One out of every five vehicle crashes in Idaho are due to distracted driving — and 29 people died as a result in 2014, the most recent year that statewide crash data is available.
Those statistics grab attention. But even more memorable is the story of a 5-year-old Boise boy who came frighteningly close to becoming part of them.
Lisa Brady, a Boise-based bicycle/pedestrian safety educator, is now sharing the story of Maximo “Max” Wyatt with driving instructors and young drivers around the state. She’s also begun bringing along the child’s damaged bicycle when she speaks at trainings and classes.
“The bicycle will represent a picture of when we don’t exercise due care as people driving,” Brady said. She added later, “I think putting the bicycle on the stage makes it much more real. This was a little boy. He could have died. It’s a miracle that he didn’t die.”
She likens it to the wrecked vehicles that are sometimes part of DUI and distracted-driving events at high schools.
“There’s nothing that happens like that for bicycling or pedestrians,” said Brady, who took the bike to a regional training of driving instructors in Coeur d’Alene last weekend. About 43 of the state’s 500 driving instructors were at that conference.
Audra Urie, public driver education director for the Idaho State Department of Education, invited Brady to speak to driving instructors about teaching students to safely share the road with bicycles and pedestrians.
“Obviously they teach it already. It’s a refresher, a reminder. It’s more personal, rather than just statistics,” said Urie, who worked for nine years as a teacher and 13 years as a police traffic officer who did crash reconstruction. “If they have a story to put with it, it makes it more impact to the students.”
She brought in speakers to focus on specific issues, such as distracted driving, drunken driving and wearing seat belts (Buckle Up for Bobby).
Max Wyatt was struck in a Boise crosswalk on Sept. 23 last year as he rode his bike home from school with his father.
It was one of 149 vehicle crashes involving bicyclists in Ada County in 2014, according to Idaho Transportation Department data. But it was illustrative of how devastating even a moment of inattention can be — not just for two families, but the whole community.
‘MY SON! MY SON!’
The collision happened at Owyhee and Kootenai streets, an intersection that has a four-way stop with a flashing red light — considered to be a very safe intersection.
Scholastique Twagirayesu, at the wheel of a 2002 Dodge Caravan, was sitting at the stop sign in the westbound lane of Kootenai before the collision. She told police that she saw Max’s father, who was also on a bike, standing on the southwest corner of the intersection.
The father and son had been riding on the sidewalk on the west side of Owyhee Street, heading north, according to a police report obtained by the Statesman.
Joe Wyatt gave his son the go-ahead to cross the intersection just ahead of him. Max was wearing a bright orange T-shirt — but Twagirayesu did not see the pair enter the crosswalk.
“As she crossed the west side of the intersection and drove through the crosswalk, she heard a thumping sound,” the police report says. “Next she heard the male [Max’s father] alongside of her vehicle screaming at her, ‘My son! My son!’ The male then began banging on the side of the vehicle.”
Passers-by stopped to help the distraught father lift the van off the young bicyclist. His father believes the boy’s helmet saved his life.
Doctors in Salt Lake City treated Max’s injuries, including a collapsed left lung, bruised right lung, a chest wound and broken bones in his left leg, pelvis and ribs. His spleen was removed, and he suffered third-degree burns that required skin grafts. The community donated more than $91,500 for his care via a GoFundMe account.
‘A LOT OF FORGIVENESS’
Investigators found no signs of impairment in Twagirayesu, described in the police report as a 40-year-old Congolese woman who speaks little English. She also said she was not distracted by anything in her van. A certified interpreter happened to be available at the scene of the crash.
She pleaded guilty to inattentive driving.
Courtney Wyatt, Max’s mother, emailed prosecutors to say she felt sorry for the trauma Twagirayesu and three small children in the van experienced in the collision.
“I feel if she were sentenced to jail time and have to be apart from her children, that would only compound their trauma,” she wrote in the letter, which is part of court records.
Courtney Wyatt asked only that Twagirayesu’s license be suspended until she got better driver training and that if she did community service, it would be in the bike community. The family did not seek any restitution.
Twagirayesu was sentenced to 90 days in jail, but all of it was suspended. She’s on unsupervised probation for a year.
Ada County Deputy Prosecutor Kim Smith said Twagirayesu was required to complete National Traffic Safety Institute Level II traffic school, which is eight hours of training. The court didn’t specify where she has to do 150 hours of community service.
“I have been told that she is involved with the bike community, and I hope that she will try to do some of that community service there,” Smith said.
Jimmy Hallyburton, of Boise Bicycle Project, said he wasn’t aware of Twagirayesu doing any community service at BBP. But he did recall the Wyatts asking that the group provide bicycles last Christmas for the seven children (ages 5 to 20) in Twagirayesu’s household. The families met during the Christmas bike giveaway event.
“I think there was a lot of forgiveness and understanding,” Hallyburton said. “In this particular situation, when you look at those two families, they come from very different worlds. You put the kids together, and you give them bicycles, and they don’t look very different. When you see people together like that, you realize there’s not a lot of difference between them.”
Both Twagirayesu and the Wyatt family declined to talk to the Statesman about the case this spring.