• Sun February 08 2009
  • Posted Feb 8, 2009
There wasn’t really anything that John Breaux could have done. He was wearing his helmet, like he almost always did. And sure, he was on U.S. 287, a fast and accident-prone stretch of highway that I wouldn’t ride on a bet, but according to police reports, he was almost 30 feet from the fog line when he got hit, over on the grassy shoulder. He was probably over there picking up trash. Breaux died last Friday after a car driven by a woman suspected of being under the influence of prescription medication left the roadway and slammed into him. I never met him, although I saw him out on the roads now and then, and I’m sure at some point he held the door at Starbucks for me, because he held the door for everybody. He becomes the first cyclist in Colorado killed this year by a motorist. He certainly won’t be the last. This is the fear that everyone who rides lives with. John’s death was a tragic, senseless accident. The woman who hit him has Alzheimer’s and dementia. She had been in a serious accident just months before. Whatever safety net should’ve kept her from getting behind the wheel failed, completely. In reading descriptions of her at court hearings, I have more empathy and pity than anger at her actions. But that is the nature of accidents. Scott Kornfield died in May, 2005 because a teenage driver fell asleep at the wheel and swept across the road directly into him. Here’s the kicker: the kid was completely sober – he’d been a designated driver for some friends who’d had a party. He didn’t touch a drop, but he stayed up too late with them and was tired. He never meant to hurt anyone. Two and a half years ago, my friend Marcus received the phone call no one ever wants to get, telling him his wife was dead. An overloaded cement truck, defective brakes, a driver with a history of citations, and a red light. At his sentencing, the driver said he wished it had been him who died. Whenever I ride up US 36, I pass a signpost with an old bicycle wheel at its base, in memory of Scott (there’s also a spare parts box at the intersection of Lefthand Canyon). Whenever I cross the Diagonal at 63rd, which is often, I think of Linnea. But outside of those who knew them, their stories are already distant. How soon will our memory of John fade – our collective, social memory, that is? The people who knew him will never forget him but, as I said, John was merely the first Coloradan this year to get killed on a bike. There have been others. There will be more. I can hope that John will be different. There is a reason that three of the most e-mailed stories on the web site of my local newspaper are about Breaux. He was well-known around Louisville and Lafayette, where he would befriend total strangers to the point that, last Sunday, hundreds of people took part in a memorial bike ride in his honor. The amazing thing about this is that John was not a cyclist. At least, he wasn’t a cyclist in the way that we self-identify ourselves as cyclists – with special clothing and nice bikes and, for a smaller subset of us men, shaving our legs. Sure, I know, shaving helps heal road rash better. But if you don’t race, and you crash often enough to merit shaving your legs for that reason alone, I submit you have larger issues. John didn’t wear Lycra; didn’t ride a fancy bike. To be perfectly honest, the first time I saw him I pegged him as homeless, because he had two plastic grocery bags hanging off his handlebars as he cruised the shoulder picking up bottles, cans and other litter. But while John wasn’t a cyclist in the way that we think of ourselves, he did ride bikes – enough that the city of Louisville once gave him a helmet so he’d be safe out on the road. And he wasn’t homeless, and he was far from friendless. Besides relatives like his brother, David, who he lived with, John left behind a huge extended family of people who knew him from things like holding the door for anyone, anywhere; spontaneously racking shopping carts at local grocery stores; or just waving to everyone he met. Some people knew him simply as “Jesus” because he gave away almost every possession he ever had. On the ride, people in full Lycra kit mixed with people in sweatpants. Riders who could barely pedal, on bikes that could barely be pedaled, wobbled down the road next to a guy on a Merckx titanium. There were old people, there were kids on bikes with training wheels, families with babies in trailers, teenagers. A crew of kids on dirt jump rigs paralleled the ride, launching on and off curbs and doing manuals down the sidewalk. Plastic grocery bags fluttered from many handlebars. The Louisville and Lafayette police directed traffic as we made our way from Louisville to the section of 287 where John died. People in cars honked, in a friendly way, and waved. When we got to the site of the accident, a spontaneous memorial was already well underway, with a cross, three bicycles (including one white “ghost bike”), balloons, stuffed animals and flowers. One large sign read, “John, you were already an angel.” Traffic slowed. The major local news stations and papers sent cameras and reporters. People trickled away in small groups, riding home or back along the route we’d come. At first, drivers continued to honk and wave. But as I got closer to home, it began to feel more like a normal ride. Up ahead, a black Corvette shot out of an intersection and swerved around two cyclists who were already crossing the road before speeding off. Maybe part of John’s legacy is that he can help us to see. Cyclists are an often marginalized "other" because we’re a highly visible group, easily defined by our clothing. When a cyclist does something bad, like run a light, we’re all painted as scofflaws who don’t deserve to be on the road. And when one of us is hit, there is often a subtle blame- the-victim undertow to public sentiment – that it was partly our fault for being there. But many more people ride bikes than call themselves cyclists. And while they may not see themselves in a Lycra- clad racer, they may see themselves in a bearded man who simply rode around town. Or in the mother of a nine-year- old girl who was killed in Fort Collins last November when a woman texting on her cell phone drifted into the bike lane. At some point, there must be a moment when people realize that the term "cyclists" is a much larger group than the most highly visible of us suggest. When they realize that they are a part of the total universe of cyclists in America estimated at more than 35 million people, as defined by a National Sporting Goods Association study that set the “cyclist” bar at getting on a bike at least six times a year. These are people who decide to ride their bikes to the grocery store on a nice day rather than drive. Or take the kids on a ride on a Saturday afternoon. It may be on bike paths, it may be on roads. It may be on bike paths that cross roads. And they certainly don’t want to think that they can get mowed down doing it. Besides being hit while on a bike, the people I noted above also had one thing in common. Like John, there wasn’t anything they could’ve done to avoid being hit. Their only mistake was to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. And none of the people who hit them meant to hurt anyone. We may never be able to get rid of anti-cyclist bias among some segment of the population, a small degenerate subset that wishes us (and likely, many other groups) harm. But a far greater risk is the series of errors that culminates in the kind of crashes that killed these people here. It’s distracted driving, a shredded safety net of human services that fails to get unsafe drivers off the road, and a reliance on laws that punish consequences rather than aim to change behavior. The girl who died in Fort Collins has spurred the advance of a new piece of legislation, named “Erica’s Law” in her honor, that would ban texting and cellphone use while driving (there’s a hotly debated exception for hands-free devices). In committee testimony on Tuesday, representative Frank McNulty voiced the common opposition to what some call “nanny” laws. “My problem is that we’re picking out one distraction here because it’s politically expedient to do so,” he said, correctly noting that the state already criminalizes driving while distracted. That is true of every state. But as David Darlington pointed out in “Broken,” the punishments are almost offensively mild. And drivers have one important protection against each other that cyclists don’t: the car, with its steel roll cage and crumple zones and airbags. I’ve got padded bike shorts and a microshell helmet. Since the laws focus on penalizing after-the-fact consequences, they do little to deter people from violating them. As the no-cell phone bill has advanced, stories about it are full of quotes from people saying, in essence, that they know it’s unsafe to text or talk on a phone while driving, but they still do it. I still do it. I try not to, but every now and then I get a call while driving and answer it. The ease of it is seductive, and the alternative – letting it ring, finding a place to pull off and then call back (and what if your counterparty is also in a car?) – is so…inconvenient. The question isn’t how to add more behaviors to the banned list. It’s what’s the best way to stop people from doing them in the first place? Are laws effective? Do stronger penalties really deter people? Of what value is bringing down the legal hammer on a 62-year-old woman with dementia whose mugshot showed her in an anti-suicide smock, such was her mental state after the crash? What will it take for people to realize that a car is a potentially deadly weapon and should be handled with the same level of attention as a loaded gun. Would you text while chambering a round? Simply: inconvenience < the risk of killing or injuring someone. But not everyone agrees that it's a problem. In the comments section of today’s Denver Post story about the cell phone bill, commenter “Denver B” writes, “This is stupid. I’m going to talk and text all I want. I still have 0 accidents.” For now, so do I. Every time I leave the house on my bike, I wear a helmet. I ride as far to the right as practicable. I carry a cell phone, ID and my insurance card, and I tell my wife where I’m riding and how long I expect to be out. With a few necessary exceptions like US 36, I stick mostly to backroads. I try to be alert to traffic, and I obey traffic laws. And all of that, all of my precautions, and my 20 years’ experience riding bikes, racing, working as a messenger, could amount to precisely squat when “Denver B” or someone else asserts his moral right to text at 50mph. I still ride because of what it means to me. To stop, well, I might as well sit in bed with the sheets over my head, worrying about a chunk of asteroid falling on me. But it is an unsettling choice – one I try not to think about until someone like John Breaux drives it home again. That is what cyclists live with. That is what my wife, who does not ride, lives with. What will change it?

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