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This story hits way too close to home, and I hate having to report it. Apparently yesterday on September 27, 2012, 12-year-old Hailey Ratliff was riding her bicycle in Novato, California with her backpack on, wearing a helmet, when she was struck by an SUV also driving on Novato Boulevard. The impact with the SUV was severe enough to cause substantial damage to the SUV and to cause fatal injuries to this young cyclist.

It's a horribly sad day when a child dies, particularly when the death could have been prevented. How do we know this bicycle death could have been prevented? The main factors in causing a crash such as this are typically the SUV driver’s operation of the vehicle:

  1. Could the driver have been on the cell phone or distracted in any other way?
  2. Does the damage to the vehicle indicate high speed of the SUV?
  3. Did the bicycle rider do something to violate the rules of the road or to surprise the SUV driver?
  4. Was the condition of this roadway a factor in contributing to this fatal crash?
  5. Since this was a head-on collision (where the SUV was traveling east and the bicycle traveling west), was the cyclist riding against traffic? Was the SUV driver crossing the centerline? Or, was the SUV driver making a left turn in front of the cyclist?

The impact damage to the SUV looks like the speed of the truck was substantial at the moment of impact. If this was a left turn case, this clearly was preventable.

I used to ride my bicycle to school in Marin and I was just about to suggest that my daughter start to ride to school herself. I feel strange as a bicycling advocate that I do not feel comfortable with my own daughter riding to school when we supposedly have safer roads and more bike paths than when I was a student in Marin.

Are too many of the drivers in Marin now distracted? The Novato community is suffering over this loss, as the police are investigating the cause of this fatal bicycle crash. The particular stretch of Novato Boulevard (near San Marin Drive) is known to be dangerous. Hailey’s family recently moved to Novato from Albuquerque, New Mexico. Being new to the area, she and her family may not have known what Novato resident Jen Jigalin knows about this particular section of the road:

It goes from 30 to 45 and people are heading to West Marin really fast. I walk here every morning with my dog. My kids walk here, but I don't let them go alone. It's dangerous.

Hailey was wearing her helmet, but despite life flight to Children's Hospital in Oakland from Novato Community Hospital it was too late to save her as she was pronounced dead upon arrival to the hospital at 5:30 p.m. (2 1/2 hours after the fatal SUV bicycle crash).

The police do not suspect intoxication of the motorist as a factor. The driver stayed at the scene after the crash, along with the police, to analyze the wreckage including various bicycle parts and the damaged SUV.

My sincere condolences go out to Hailey’s family and friends. I hope that you are not offended by my blogging about this bicycle crash. I feel uncomfortable and intrusive when I discuss your personal tragedy. All of Marin County is reeling under this shocking tragedy. There is no silver lining for Hailey’s family. I am only reporting on this bicycle death to keep up my promise to blog about significant bicycle crashes in my community and to keep bicycle safety in the forefront of people’s consciousness, as much as I can. If the roadway contributed to this death, the City of Novato and the County of Marin need to investigate to determine how they can improve the safety of their roadways for children and all bicyclists.

About the author: Claude Wyle is an aggressive advocate for San Francisco Bay Area bicyclists and a specialist in claims involving dangerous roadways. Claude has decades of experience representing those harmed by the wrongful conduct of others, and, as a San Francisco personal injury attorney, has fought to protect the rights of injured adults and children throughout his legal career. This blog is not an attempt to solicit.


  1. Gravatar for A

    This is a very bad reporting. You are putting your speculations into questions to avoid legal implications. If you don't know then just shut up and keep your lame reflections to yourself.

  2. Gravatar for Opus the Poet
    Opus the Poet

    This wreck was reported elsewhere as the cyclist was west bound while the SUV was eastbound. There are only 3 ways for a wreck like this to happen, the cyclist riding against traffic, the SUV driver crossing the centerline, or the SUV driver making a left turn in front of the cyclist. Since I haven't seen any pictures of the weapon vehicle (standard terminology for a vehicle that hits a vulnerable user, not an assessment of fault or criminal activity on the part of the driver) I can't say which of those is the mode of this wreck, but using my experience in this field I would place a bet on the left cross wreck mode.

  3. Claude Wyle

    Thanks for your comments. Opus the Poet, if indeed the SUV was travelling in the opposite direction of the bicycle, then I would agree with the you. I will add this to my blog. Thank you.


  4. Gravatar for Jack

    She was my best friends sister . I was sad , shocked to her what happend and I am sad for her family because my best friend was really close to her :(

  5. Claude Wyle

    Dear Jack:

    I am truly sorry that you and your friend’s family are going through this very rough time. As a Marin County dad of a twelve year old girl, this needless death has greatly saddened me also. I think our entire community is hurting, but I know our sorrow cannot be compared to your friend’s family’s shock and pain. You might let them know that they are in our thoughts and prayers, and that there are a lot of people who are thinking about Hailey. This is an awful lot of emotional pain for someone as young as you and your friend. We all grow up and expect our parents to pass on eventually, when we are much older, and it always seems too soon. As we get older, we know more and more people who pass, but it never really gets easy. To lose a child seems to be the very worst loss, and to lose as sister must be horrible. I believe the best thing you can do is to be a good friend and be there when your buddy needs to talk or even just needs to be distracted. Also, since his pain will never really go away completely, when things are less raw, try to get him back to his old activities as best you can. You have a tough job, but your buddy can use good friends now more than ever. Be strong.

    Good luck, Claude

  6. Gravatar for Judgy One
    Judgy One

    The only fact that I found strange is the comment (in other publications as well) that the driver didn't leave the scene and was cooperative. I would like to think that most people would stay. Why is this a surprise? Also, I disagree with the comment that there are only 3 possibilities. Think a little harder. It's a horrible tradegy regardless. The family, their friends, and even a community will never be the same. I would imagine that the driver and everyone associated with them will be haunted by this for the rest of their life as well.

  7. Claude Wyle

    Dear Judgy One:

    Thank you very much for your comment. I agree that it’s a bit shocking that the news services report that the driver stayed at the scene to cooperate with police, as if this were an exception, not the rule. You may recall that this year we have had, in the San Francisco Bay Area, several instances of fatal car or truck vs. bicycle crashes where the drivers fled the scene after striking a bicyclist. I am often handling hit and run cases for bicycle riders. This happens more than any community would tolerate, and far too often.

    As to there being more than three possibilities for causation of this tragic death, of course there may be sub possibilities galore, and there may be other contributing causes that are uncommon. For example, there could be a product defect which made the truck malfunction or a bicycle product defect, or maybe something in the way the SUV was maintained contributed to causing this crash. And the locals say that the road is dangerous. Until we learn the results of the police investigation, I can only point to probabilities, not certainties. I do point out questions I think should be answered, from experience I have working on similar accident cases. Maybe not everyone agrees with the questions I raise, but as long as we are thinking about what caused this horrible death, maybe we are thinking of ways to prevent other bicycling injuries or deaths from happening.

    As a lawyer, my mind naturally goes to how can this bicycle accident be explained and what can we learn from it. And who should be accountable?

    As you stated, no matter how this incident happened, it is greatly disturbing to the community and just plain horrible. We all are thinking about Hailey and her family, and this news was like getting punched in the stomach. And yes, I do of course feel terribly for the driver of the SUV, because he is never likely to be able to forgive himself whether the accident was his fault or not.

    Again, thanks. - Claude

  8. Claude Wyle

    Submitted by: Name: c c

    Dear Mr. Wyle:

    I just wanted to say THANK YOU for your excellent article (and don't understand what "A" is talking about)and reporting!

    I was exiting the northern parking lot at San Marin High the day of the accident, shortly after it occurred, noticed a commotion and called the school office. I prayed it wasn't involving a student walking home from school and although I am aware how dangerous the road is (speeders), I never imagined the horrid reality that had just happened.

    I could see the oddly-positioned SUV was stopped (pointing south east at an angle), near the center of the road. I asked the officer blocking the intersection at Novato Bl and San Marin Dr. what happened. He said all he knew was a pedestrian had been struck. (I'd bet it was a distracted driver error.)

    That evening I scoured the online news and found a too brief article, I believe in the IJ. For approximately one week I looked for a decent, informative article and not until today did I find yours which provides informed and detailed information I've been waiting for including whether or not Hailey had on a helmut-important for young bicyclists to remember.

    I hope you will continue to report on this article. I still want to know where (exactly) Hailey was when she was struck and if she was attempting to cross in front of the vehicle, etc. I also hope the city will do something about the road. Locals know the speed limit posted in the area is generally ignored and exceeded by 15-20 mph. Perhaps several large speed bumps, at least to the frequented dog park, is a simple solution.

    I myself live on a busy road with a long stretch. I've complained about the exceeded speed limit a few times and spoken to the assigned traffic officer directly. He assures me he's on patrol but there's a shortage of officers. I believe large speed bumps is a simple solution here as well. Squirrels are regular roadkill each month due to speeders on my street. This is disturbing but not nearly as disturbing as a child or adult or dog or cat getting killed by these careless individuals.

    I lost my sister tragically and suddenly last summer. It seems like yesterday. My family will never be the same and is still in shock but we are managing. I appreciate all the support my friends and this community has to offer.

    Again, thank you for your good work.


  9. Gravatar for nikky Goldstone
    nikky Goldstone

    this is false information. the driver was driving in a straight line. there was no left turn to be made. THIS IS FALSE INFORMATION!!!

  10. Gravatar for Claude Wyle
    Claude Wyle

    Dear Ms. Goldstone: I appreciate your comment, but I find this odd so many years after the blog. And, please note that this is a blog and not a news story. I was posting my opinion about the facts that I had read in the news, not investigating the news by talking to witnesses, etc. I believe I reported the news as I read it, and my comments flowed from that. If you have conflicting facts or evidence about how this tragic bicycle death happened, I am happy to learn more. I am not judge or jury and I always appreciate hearing more facts than are available in the news. Thank you, Claude

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