Cyclist Paresh Chhatrala, 42, died after crash on Madison, where medians were removed

Paresh Chhatrala. Photo: Facebook
Paresh Chhatrala. Photo: Facebook

Update April 21, 5:45 PM: The Cook County medical examiner’s announced that the bike rider from Saturday’s crash died from his injuries on Wednesday afternoon at Stroger Hospital, and identified him as Paresh Chhatrala. A LinkedIn profile indicates that he was a graduate of Gujarat University in India and worked as a software developer at Chamberlain Group.

A Chicago Sun-Times article on the case published this afternoon confirmed that police suspected that motorist Courtney Bertucci was driving while intoxicated, and heroin baggies were found in her car.

“Alders have the prerogative to change the landscape of their wards, and those changes affect real people,” Christina Whitehouse from the bike advocacy group Bike Lane Uprising told the Sun-Times. “Burnett single-handedly had those planters removed. There was pushback on it. He spent $400,000 in taxpayer funding and made people less safe.”

Burnett took no responsibility for the crash. “You can’t say it’s because of a planter,” he told the Sun-Times. “You can point your finger at many things, but I don’t think it’s anyone’s fault. I think it’s an accident.”

The alderman’s explanation makes no sense because, in addition to the higher traffic speeds and volumes neighbors have reported since the medians were removed, the planters would have likely stopped Bertucci from crossing into oncoming traffic and striking Chhatrala. And, needless to say, when a person kills somebody because they decided to operate a potentially deadly machine while under the influence of alcohol or drugs, that’s not an “accident.”

Tragically, a driver who was reportedly intoxicated and had a previous DUI conviction, struck and critically injured a man on a bike Saturday night on Madison Street in the West Loop. Compounding the tragedy is the fact that the collision likely would have been prevented if the city hadn’t removed concrete planter medians from the street a couple years ago to facilitate faster driving.

According to Police News Affairs, on Saturday, April 16, at about 10:10 p.m., a 42-year-old man was riding his bike west on the 900 block of West Madison. The 30-year-old female driver of a silver 2008 Volkswagen Jetta compact car was heading east on Madison when she swerved into oncoming traffic to avoid a metal construction cover on the road, striking the cyclist.

The victim was taken to Stroger Hospital in critical condition, News Affairs said.

According to police, the driver, identified as Courtney Bertucci of the 1900 block of Elgin Avenue in Joliet, fled the scene and was apprehended in the 100 block of South Aberdeen Street, about half a mile from the crash site. She was charged with one felony count of possession of a controlled substance and one misdemeanor count of possession of drug paraphernalia, and was cited for failure to exercise due care for a bicyclist in the roadway and driving without insurance.

Diagram of the crash from the police report.
Diagram of the crash from the police report.

The police narrative on crash report, which indicates the victim is a software engineer who lives about a mile west of the crash site, provides more details about what reportedly took place. It states that the responding officers arrived on the scene to find the victim “lying on the ground, bleeding profusely from his head.”

Police dispatch then told the officers that a witness had called to say the suspect was being detained by several bystanders at the Aberdeen location, according to the report. Additional police arrived there and arrested Bertucci and found her car, which had damage to the hood, windshield, and roof. The victim’s bicycle was lodged underneath the vehicle. The report contains the horrifying detail that there “appeared to be human teeth embedded in the windshield.”

Officers accompanied the ambulance to the hospital, where a doctor informed them that the bike rider had suffered “massive head and facial trauma,” the report states.

Witnesses who helped apprehend Bertucci provided more info to Streetsblog about what happened. A 39-year-old woman who lives in Little Village said she was in the front passenger seat of a car driven by a female friend, with a male coworker in the back seat, heading east two cars behind the suspect when she saw Bertucci swerve to the left to avoid the road plate. The collision with the cyclist made a sound like like a gunshot and the victim flew into the air, then landed on the road.

The vehicle from Saturday's crash. Image: CBS Chicago
The vehicle from Saturday’s crash. Image: CBS Chicago

Other bystanders were rushing to the victim’s aid, so as Bertucci fled in her car, the male driver of the first car behind her, as well as the people traveling with the Little Village resident, decided to give chase, the witness said. She added that traffic violence, as well as gun violence, is common in her Southwest Side neighborhood, so she was “tired of seeing innocent people getting hurt.”

The coworker in the back seat, a 27-year-old man who lives in the East Side neighborhood, told Streetsblog Bertucci made a few turns to try to avoid pursuit, and then parked with the intention of fleeing on foot. The two pursuing drivers boxed in her car with their vehicles, and then confronted her. “They asked her to get out of the car so that she couldn’t do anything rash,” the witness said. “We knew she was on [drugs] because she claimed she didn’t know what happened.”

While the bystanders tried to hold Bertucci in a citizen’s arrest, she eventually slipped away and fled on foot down an alley, the East Side resident said. The two men sprinted after her and cornered her near a parking lot, where they were able to detain her until police arrived.

According to a post by the anonymous crime blog CWB Chicago, Assistant State’s Attorney James Konstantopoulos said the case is being investigated as a potential DUI, although Bertucci had not yet been charged with intoxicated driving. Police found 2.3 grams of a substance suspected to be heroin, according to Konstantopoulos. He added that the suspect was convicted of a DUI in 2014. Bail was set at $10,000 by Judge Kelly McCartney, who cited the severity of the cyclist’s injuries.

(Yes, CWB is a problematic news source, it part because it holds fundraisers for police and, not coincidentally, gets inside information from cops. However, it’s the only outlet that’s published most of these details. We’ve reached out to the Cook County State’s Attorney’s office for confirmation that this info is accurate.)

The 900 block of West Madison Street, before and after the concrete planter medians were removed. Image: Google Maps
The 900 block of West Madison Street, before and after the concrete planter medians were removed. Image: Google Maps

It’s likely this tragedy wouldn’t have happened if the city hadn’t removed the concrete planter medians from Madison between Halsted Street and Ogden Avenue. 27th Ward alderman Walter Burnett ordered the demolition, which was paid for with $400,000 in city money earmarked for median maintenance.

“In recent years, Chicago Department of Transportation had received numerous complaints that the planters blocked traffic and created congestion, particularly during events at the United Center,” then-CDOT spokesperson Michael Claffey told Block Club Chicago at the time. But while drivers scapegoated the medians for the traffic jams they themselves created, Streetsblog noted that removing the planters would create wider travel lanes that would make it easier to speed.

That’s exactly what happened, longtime West Loop resident Moshe Tamssot told CBS Chicago in the wake of the bike crash. “It’s been dramatic in terms of both the volume of traffic and speed. Ever since they took out the Madison planters, that’s turned Madison from a four-lane street into a five-lane street which increases speed as well as throughput, which increases the safety hazard to pedestrians and cyclists.” He noted that last November another intoxicated driver crashed into the wall of a gym on Madison.

In the wake of the crash, West Central Association president Armando Chacon told CBS, “We need to slow traffic down on Madison Street. Period,” adding that the chamber of commerce helped get new stop signs installed on Throop Street and are now advocating for stop signs at Laflin Street. He discussed raised intersections, sidewalk extensions, and flashing stop signs as other potential strategies to discourage speeding.

The irony is, the need for traffic calming on Madison wouldn’t be so urgent if the medians hadn’t been demolished in the first place, but the association supported their removal. In late 2019 Chacon told Block Club the demolition of the planters “will help alleviate traffic and will make the area safer for pedestrians.” This latest crash proves that obviously isn’t the case.

However, now that the medians are gone, the best solution for reducing speeding on Madison, and prevent people on bikes from being struck by reckless drivers, is not to reinstall the planters. Rather, the amount of space available to drivers should be narrowed again by installing bike lanes with robust physical protection, such as concrete curbs, which would help prevent crashes like this.

Local bike attorney Michael Keating (a Streetsblog Chicago sponsor) argued that this cycling injury case represents a nearly perfect storm of several factors that endanger people who bike in Chicago. “Here we have an intoxicated driver who sped down Madison Street, which despite being the literal center of the city has a large swath that allows motorists to speed down it,” he said. “Combined with that is a large metal plate from nearby construction which added an additional dangerous factor that led to the life-threatening injuries to the cyclist… We should demand more from our state and local leaders to implement safe streets and call on the Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office to aggressively and forcefully prosecute these crimes with the full force of the law.”
Fatality Tracker: 2022 Chicago pedestrian and bicyclist deaths on surface streets

Pedestrian: 4
Bicyclist: 2

Note: Streetsblog Chicago’s traffic death numbers represent fatal crashes on Chicago surface streets, based on media reports and/or preliminary Chicago Police Department data released by the Chicago Department of Transportation.

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