By Rick Bernardi
It had been a bloody year for New York City cyclists. Six months into the year, fifteen cyclists had already been killed in New York’s streets—five more than the total number of New York City cycling fatalities for all of 2018.
As Devra Freelander rolled into a Brooklyn intersection on the afternoon of July 1, she had no way of knowing that she was about to become a statistic, New York’s sixteenth cycling fatality. People in the neighborhood had no idea what they were about to witness, either, and what they saw shocked them to their core. One witness recounted “It’s awful just how quickly it can happen. She was mutilated. It’s a good wake up call. I was thinking about getting a bike.”
“I was thinking about getting a bike.”
Not any more.
Another witness said: “I rode my bike right over where she was killed this morning. I’m selling my bike.”
That’s two witnesses who won’t be riding any more. And like a ripple in a pond, each traffic death spreads beyond the immediate scene, affecting untold numbers of people who think to themselves “nope, too dangerous for me.”
Well, in a city with a proclaimed commitment to Vision Zero, the official response must have been undoubtedly swift. And it was. Fanning out across the city, police began citing the legions of careless drivers who daily endanger the lives of cyclists and pedestrians alike. They also launched a massive assault against the epidemic of cars parked in bike lanes, while simultaneously announcing a zero-tolerance policy for the armada of police vehicles that were habitually treating bike lanes as official police parking spaces.
Just kidding. None of that happened.
The police did issue a tsunami of citations, but instead of cracking down on careless drivers, the ticket blitz was directed at the usual suspects—cyclists. And the spot they chose to focus their crackdown was the same place where cyclist Robyn Hightman had been killed just six days before Freelander’s life was cut short.
The message was unmistakable—not only will we fail to protect you from careless drivers, we will also blame you when careless drivers take your lives.
And the thing is, this actually isn’t that unusual.
On the other side of the country, when Amelie LeMoullac was right-hooked on a San Francisco street in 2013, a San Francisco Police Sgt. made a point of interrupting her memorial, belligerently blocking the bike lane and arguing with the gathered cyclists mourning her passing, demanding that they admit that she was to blame for her own death.
Meanwhile, San Francisco’s cycling advocates were busy canvassing the neighborhood, looking for evidence because the detectives assigned to the case had already made up their minds and couldn’t be bothered to investigate. Within 10 minutes, the cycling advocates found crucial video evidence that the SFPD had claimed didn’t exist. With the public spotlight now trained on the SFPD, it soon emerged that blaming the victims of careless drivers was something of a standard operating procedure for many San Francisco officers.
To the east, in the San Francisco Bay Delta town of Byron, when 12-year old Burgess Hu was run down and dragged some 60 feet by a driver who didn’t see him, nobody blamed the driver for making a right turn while looking left. Nobody blamed the adults who approve roads without bike lanes and schools on dangerous roads. Nobody blamed a driver who, like every other driver on the road, turned right without looking where she was turning. Instead, they noted that Burgess was riding on the wrong side of the road, even though there was no other way for him to get to the school.
I could go on, but you get the idea.
This past July, “worst retirement ever” pro racer Phil Gaimon released a video that quickly went viral: “Please share this when I’m killed by someone driving a car.” In his video, Gaimon explained that “he had been motivated to release the video after an alarming spike in cyclist traffic deaths in New York City and beyond—and by how these deaths were subsequently flipped by the police and media from ‘careless driver kills cyclist’ to ‘careless cyclist killed.’”
In headline after headline, Gaimon showed that drivers repeatedly escaped consequences for killing cyclists. Meanwhile, the police and media accounts shifted the blame from the drivers who hit and killed them, to the cyclists themselves.
Gaimon then revealed “that he had actually made the video months before, after a speeding driver passing another car on a blind hairpin corner nearly killed him. He revealed something else, too: ‘I know how I’m going to die. It’s going to be something like this.’ He closed with a request. ‘When that happens, please share this video, and make sure that the headline is correct. Make sure it says: ‘Some asshole was texting or going too fast and ran over Phil in his fucking car.’’”
Gaimon began his racing career improbably, buying a used Trek hybrid in high school so he could get to his friend’s house to play video games. A self-described “fat kid,” Gaimon soon discovered that riding his bike helped him deal with his teenage anger and angst about life, and his future. It also became his route to a larger world outside the suburbs—a world he began to explore on his bike, from inner city to the woods beyond Atlanta’s suburbs. He began to enjoy riding his bike for its own sake, beyond its utility for taking him to the next video game session.
He discovered something else too. His daily rides had slowly, imperceptibly begun another transformation, and over time, his waistline had shrunk, and his pants no longer fit him. The “fat kid” lost 40 pounds, his allergies disappeared, his grades improved, and as he tells his story, “I was less moody, more confident, more social, and happier in general.” From a teenage kid riding to his friend’s houses, and to the larger world beyond, Phil eventually discovered something else about himself—he had a talent for racing. The rest is history.
It seems increasingly likely that tomorrow’s kids may never know the sheer joy that comes from taking their first unassisted ride on a bike, the exhilarating thrill that comes from the wind in their hair, and the first taste of youthful freedom as the world beyond their street opens up for the first time. Bicycling is declining for an entire generation of kids. For many kids, the pull of video games outweighs youthful interest in outdoor activities like riding bikes; will these kids discover the simple thrill of biking later in life? It seems doubtful.
it may be that there’s an element of parental fear involved as well, ranging from the pervasive fear of stranger danger, to the fear that comes from imagining their children riding in traffic. Our society is schizophrenic that way. We bend over backwards to absolve careless drivers from responsibility for the shattered lives they leave in their wake, preferring to shift the blame to their victims. The police do it. The media does it. Careless drivers do it. Some misguided cyclists even do it. But we also recognize that drivers are in fact so dangerous that many parents recoil from the thought of sending their children out on bikes to ride in traffic.
I can’t say they’re wrong.
And every injury, every death, reinforces that fear, rippling out from the victim of the careless driver to affect untold numbers of other people who conclude “Nope, too dangerous for me. Too dangerous for my child.” Each person who was thinking about riding, or who is already riding, and decides it’s not worth the risk is one less person who will be buying a bike or asking for some space on our roads. “Nope, too dangerous for me.”