San Diego’s science, bicycling communities mourn 2 scientists struck, killed on consecutive days
In a 30-hour span last month, two bicyclists were struck by vehicles and killed on San Diego County roadways.
One was a 75-year-old man born in Kansas, the other a 34-year-old woman born in India. Both called San Diego home, and it was science that drew them here after they earned doctoral degrees and other advanced training elsewhere.
The deaths of Allen Hunter II on June 22 in Solana Beach and Swati Tyagi on June 23 in La Jolla have shaken San Diego’s scientific and bicycling communities, prompting renewed calls for better bicycling infrastructure and more respectful motorists.
“It’s a choice to ride a bike,” said Kyle Heiskala, board president and former interim executive director of BikeSD. “These are our friends, neighbors and families. It’s terrifying when there are aggressive drivers. ... I want everyone to slow down. We all have a responsibility when we’re driving. Someone’s life is in our hands.”
Stephan Vance, chair of the San Diego County Bicycle Coalition who worked for 36 years on transportation projects at the San Diego Assn. of Governments, said the dual tragedies “point to the need for us to rethink how we prioritize transportation spending at every level.”
“Of the things that create danger and risk, the number one thing is speed,” Vance said. “We need to rethink how we can re-engineer our roads to be safer.”
Family members and colleagues shared the pain of the two lives lost.
“My dad was upbeat, he was optimistic, he was caring, he was funny, he always had a dad joke,” Allen Hunter III recalled in a phone interview last week. “He was brilliant, efficient and hardworking. He was also one of the most moral, ethical and decent human beings I’ve ever known.”
Allen Hunter II earned a physics degree from the Air Force Academy after growing up poor in rural Kansas. He and his sister were raised by their mother. While serving in the Air Force, Hunter earned a master’s degree in physics from Ohio State University and later a doctorate.
“He would wake up at 2 in the morning and spend four or five hours working on his PhD, then head to the office for a full day in the Air Force,” his son said. “He had an iron will. When he decided he needed to do something, he did it, and he did it immediately.”
Hunter left the Air Force in 1979, and in 1983, after a stint as leader of the Advanced Laser Development Group at Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico, he moved with his wife, Janet, and his son to San Diego for a civilian job with the Western Research Corp. Hunter stayed with the company — though it underwent several name changes — for nearly 30 years, retiring in 2010 from Trex Enterprises.
In retirement, he stayed active by biking regularly and hiking in Mission Trails Regional Park. That included tackling the “5-Peak Challenge” in a single August day in 2017, at age 72. The challenge involves reaching the tops of local landmarks Cowles Mountain, Pyles Peak, Kwaay Paay, South Fortuna and North Fortuna.
“He was an athlete and a military man,” his son said. “He could not abide being out of shape.”
Hunter was biking about 10:30 a.m. on June 22 on South Coast Highway near Lomas Santa Fe Drive when he was struck by a vehicle driven by a person suspected of being impaired , according authorities. He died that evening at Scripps Memorial Hospital in La Jolla.
Deputies arrested the 21-year-old driver the same day in Encinitas on suspicion of gross vehicular manslaughter, felony hit-and-run resulting in death or injury, and felony DUI causing great bodily injury, according to San Diego County Sheriff’s Lt. Amber Baggs.
The next day, about 4:20 p.m., Tyagi, a postdoctoral researcher at the Salk Institute, was riding her bicycle when she was struck from behind on North Torrey Pines Road in La Jolla. The married mother of an 11-month-old son died at the scene.
“She was one of the smartest postdocs I’ve ever had in my lab,” Martin Hetzer, vice president and chief science officer at Salk, said in a phone interview. Hetzer said Tyagi was good at everything, from conducting experiments to writing code to analyzing data, and bridged many fields.
Others in Hetzer’s lab and at the Salk Institute would seek Tyagi out for technical questions, he said. He called her a generous person, a team player and “a true leader” who made his lab the most cohesive and collaborative it had ever been.
Tyagi, who like Hetzer earned a doctorate from the European Molecular Biology Laboratory in Germany, was studying the human genome.
“Her work is relevant for cancer, but also aging and neurodegenerative diseases,” Hetzer said.
Swati Tyagi, 34, was struck and killed Wednesday afternoon; the Salk Institute postdoctoral researcher was the mother of an 11-month-old son
“How do you quantify that loss?” Heiskala, the BikeSD board president, asked. “Not only for her family, but for society. She was doinglifesaving research.”
Andy Zhao, who is studying for a materials science doctorate at UC San Diego — near where Tyagi was struck and killed — and serves as the student representative on the University Community Planning Group, said: “It’s just not safe to bike in University City. People want to bike, but there are cars going 50 mph right next to you.”
Where Tyagi was riding, there was only a painted bicycle lane — no barriers, Heiskala said. According to the Urban Bikeway Design Guide from the National Assn. of City Transportation Officials, a high-volume, high-speed road such as North Torrey Pines Road should have a fully protected or separate bike path.
“When you have a car vs. a bike, the car always wins,” Heiskala said.
Advocates from BikeSD and the San Diego County Bicycle Coalition applauded the recent budget passed by the San Diego City Council, saying the city is being more aggressive in implementing long planned and newly proposed bicycle infrastructure projects.
Andy Hanshaw, executive director of the San Diego County Bicycle Coalition, said it’s human stories like those of Hunter and Tyagi that prove the need for better infrastructure and more “attentive, alert” drivers.
“Please always be on the lookout for people on two wheels,” Vance said. “That way we’ll all get along a lot better.”
Riggins writes for the San Diego Union-Tribune.
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