“Ghost Bikes” Still Remind of Cycling Dangers

Memorials show need for safety and awareness

Like a lot of D.C. drivers, I grumble about bicyclists from time to time -- when I’m rushing to make a yellow light and can’t get past one, or when I see one brazenly coast through a red light, or when a cyclist comes up the middle of a one-way street heading the wrong way.

Sometimes, my gripes are just those of a petty commuter in a hurry. Sometimes, though, I’m concerned for the safety of the cyclists. If we collided, after all, I’d be fine -- but the cyclist might be dead.

More Washington-area residents are using bikes to get around, and that’s a great thing for all of us. It reduces motor vehicle traffic, reduces air pollution, and helps riders stay healthy. If I worked closer to my house, I like to think I’d join their ranks.

But this positive shift means everyone using the roads must shift their attitudes. Many cyclists do obey the traffic laws relevant to them, but some do not. And while many drivers respect the right of cyclists to share the road, some do not.

The burden must be placed on the motor vehicle operators, since their mistakes are more likely to lead to fatalities than a cyclist’s error.

This month marks the second anniversary of the tragic and completely avoidable death of 22-year-old cyclist Alice Swanson. The commuter was in the bike lane on R Street NW, with a trash truck to her left. When the light turned green, Swanson proceeded straight. The truck took a right onto 20th Street, hitting and killing Swanson.

The driver was never charged, and a police investigation concluded that Swanson was at fault.

Her mother, Ruth Rowan, disputes this. She told WTOP, “She was riding in the bicycle lane. She had a green light. She had a helmet, and she was killed. … If someone is in my blind spot, and I pull into their lane and hit them, it's my fault.”

Swanson’s death became a rallying point for D.C.-area cyclists and their supporters. A “ghost bike” -- an all-white bicycle placed at the spot of a cyclist’s untimely death as a memorial -- went up within hours. The memorial was left in place for more than a year, before being suddenly removed by the city Department of Public Works in August 2009. DCist’s Aaron Morrissey wrote at the time, “Perhaps it's too much for us to expect the city to care, but removing a non-obstructive memorial remembering the death of a young person without notifying their family and friends -- and then placing the ghost bike down the street -- seems especially callous.”

Not long after, D.C. resident Legba Carrefour erected 22 ghost bikes at the spot -- “one for each year of Alice’s life,” he said. They ended up in a big pile and were removed by the end of September. On the second anniversary of Swanson’s death this month, chalked messages and mementoes appeared at the site, as well as another ghost bike.

Meanwhile, cyclist fatalities continue. A ghost bike has been placed at the site of the June 25 death of a 48-year-old cyclist in Germantown. The StruckDC Twitter feed tracks cyclists and pedestrians hit by motor vehicles in D.C.

The original Alice Swanson ghost bike was removed after a request by the Dupont Circle Merchants and Professionals Association. But the best way to keep ghost bikes from appearing is for drivers to be more aware of their fellow road users, and keep bicyclists alive and pedaling.

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