In Memory of Fallen Cyclists

I have this quandary that predates, and is aggravated by, this blog. Something of a universal theme: where does one person's story intersect with another person's boundaries around privacy, and what is one obligated to do at those intersections? What are the rules of the road when it comes to our life journeys?
It has come up for me again this past week, in a rather unique manner: in the death of a fellow cyclist.

I did not know Mike Wilberding. I can not claim to be baring his memory or carrying out his wishes. I wouldn't have a leg to stand on if I were to say I knew what he would want. It is not, strictly speaking, my story to tell. And yet, as a member of the same cycling community in which he was so active, my story, my experience as a cyclist, is touched and colored by his. We share a connection of sorts, a relationship. We who are of the clan of the bike.

I did not know him personally, and now I will never have the privileged, because he was mowed down by an absent-minded motorist. I did not know him, but I know this:
I know that he had a reputation as a dedicated, safe, and serious cyclist who was very conscientious about traffic safety and active with local cycling advocacy groups. I know that Mike rode Cycle Oregon multiple times ~not an idle thing. One does not just wake up one morning and decide to “do” Cycle Oregon, it requires dedication, commitment and months of preparation and training, as well as a week spent away from family and loved one's.

I know he was a long-time BTA (Bicycle Transportation Alliance) member and supporter, committed to encouraging the use of bikes for transportation, and educating the public about traffic safety and sharing the road.

I know that one Tuesday evening in late summer, a little after 6pm, this 58 year old father was riding home from work, cycling in the bike lane along Fifth street near where it passes the park, when a car turned right into him.
He was not killed instantly. A team of doctors exhausted countless heroic measures over the course of nearly a week, trying to undo the damage done in a single instant by one distracted driver. He had been doing everything right, following every traffic rule and safety precaution, and yet he wound up dead.

I know that Mike was well-respected by the local bicycling community and that his loss is felt deeply. The community has been mobilized by his death, and have been channeling their grief into a traffic safety awareness campaign. The campaigns first event was held this past Friday at the intersection where the crash occurred, aimed educating motorists and promoting safe driving.

I know that, when his family was invited to the event, they declined, and asked that Mike's death not be the focus of the event because, they said, he would not “involve himself in imposing an ideal on anyone”. After dedicating years of his life to advancing and advocating cycling safety, we are meant to believe that a man killed by a negligent driver would not support a traffic safety campaign.

I cant claim to know the dead man's wishes, but I know this:
According to stats released last month by the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration, last year 45,00 bicyclists were injured, and 720 were killed by motor vehicles. A third of those fatalities were the result of drunk drivers. The percentage increase in deaths of cyclists was 7 times greater than that of overall traffic fatalities Further, the number of bicycling fatalities that involved alcohol was up 10%. Put very simply, drivers are injuring and killing more cyclists every year. It is not a matter of cyclists becoming more negligent, but of drivers becoming more dangerous. Given that fact, it makes sense to me to address the drivers, rather than blaming the victims

I know that the event was, for all intents and purposes, a memorial for a deeply respected and dearly loved member of the cycling community who was killed while adhering to every traffic law and safety considerations, by a driver who was not. The circumstances of Mike's death so perfectly illustrated the nature of the problem, and his death so deeply effected so many in the community, it makes sense that his friends and co-workers would want to memorialize him in this way.

I know this, too: We have a responsibility to those around us, whether we know them or not. When we climb into a massive hunk of steel and send it hurtling down the road, we take on the responsibility of being cautious and cognizant, to look out for those around us, to recognize that this form of transportation can kill a hundred different ways. We are responsible to see that it doesn't. When our kids start driving (perhaps long before) we have a responsibility to educate them, not just about the mechanics of operating these devices, but also the ethics of doing so.

The 25 year old who plowed into this father of 2, without even noticing him, claimed innocents: claimed that “the sun had been in his eyes”. Thing 1) it has been thoroughly documented that the sun wasn't even close to being in a position to blind a driver. Thing 2) you are not allowed to drive blind. period. If you really cant see, adjust your visor, put on shades, pull over. Do WHATEVER you have to do to avoid killing someone's dearly beloved. Thing 3) Take responsibility. When you are driving it is your job to pay attention, to look where your going, and yield the right of way. If you fail to do that it's nobodies fault but your own. Own it.

My son is 11, and already I am educating him about the responsibilities held by both drivers and cyclists. Recently, we witnessed a driver passing too close to cars parked curbside, resulting in one car's side mirror being ripped off. The offending driver did not stop to leave info on the windshield or anything, just continued on as if nothing had happened. We followed the car long enough to get the license number, wrote it down, and returned to the damaged car.
I talk to my son a lot about the importance of taking responsibility, even when you make a mistake, and my hope is that this incident taught him something about this, and about doing the right thing, and that the truth will always come out, even when you think you have gotten away with something. To my way of thinking, it comes down to teaching him to be a good citizen. Good citizens do not say “oh, it's not my fault, the sun was in my eyes”

Heres what I think: if one driver is more conscientious and observant while driving, and thus spares one family the pain and grief that this man's family is experiencing, that might just hold enough value to warrant the telling of a story they don't want told. If I am wrong, than they have my sincerest apologies, but I can not be silent where my words might save a life.

His story is an incredibly powerful one, and might just be enough to reach some people who assume that anyone injured while cycling MUST have been riding recklessly, they must have been doing something wrong. We have all seen cyclist make dangerous moves (just as we have all seen drivers do so) and we tend to think of these “crazy cyclists” whenever we hear about a cyclist-involved injury or fatality. But the truth is, cyclist know exactly how vulnerable we are, and most of us do everything conceivable to avoid an accident, because when a quarter ton of steel collides with 50 pounds of bike, regardless of who's at fault, there is only one looser.

So, Friday's Traffic Safety event/memorial, went on as planned, at the park where the Mike's accident took place. We honored the family's request not to use Mikes name on the literature we were passing out. As we held signs with messages such as “Hang Up and Drive” and tabled with information directed at both cyclists and motorists, a distracted driver who was chatting on his cell phone as he drove along Fifth street, where it passes the park, turned right across the bike lane, and came within inches of hitting a cyclist. The cyclist didn't even have time to react, it was only because we were all there, leaping and waving and yelling, that the driver stopped a few seconds shy of a fatality, and an incident bizarrely reminiscent of the one that ended Mike's life. Perhaps motorists have not learned the lesson of Mike's death, because it is not being told.

Mike's story has power precisely because of the details, because he was a careful cyclist who observed all the rules and and did everything right, because he has a face and a name, rather than just being some anonymous cyclist. Still, perhaps there is something to the notion of not making Mike the focus of the Traffic Safety campaign: after all, there have been literally hundreds of injuries and deaths in Oregon's cycling community due to drunk or negligent drivers; lest one get the idea that he was the exception that proves the rule that the cyclist is always at fault, below are but a few examples from the past year (thanks to and schtuff for getting the facts and tracking the stats)

Gareth Allen Parker, 59, killed in a hit-and-run. Oregon State Police responded to a tip and arrested the driver, who is being charged with first-degree manslaughter, second-degree manslaughter and felony hit-and-run.

Roger James Watt,32, hit and critically injured. Driver was drunk and driving with a suspended license when he ran a red light and hit Mr. Watt.

Eric Kautzky, 56 year old science teacher, killed by an 18 year old motorist driving IN the bike lane.

Trevor Wagner, 7, was left in a coma after being struck by a hit and run driver while riding his bicycle with relatives in a school parking lot.

Noah Cardamon, 23, driver was drunk at the time, and has been charged with one count of criminally negligent homicide. Her passenger, is charged with one count of hindering prosecution and one count of interfering with a police officer. Both women initially gave false statements about the accident, claiming to be witnesses rather than perpetrators.

Mike Rueter, seriously injured when a mini van ran a red light, and hit Mike, who was riding lawfully in the bike lane, throwing him into the middle of the intersection. The van also hit another car in the intersection.

Angela Valdez, Critically injured. Driver had a criminal record as well as several traffic violations, including tickets for speeding and failure to obey a traffic device. The driver cut Valdez off as he passed her, she was unable to avoid colliding with the side of his car and fell onto her back. An ambulance took her to the hospital, where doctors found she had a fractured spine and sacrum. The driver denied responsibility, saying it was Valdez's fault for riding into his car. Portland Police Officers who responded to the accident, says another witness came forward and echoed Valdez's account-that it was the driver's fault.

Christopher Burris, 21, killed by drunk driver who narrowly missed Burris's 4 year old daughter, who was traveling in a trailer being pulled by her mother on another bike. Mother and child survived the hit and run because the victim had just enough time to direct them onto the curb, though not enough time to avoid the car himself. This father's last act was to save his family. The driver fled the scene but was later arrested.


curt said...

I am a total pedestrian/MAXer myself, but I have good friends who cycle and I worry often. I have seen too many close calls, just in walking around.

I can't see how Mike would be anything other than proud of and honored by all who participated on Friday.

Very sad indeed.

zilla said...

I was in ninth grade when I was hit by a motorist. Obeying the rules of the road, some elderly man was so concerned about oncoming cars while trying to make his left turn into the liquor store, that he hit both me and my friend. This was in the 70s, when we all still though helmets were for football players and soldiers.

On the other hand, last week, as I was driving down East Bay Boulevard and approaching East Bay Park, I noticed a large group (20 - 30 men and women) of cyclists getting ready to start their group ride. I noticed them because of their day-glo riding gear & helmets. There were no cars behind me, and I had the right-of-way, so I would have expected the lead cyclist to wait for me to pass before she entered the street. Not only did she not wait for me to pass, six of the other two dozen or so cyclists did not wait, so I stopped the car and motioned "go ahead" to the rest of the group and waited patiently.

They were not cycling in a marked bike lane, nor were they riding single file, so I was a little chagrined that I had to proceed at 17mph as opposed to 25. But, whatever, safety first. And thank Goddess they were wearing day-glo vests over their black Spandex.

There was a stop sign one block up from the park entrance. Not ONE cyclist heeded the stop sign. Nor did any of them heed the stop sign three blocks up the road.

And the entire time, I'm doing what I need to do in order not to hurt any of them. I'm also thinking that one of those "Same Road, Same Rules" bumper stickers looks pretty appealing. I'm thinking it's time for a letter to the editor. I'm thinking, "What the hell is this? Day-glo vests are a sign to all that we consider ourselves above the rules?"

Yes, I was ticked off. I was ticked off because in this area, most cyclists behave this way. I was ticked off because so many of the cyclists in my town who use their bikes to skirt around heavy tourist traffic disregard the rules whenever it suits their need to get where they're going faster than they could get there on foot or by car.

We're lucky to have miles and miles of recreational trails for recreational bikers and joggers and walkers in our area. As glad as I feel when I see the occasional utility biker, I've also seen their near misses often enough that I'm more comfortable sticking to the trails. You won't catch me in the bike lane because I have four kids and I don't take many unnecessary risks.

Luckily for me, the trail intersects 1/2 mile from my house and passes behind my grocer two miles south, but a good block or two in from the highway. I can't shop for nine people on a bike, but when I've run out of one thing or another, the bike and a backback is better than walking. (Three cars in a household with six drivers and three non-drivers, so there's rarely a car at my disposal anyway.)

I agree with most of your sentiments in this post, and I'm sorry about Mike's death. It's bound to be a more emotional topic when you're one of those who are more vulnerable to injury.

Oddly, I think having been hit by a car as a teenager has made me a more cautious driver. I'd utility bike more if it were practical with so many people under one roof, but all we've got within bikeable distance is the veterinarian's office and the grocery store. Oh -- and two gas stations. Go figure.

I would gladly accept props for having lunched on wild, pesticide-free apples while playing golf today. We WALKED, as opposed to using a cart, because that's just what we always do.

And I rewarded my grocer for increasing his organic stock by buying every organic item on his shelves, even though the difference in the price for a dozen organic eggs was just as horrific as the difference in the price for organic butter.

Let's not visit the price of potatoes. I'm feeding NINE people! And I only gave birth to FOUR of them, which I thought was FAIR, because my brother and sister can't have kids, and my brother inlaw is gay!

Other than that, I've been a real twit this week. Most of the world is mad at me, bored with me, or thinks I'm off my rocker.


You're still golden in my book. You think before you do, and that matters a lot.

griffin said...

Hi Curt, I hope you are right: I really struggled with whether to write about Mike, and how do do so if I chose to do so. After seeing his accident nearly reenacted at his memorial, I just HAD to.

Zilla: I, for one, am not mad at or bored with you. There is so much in what you have written, I think it deserves it's own post. One cyclist I didn't mention in this article was a friend who was badly injured while involved in cycling related activities that I consider just plain crazy --suicidal even. Doesn't mean I care about him any less, but I do agree that we all have responsibilities when we hit the road, regardless of whether our vehicle of choice is a bike or a Buick

As I type this, the evening news is reporting yet another cyclist killed in a hit-and-run, just blocks from my home.

zilla said...

Buicks should be outlawed. But one of our three cars is a Buick. I'm still pushing (gently) for a Prius.

In TC we have ONE "Ride Your Bike to Work Day" every year. I'm not sure if it's on Sept 22nd or not, but I can definitely swear off the car for that entire day.

You've really helped me to become more mindful of my car miles. Driving the hybrid or the just as green Civic should not get me off the hook for planning and combining errands. And before this year, I never would have considered walking or biking the TART to the grocery store for a forgotten item. I'm thinking of getting a bigger backpack. I bet I could shop daily, car free, lose about twenty pounds, and keep my family fed.

So your mission to spread the word is working.

Prolixity plagues me :-)