesting that among all the cyclists I know who could be described as very experienced, not one who I spoke with about this tragedy has expressed that judgment. I think this is because (1) that one should avoid positioning oneself next to vehicles, especially large trucks, that might turn right is too obvious for these people to mention, and (2) they sensed as highly experienced riders that there were likely to be extenuating circumstances involved in such an incident that hadn't come to light and might never. Where many have used the tragedy to make quick, loud and obvious points about bike lanes and 'vehicular cycling,' the most experienced riders with whom I discussed this all refrained from simple judgments and felt no need to make obvious points; their reaction is universally one of respect for the young victim and a somber sense of there-but-for-the-grace-of-God-go-I.

I think it's fair to say that loudly criticizing the actions of the 19-year-old victim in this high-profile case is a blazing beacon of cycling inexperience. Just back off, people. You're like the old ladies who scurry off with the possessions of the deceased in Zorba the Greek. Nothing about traffic cycling is as simple as you think it is.

Now, on to those extenuating circumstances. One of the questions that lingered about this tragedy -- was the truck's turn signal activated -- seems to be answered in this report. The answer, it appears, is no. It is very likely the hazard lights were flashing as the truck idled at the light for over a minute. From the DA's report (pdf):

Witness Brian Pool, himself a CDL holder and truck driver, did not see the collision but heard yelling and braking while in a nearby restaurant. He went outside and saw the truck with its four-way hazard lights on. He then saw Wiles exit his truck. Wiles excitedly told him several times, 'I had my hazards on,' then reentered his truck. The flashers then went off and the right turn signal came on.

If the witness statement is accurate, there is only one good explanation for it -- the driver had the hazard lights on instead of the turn signal. (No eye witness could confirm anything one way or the other about the status of the signal or hazards before the incident.) In addition, the driver Wiles said he had been sitting at the light for 'a long minute.'

This goes a long way toward explaining how a rider could be so surprised by a turning truck. Imagine it. You're coasting down a moderate hill toward an intersection. You see a cement truck parked down there, hazards flashing. It sits there for what seems like a long time, blink blink blink. Maybe you're daydreaming just a little bit. Maybe at some point you make a false assumption about that stationary construction vehicle with hazards flashing and decide it's safe to pull up alongside.

You would never do that? Never say never.