Miami DWI Death Galvanizes Cyclists in South Florida

lecanne1_1.jpgCyclists rally in memory of Christophe Le Canne. Photo: rydel/Picasa via Miami Bike Scene
The horrific death of a 44-year-old resident of South Miami has enraged cyclists across South Florida, igniting a debate over street safety in a region historically dominated by devil-may-care drivers.

On January 17, Christophe Le Canne was out for a Sunday morning ride on the Rickenbacker Causeway, which connects the city of Miami with Virginia Key and Key Biscayne, when he was hit from behind and knocked from his bike by Carlos Bertonatti, a 28-year-old aspiring musician with a long history of traffic offenses. Bertonatti drove for miles with Le Canne's blue Cannondale wedged beneath his Volkswagen Jetta. Le Canne died before paramedics arrived on the scene.

Bertonatti was arrested outside his Key Biscayne apartment after a police officer observed him dragging Le Canne's bike. He was charged with DUI manslaughter, vehicular homicide, resisting arrest, driving without a license and leaving the scene of a fatal accident. 

This could have been written off as an isolated incident -- another drunk driver with a checkered driving record takes another life. But for several possible reasons, that didn't happen. Consider the arrogance of the killer. Bertonatti's website, according to the Miami Herald, "had boasted of his poor driving record." Police had to strap him to a fire department backer board in order to extract a blood sample. After the crash, Bertonatti issued regrets through his publicist. He is currently out on bail.

Some also blame Le Canne's death in part on a bungled response by emergency personnel. Due to confusion over who should handle the 911 call, it took more than 15 minutes for help to reach the victim. By then it was too late.

Whatever the reason, Le Canne's death has acted as a flashpoint for cyclists who have long endured pariah status on the chaotic streets of the Miami megalopolis. A memorial ride for Le Canne drew thousands. Advocates are calling for separated bike facilities, in addition to tougher penalties for drivers who harass or harm cyclists. The Miami-Dade County Commission has discussed lowering speed limits, increasing police presence, and streamlining emergency response operations. Stricter rules for alcohol service have also come up.

It's impossible to ignore the parallels between the Le Canne tragedy and any number of local cyclist and pedestrian fatalities. A driver with a long rap sheet is allowed to remain behind the wheel of his own car until he, almost inevitably, ends up visiting misery on innocent victims.

And as in New York, the perniciousness of motorist entitlement asserts itself in less obvious ways. There was once talk of raising the toll on the Rickenbacker at Key Biscayne, which could have funded extended hours for a fire-rescue station closer to the spot where Le Canne was hit. That station was closed at the time of the crash.