Another breaking news story. A photo with sheets hung over a large semi-truck trailer to block the view, where one can only imagine, the jumbled shell of a human soul rests. The recent death of Alexander Wolf, killed by a semi-truck driver taking a right turn on red, has stirred emotion and reaction in the bicycle and pedestrian community. Many of us, familiar with the thought, “it could have been me,” acknowledge that, most of the time, these incidents occur in an area we frequently travel. For me, after a breaking news story, the anxiety I’ve become familiar with resurfaces. Usually, I visit the story several times the first day. Refresh…refresh. Anticipating the “updated on” to show a new time or date, I wonder if they have released the identity yet.
The following day, I revisit the story several more times. Refresh…refresh. I message my cycling buddies to ask if they have any info. This pattern continues till a name is revealed, and selfishly, I can breathe a sigh of relief – it’s not someone I know directly. To be clear, I don’t wish anyone receive notification that their friend and loved one was killed in an avoidable circumstance. Like most, I feel the collective sense of grief every time we lose one of our community, whether or not we were acquainted. Some stories hit harder than others.
This particular anxiety is a recently acquired trait. On February 22, 2017, my friend Scott was killed while crossing the street in a crosswalk in St. Paul. The following day, I became the person on the receiving end of a breaking news story. I received a text with a link to an article. “Isn’t this your friend?” the message read. Sure it couldn’t be my friend, I hopped online. It definitely was his name and age. Maybe this a case of mistaken identity? Perhaps someone else shares the same name? I visited his Facebook page. Refresh…refresh.
Immediately following Scott’s death, my anxiety was more intense. A mutual friend of Scott would text me, or me her, “Another cyclist (or pedestrian) was killed tonight.” “Did they release the name?” “Not yet.” Googling would commence. Refresh…refresh. If there’s a bike pictured in the article, I ponder who I know with a (insert color) bike. I rack my brain about which friends of mine reside in specific neighborhoods and the routes they commonly bike or walk. Text messages to friends ensue, making sure they are safe.
I can’t reconcile how casually so many consider the privilege of driving – particularly when their and others’ lives depend on how they perform. Moreso, when considering the thousands of driver, pedestrian, and cycling deaths that occur every year in the US alone. I struggle to understand how waiting 10 seconds, in a climate-protected environment, so someone’s friend, child, parent, grandparent, can safely cross the street is an inconvenience. Why is it so many feel a need to be multi-tasking at a time when their attention and speed is crucial to everyone’s survival? How does beating one (already-turned-red) light make a person believe it would have any significant impact on the time they arrive at their destination? Why can’t some consider a double check in their mirror, another look left or right, or a complete stop, can determine whether or not a human gets to go home? Why does my presence in the middle of a lane on a poorly designed street (so vehicles pass in the next lane at a safe distance) cause anyone to presume my actions are taken to spite or slow them down, rather than for my personal safety?
Since the day of my breaking news story, I can’t seem to escape the details that I’ve repeatedly read about Scott’s death (the ones I’d rather push to the hard to access part of my brain). When a driver does something they consider, “no big deal,” it forces me to directly grapple with what were the last moments of my friend’s life. When I walk across the street, and a driver continues to slowly roll at me, I will stop and tell them to put their foot on the brake. Often you’ll hear a shout when in a crosswalk, a driver turns left or right in front of me with inches to spare rather than wait several seconds. On the worst of days, this creates enough anger that an outburst of tears will leave me gasping for breath as I try and continue my jog. Peering into a driver’s window on my bike, I watch them text, scroll through photos, visit websites, or search on GPS while driving. Most of the time, they don’t realize I’m there. I tap on their window and tell them to put their phone away. When you were riding next to bike infrastructure for miles but didn’t look when you veered into the bike lane – nearly hitting me. Sometimes, in what appears to be a fraction of seconds or millimeters, we avoid collision. I yell, bang on your vehicle if possible, and more than likely an adrenaline-inspired string of expletives pours from my lips. Not only am I contending with the emotions of my friends now disappeared, but those of my own mortality.
As I type this, I think about and empathize with Alexander’s family and friends. I wonder how they are coping with the suddenness, surrealness, and finality of their breaking news story. The questions and what-ifs of the incident that one cannot escape but is well-aware will be of no use. If you are ever subject to my and others’ seemingly brash reaction, consider we may be grappling with a breaking news story. Vow to do better and then do better. Consider a shift in haste, speed, attention, awareness, and thoughtfulness can mean one more person gets to go home tonight, and one less person will have to refresh…refresh.