The teenage driver of a pickup truck that plowed into a group of bicyclists on Saturday was intentionally blowing exhaust on the riders, and was reaching for his cell phone at the time of the crash that left six people injured, according to the Waller Police crash report.
The teen “driver stated he was reaching for his cell phone to call his dad and struck the bicyclists before he could react,” Waller officer Charles Mistric wrote in the report Monday.
Four cyclists were taken to the hospital, two by helicopter, following the crash Saturday morning as cyclists were on a training ride along U.S. 290 Business west of Waller. Neither the teen nor a 17-year-old passenger in the truck were injured. Both remained at the scene of the crash.
In Texas, a 16-year-old on the second phase of the state’s graduated driver’s license program can operate a car or truck with one passenger in the vehicle who is not a relative. The rules for teen drivers forbid them from using a wireless device, except in an emergency.
“Drivers seem to underestimate the enormous responsibility that comes with piloting a truck this size,” said Joe Cutrufo, executive director of the advocacy group BikeHouston. “There is a duty of care to others that this driver clearly wasn’t prepared for.”
Cyclists and drivers alike have said the lack of strong laws related to distracted driving have made Texas roadways less safe.
In the police report, relying on witness accounts from cyclists, Mistric noted the teen — who is not named because he is a minor — failed to control his speed “as he accelerated to intentionally blow black diesel smoke,” on the riders.
Waller County District Attorney Elton Mathis in a post Wednesday said if the incident involved “rolling coal” as the practice sometimes is called, it would make it an assault.
“They are causing their vehicle to ‘spit’ on a living, breathing, human being that is worthy of dignity and not having his or her person violated,” Waller County District Attorney Elton Mathis wrote in a Facebook post. “That simple assault is easily elevated to a jail eligible offense if bodily injury occurs.”
Rick DeToto, a lawyer hired by the teen’s family, said Wednesday that the teen is a new driver and police at the scene spoke to him and declined to cite him.
All of the riders, Mistric said in the report, were riding two abreast. One frequent complaint by drivers in Waller County is cyclists who spread into the road, but there is no evidence that was the case when the crash occurred. Bicyclists, while encouraged to stay in the slowest lane of traffic and to the right, can and do ride side-by-side in many settings.
A Cypress man, 45, was the first cyclist struck according to police. He was taken by helicopter to the Texas Medical Center. The second seriously injured rider, a Houston woman, 42, was the last one struck.
The crash left bicycles and debris spread across the rural road at a high spot about two miles west of town, along with significant damage to the front end of the large pickup.
Given the injuries, many cyclists were and remain enraged that the teen was released to his parents by police. They argued that had he injured six people with a gun or knife wielded recklessly, authorities would have likely detained him, but took a lax view because it was a vehicle.
“We’re afraid that if this driver gets away with rolling coal and running down these cyclists, then other drivers will get away with it too — not just in Waller, but anywhere,” Cutrufo said Wednesday.
Some have suggested the close-knit rural community is protecting one of its own, and that is why charges are slow to materialize. Mathis disputed those allegations in a post Tuesday.
“The lead prosecutor on this case is in communication with the Waller Police Department and gathering information from them as they make it available,” Mathis wrote. “We are also aware of the identity of the juvenile and can guarantee that from the perspective of this office he will receive no favorable or unfavorable treatment based upon who his family may or may not be.”
Mathis earlier this week noted his office secured a life prison sentence for Victor Tome for killing two cyclists in a 2017 crash, also during a training ride. Tome, who witnesses described as acting erratically after he fled on foot, was arrested hours after the crash and taken to the Waller County Jail.