Cyclist death prompts lawsuit, traffic safety questions

Yuan Cong never regained consciousness after a car crash on Nov. 25, 2022. Buddhist monks prayed by his side for months.

Cyclist death prompts lawsuit, traffic safety questions
Yuan Cong, 34, died one year ago today, nearly seven months after he sustained major injuries in a traffic collision on San Pablo Avenue in Berkeley. Courtesy of Lina Cong

Yuan Cong died one year ago today, seven months after he sustained major head trauma when a driver hit him on his bike on San Pablo Avenue.

Cong, a Buddhist monk from China, had only recently moved to Berkeley to pursue graduate studies.

His death went unreported, largely due to the seven months that elapsed between the collision and his passing.

After the crash, on Nov. 25, 2022, Cong never regained consciousness. He died the following June at age 34.

But he wasn't alone: Buddhist monks were by his side for months, chanting sutras, making offerings and later praying for him at the funeral home.

The Scanner has been working since the crash to learn more about who he was.

It hasn't been easy, in part because of how Berkeley police handle records related to traffic collisions.

A wrongful death lawsuit filed recently by Lina Cong, Yuan's mother, finally offered a chance to find some answers.

Lina Cong on a sightseeing trip with Yuan Cong, her only child. Courtesy

The Scanner discovered the lawsuit in May while researching the 2022 traffic collision. The claim had only just been filed.

Lina Cong's attorneys said they could not comment on the case but agreed to arrange an interview with her.

Cong, who lives in China, spoke with The Scanner over Zoom this week, sharing stories about her son's life as well as some of the challenges of the past year without him.

A classmate of Yuan's from UC Berkeley served as translator for the conversation.

Yuan Cong grew up in Yantai, a coastal city in eastern China with a large fishing port. He was an only child who liked playing with his friends by the seaside.

Lina described him as a chubby, happy child. Never a picky eater, he enjoyed whatever food she cooked for him.

Yuan was always advanced for his age: He started reading at age 4 and loved being taken to children's libraries. Reading quickly became his favorite hobby.

By the time he was in first grade, Yuan already knew 2,000 Chinese characters, several times the average for that age.

Yuan was a lively, independent child, his mother said.

His parents never needed to push him or worry about him, Lina said. When he set his mind to something, he had no trouble accomplishing it on his own.

Studious from a young age

Yuan was determined to learn English, which he began studying at age 8.

His mother recalled him playing cassette tapes on repeat, imitating new phrases as he practiced the words out loud.

By the time Yuan got to high school, the English teacher there said he'd met all the requirements for the subject.

He later went to college in Beijing, where he studied actuarial science, a combination of probability, statistics and financial mathematics.

But his heart was already pulling him toward Buddhism, his mother said.

The family wasn't Buddhist, but Yuan's grandmother, Lina's mother, had encouraged his interest in the subject from a young age.

She kept Buddhist materials around the house, and would often make donations to temples along with other charitable acts.

When Yuan was a teenager, he began bringing Buddhist books home in addition to his textbooks.

He considered going to a Buddhist college right after high school. But Lina encouraged him to pursue a more traditional path.

He worked hard and did well in Beijing, passing numerous qualification exams in actuarial science. But his interest in Buddhism only grew.

Yuan ultimately decided to go to Sri Lanka to study Buddhism.

His mother urged caution, telling him it would be difficult to return to a career in finance if he walked away at that point.

He left finance for the monastery โ€” and never looked back

Yuan Cong (center) used the name Bhikkhu Cetovimutti after he was ordained as a monk. Courtesy

But Yuan didn't waver. They talked at length about the decision, and Lina eventually gave her blessing.

Yuan went to Sri Lanka, where he finished a two-year program in Buddhism in just three semesters.

Then he emailed his mother and said he had decided to become a monk.

As it turned out, he was already living in a monastery when he gave her the news.

"It did come as a surprise," she said. "The previous emails were still talking about how he was studying in school."

Yuan also told her they probably wouldn't talk as much given the demands of monastic life.

It was an adjustment, Lina said. But she realized her son had grown up: He could make his own decisions.

She told him not to worry about her and said she would always support him.

Yuan lived in Sri Lanka for five years. Lina said one of her favorite memories was going to visit him there.

At the monastery, she helped cook and made offerings for the monks.

Afterward, he went with her to Colombo, Sri Lanka's capital city, before her flight home.

They spent a week together touring and sightseeing.

"Everywhere we went, he always planned ahead and asked me, 'Mom, would you like to go here? Would you like to go there?'" she said. "He always built his travel plans around me."

"That was probably the happiest time we had together," she said.

Lina recalled telling her son how much the trip had meant to her.

"You really grew up!" she told him. "When you were little, it was always me who would take you around to play. And now you're taking me around."

Yuan had been a good son, she said this week, a loving, thoughtful son: the embodiment of filial piety.

"I miss him very much," she said.

Buddhist studies brought Yuan Cong to California

Yuan Cong, left, at the University of Chicago. Cong was ordained as Bhikkhu Cetovimutti and also went by the name "Ceto." Lixin Zheng

According to a translated obituary provided to The Scanner by Lina Cong's attorney, Yuan was ordained as a monk in the forest monastery of Long Grove in Sri Lanka.

He studied Tibetan Buddhism with Tibetan masters and studied other traditions of Buddhism as well, including Chinese and Theravada.

After he was ordained as a Theravada Buddhist monastic in 2014, Yuan gave lectures, which are now being collected for study, on various Buddhist teachings and practices.

He was also part of a Buddhist mental health project, called the Tree Hole Rescue Team, that offered crisis support to people in need.

After Sri Lanka, Yuan returned to China for a year, mostly living in Beijing with monks from his order.

University of Chicago

In 2019, he was accepted into the University of Chicago Divinity School, where he completed a master's program in Buddhism. From Chicago, he came to Berkeley.

Lina said Yuan was pursuing a PhD in Buddhist studies at UC Berkeley and was also involved with the Nyingma Institute, a Tibetan Buddhist learning center in Berkeley just north of Cal.

He had only been in Berkeley for a few months before the collision that would take his life.

After Yuan moved to the United States, he never had a chance to return to China. But his mother said they were in frequent contact.

They spoke via FaceTime on the day before the crash. It was just a normal conversation.

As a monk, Yuan wore monastic robes every day. But he didn't have enough of them.

He had asked his mother if she could buy more robes in China and have them sent to him in Berkeley. A friend of his had offered to mail them, and Lina put a care package together.

As of this week, Lina said, all those items were still sitting at the friend's house where she'd left them.

Wrongful death lawsuit alleges negligence, dangerous conditions

San Pablo Avenue and Virginia Street on Nov. 25, 2022. Ariel Nava Photo

On Nov. 25, 2022, Yuan Cong was riding his bike on Virginia Street at about 7 p.m. when he made a right turn onto San Pablo Avenue, heading south.

Driver George Moises, who was also southbound on San Pablo in his Volvo S60, struck Yuan in the roadway, according to the lawsuit filed in April by Lina Cong.

According to police, Yuan was not wearing a helmet and had no lights on his bike. BPD found him at fault for the collision.

Police said the driver was an Oakland man in his mid-70s who remained at the scene and cooperated with the investigation.

No criminal charges were filed in relation to the crash, according to court records.

But Lina Cong's attorneys, of law firm Walkup, Melodia, Kelly & Schoenberger, have argued that Moises was negligent, "driving at an unsafe speed and without keeping a proper lookout."

The firm has also raised safety concerns about both San Pablo Avenue, the state highway where the collision happened, and Virginia Street, a "bike boulevard" promoted by the city of Berkeley as a safer route for cyclists to use.

The city and state are named defendants in the lawsuit along with driver Moises.

Yuan Cong's bike after the Nov. 25, 2022, collision. Ariel Nava Photo

According to the lawsuit, the intersection of San Pablo and Virginia saw 32 collisions involving drivers, pedestrians or cyclists in the decade or so before the fatal crash.

The attorneys have argued that the city and state created dangerous conditions in the area due to inadequate signage, poor lighting, limited traffic controls, reduced traffic enforcement and other factors.

They also argued that even a person who was exercising due care in the area would be at risk because of the dangerous conditions.

"Said foreseeable hazards included, but were not limited to, a 'trap' for bicyclists attempting to travel on Virginia Street โ€ฆ to cross San Pablo Avenue," they wrote.

After the crash, Cong was taken to Highland Hospital for treatment.

He was eventually transferred to Alameda Hospital for long-term care, according to his death certificate, which lists complications of blunt force injuries to the head as the cause of death.

Cong was pronounced dead on June 20, 2023, at 10:46 a.m. He would later be buried in Cedar Hill Cemetery in Connecticut.

"The mind is liberated, with nothing to come from and nothing to go to," his translated obituary reads.

The initial hearing for the lawsuit is scheduled for September.

Berkeley crash site was known problem intersection

Yuan Cong's bike and crime scene tape after the Nov. 25, 2022, collision. Ariel Nava Photo

In recent years, the city of Berkeley had worked with Caltrans and PG&E to install a special signal at San Pablo and Virginia to help people cross the busy roadway.

But the project took years to complete.

Advocacy group Walk Bike Berkeley raised alarms about the intersection for years, pushing officials and the involved agencies to get the work done.

On the night Yuan Cong was hit, the signal was in place but not yet active.

When asked about project progress in the weeks after the crash, the city, Caltrans and PG&E all pointed at each other as reasons for the delay.

Nearly five months later, in April 2023, the signal still wasn't active when a driver struck a 53-year-old pedestrian, sending him to Highland Hospital with severe injuries.

In the days that followed, the signal finally went live.

From then until the end of 2023, no serious or fatal collisions were recorded at the intersection, according to the most recent data available through the Transportation Injury Mapping System.

"I didn't want this person to be forgotten"

Bike East Bay board member Marc Hedlund is one of the advocates who has pushed for years for safer crossings for Berkeley cyclists.

After Cong was hit, he and others pointed out the irony that a much-needed signal was sitting dormant at a critical intersection due to project delays.

"I was worried that the cyclist had relied on those lights being present," Hedlund, who lives in Berkeley, told The Scanner in a recent interview.

Perhaps the cyclist had pressed the button expecting help to cross San Pablo, but nothing had happened.

In the months that followed the crash, Hedlund said he couldn't stop thinking about how the city's infrastructure had failed the cyclist.

"I didn't want to let it go," he said. "I didn't want this person to be forgotten."

Cyclist in critical condition after car crash in Berkeley on Friday
Police are still working to determine the circumstances of the crash on San Pablo Avenue near Virginia Street.

Hedlund began sending public record requests to the Berkeley Police Department to learn more about the crash and the cyclist.

But BPD insisted nothing about the collision could legally be released.

Hedlund also asked the city for statistics about fatal crashes in Berkeley โ€” but the data he was given were incomplete.

Eventually, BPD confirmed to The Scanner that the cyclist from Virginia and San Pablo had died. But other details, including his name, were elusive.

Last month, The Scanner tracked down Lina Cong's lawsuit and, around that time, BPD finally released Cong's name and some basic information to this reporter.

But the process left much to be desired โ€” and many details remain unknown.

A push for more transparency around traffic fatalities

Marc Hedlund's struggles in Berkeley to learn about traffic deaths like Yuan Cong's prompted him to investigate what happens in other cities.

San Francisco, for example, approaches traffic safety as a public health issue and shares records under those auspices, he said.

Hedlund is now working on policy solutions so that Berkeley might remove some of its roadblocks and release more information here.

The Scanner has also been researching the release of traffic records and advocating for broader access in the city.

That effort is ongoing, but initial indications are that other police agencies share more information about traffic collisions than Berkeley does.

BPD has also been inconsistent about the traffic records it does release.

The city's position has made it difficult to report on serious crashes or even know when people have died as a result.

Despite Berkeley's current stance, there is a strong argument for increasing transparency about traffic safety issues.

In 2019, the Berkeley City Council adopted the Vision Zero Action Plan, pledging to end serious and fatal crashes over the next decade by emphasizing engineering and policy solutions.

But accomplishing that goal won't be easy, particularly if key information is missing from the public debate.

"If we have good data, we can say, 'This is what's going on,'" Hedlund said. "If we're not even keeping track of who's dying in our streets, then we cannot do that."

Cyclist still unconscious after Nov. 25 crash in Berkeley
The cyclist had been eastbound on Virginia Street crossing San Pablo Avenue when a southbound driver struck him just after 7 p.m.

It should also be noted that one of the guiding principles behind Vision Zero is that "people make mistakes."

And that may be true here given the alleged circumstances of Cong's crash.

But, for cycling advocates, the conversation doesn't end there.

"It doesn't resolve the question of how we can make the streets safer," Hedlund said. "There will always be people who might not be biking under the best circumstances โ€” whether they're young, older, inexperienced, had a bad day, etc. The infrastructure can either support them getting home safer or make it harder."

Hedlund also said that, now that more is known about it, he's going to bring up Yuan Cong's death at an upcoming council meeting and hopes officials will adjourn it in Cong's memory.

"I feel relieved that it's not a mystery what happened anymore," he said. "Now we have a chance to correct the record โ€” and make decisions based on an accurate record."

This week, Lina Cong told The Scanner that her son's friends in China are planning a memorial to honor him.

Thinking about the future and how her life had changed since the crash remains painful, she said.

"We all need to cherish our time with our children," she added. "If there's only one day to love them, love them one day. Only two days to love them, love them two days. Don't waste time."

The Berkeley Scanner is 100% member-supported. That means no ads, no spam and no distractions. Help ensure timely, accurate public safety news by signing up now.