The Ice Age Junction Path running along County Highway M on Madison’s west side seems like an ideal route for a bike ride to work on a spring morning, with sunshine sparkling on Morse Pond and a quiet roll over a bridge leading to Raymond Road.
For Emilly Zhu, that path proved deadly.
The 23-year-old software developer, musician, artist and author with a “rallying enthusiasm,” suffered fatal head injuries just a few miles from her home, when she was hit by a car about 7:24 a.m. on June 10.
Earlier this month, an alderman, the Deputy Mayor representing Mayor Soglin’s office, engineers, friends and family gathered along the roadway to remember Zhu and install a memorial bench at the crash site.
The site would be an ideal location for cyclists and pedestrians to stop – and for motorists to slow down – and reflect on the tragedy, how it happened and how similar deaths could be prevented.
Several key factors emerge from the police reports and the account from the driver, Brian Hodgson.
Too many trees: Thick vegetation along the east side of the path severely limited Zhu’s ability to see traffic from her left as she biked south toward the roadway. The view opens slightly but only within 15 feet of the intersection. Similarly, motorists approaching the crossing have limited ability to see people moving toward the roadway and prepare to stop if necessary. However, there is also an advance yellow warning sign on Raymond road to warn drivers to slow down for bicyclists/pedestrians when approaching the marked crosswalk of the Ice Age Junction Path.
This video shows the approach to Raymond Road from the north.
Too fast: At 45 miles per hour, the stopping distance for motorists encountering a cyclist crossing into the road would be nearly 150 feet, and Hodgson reported he was unable to stop in time to avoid hitting Zhu. He estimated that just one second elapsed from the time he spotted her until they collided near the middle of the road.
Police estimated Hodgson’s speed at 52 to 55 mph, based on the skid marks left by his Kia Spectra, which stretched for 125 and 130 feet. Hodgson maintains that he was driving at 35 to 40 mph, and approaching the intersection cautiously.
Too much confusion: A stop sign directs people on the path to halt before entering the roadway. But state law requires motorists to yield to people in crosswalks. That too comes with a caveat. The law prohibits people crossing from going into the path of a vehicle that is so close it is difficult for the motorist to yield.
No one will know for certain whether Zhu stopped before entering the roadway and determining whether she or Hodgson violated right-of-way laws is difficult.
Improvements: In the weeks after the crash, Madison city officials took steps to improve the dangerous crossing. They removed some of the trees that limited sight lines and reduced the speed limit to 35 mph.
Who’s to blame? Some cycling advocates and Zhu’s parents blame Hodgson for the crash. In their view, the 33-year-old who lives in Madison and works as a retail technology developer for Land’s End was driving too fast and failed to yield to a cyclist in a marked crosswalk.
They also note Hodgson received a text message minutes before the crash and suggest he was distracted. On that count, Hodgson said he never took the phone out of his pocket while approaching the trail crossing.
Police issued no citations in the case and the Dane County District Attorney’s office declined to pursue criminal charges.
Thomas Young, a Colorado attorney who joined Zhu’s parents in a teleconference with Dane County prosecutors, said the family was unhappy with the lack of action against Hodgson.
“I think what they were looking for from the district attorney was a recognition that at the very least, the driver was culpable of negligence,” Young said. “I came away from that conference thinking that the DA lacked a certain amount of courage.”
Young said Zhu grew up in Fort Collins, Co., earned a degree in chemical engineering at Princeton and turned her focus to computer coding. She took a job Epic Systems in Verona to work in that area, but also considered going to graduate school.
“She played the piano and the clarinet,” Young said. “She was a terrific graphic artist and painter. She self-published a book, a story of a Chinese folk tale she had known from her childhood. She was a real go-getter.”
Hodgson understands that Zhu’s parents, blame him for the death of their only child. He sent us his perspective on the tragic fatal crash via email.
“I think about her family more than Emilly herself,” Hodgson wrote in response to questions about Zhu’s death and his role.
“I have heard from crash investigators and through the media that they are angry and blame me for the accident,” he said. “If true, I understand their anger, sympathize with them, and forgive them completely. I wish for them to be happy and at peace, and hope for the opportunity to communicate with them in the future.”
Hodgson has struggled with the trauma and after-effects of killing someone, and suggests that people objecting to the lack of charges against him are misguided.
“Those advocates have never had a conversation with me, so they don’t have full understanding of the situation,” said Hodgson, who bikes with his son. “People who jump to conclusions and summarily assign blame are of no concern to me, nor will I give their uninformed declarations any credence by arguing against them.
“I would advise that they direct their passion studying sources of unbiased analysis and then apply their knowledge to build awareness and cooperation.”
Both motorists and cyclists need to improve their behavior to prevent future crashes, Hodgson wrote.
“Far too many drivers are too concerned with comfort, convenience and vanity,” he said. “Driving your giant SUV or your speedy coupe is inherently dangerous, and one should be active, alert, conscientious and deferential at all times.”
Cyclists’ have a responsibility also, to avoid putting themselves in dangerous positions, he said.
His overriding view: “Fostering relationships, goodwill, forgiveness and cooperation is the best way to improve the situation.” Emilly’s parents want people to imagine how deep their grief is, after losing their lovely only daughter. This grief can never go away in their life. Emilly’s mom has never stopped her crying. She cries everyday. She has been overflowing with tears that would make a river and her heart has been broken.