I ride my bike pretty much anytime I need to get somewhere. And believe you me, drivers who seem oblivious to just how deadly their giant metal box can be make me very angry and very scared. All the time, I find myself wanting to explain this simple thought to anyone behind the wheel: if I hit you, I might damage your car. If you hit me, you might kill me.
What I sometimes forget is that when I ride, I share streets, trails, and sidewalks with people more vulnerable than me.
On Thursday, March 9th, a southbound cyclist hit Jane Bennett Clark as she stepped into a crosswalk on 13th Street. She died the next day due to a head injury. And while it's unclear why, exactly, this tragedy occured— the Washington Post reported that “police have not said whether the bicyclist went through a red light or if Clark stepped into the street against a pedestrian signal”— that really isn't the point.
The point is that everyone who uses shared space should be thinking about not only their own wellbeing but also that of others. Regardless of your circumstances, it's worth stepping back and asking whether you have the potential to harm another person, and if the answer is yes, accepting responsibility for avoiding that harm.
After the news of Clark's death, came out, the Washington Area Bicyclist Association wrote an eloquent letter addressing the subject. It touched on this idea, along with two other very important ones: that it's crucial we keep pushing for design that ensures nobody dies on our streets, and that traffic fatalities involving cyclists and pedestrians are extremely rare.
WABA's letter made me stop and think, and I wanted to share it. However you use the street, I encourage you to reflect on the message as well:
We don’t know the specifics of this crash, but it is terrible, and should not have happened. Our deepest condolences go to Ms. Clark’s family, friends, colleagues and community.
The Metropolitan Police Department has not announced who, if anyone, made a mistake on Thursday night, but we will be following the crash investigation closely in order to learn how to do our part to prevent it from happening again. One of the core principles of the District’s Vision Zero initiative is that when something goes wrong, it should not be fatal. People make mistakes, and the built environment should be engineered to render those mistakes as harmless as possible. We hope the lessons learned from this terrible crash can prevent it from happening again, not just at this intersection, but anywhere.
That said, the same principle applies to bicycling as it does to driving: if you can’t see and react to a human being on the road in front of you, you are going too fast. Yield to people who are more vulnerable. This is not just the law, it’s how to be a responsible member of the community. It is your responsibility not to hurt anyone with your vehicle, whether you’re riding a bike or driving a car.
WABA works hard to make sure that our region’s bicyclists know how to ride safely. Our education and outreach teams interact with thousands of bicyclists every year. We teach people the rules of the road and how to ride respectfully around pedestrians, drivers and other bicyclists.
Deadly crashes between pedestrians and bicyclists are heartbreaking and rare. Of the 317 fatal crashes in the District in the last decade, only one other involved a pedestrian hit by a bicyclist. Both should not have happened. Fatal crashes are preventable. Our region’s governments have started the process of building systemic solutions to traffic fatalities, but changing laws and infrastructure is a slow process.
We here at WABA hope that everyone who travels in the region takes some time to feel the full sadness of this crash. Our roads and trails and sidewalks are shared space. When we bike and drive, we have to move through that space with a complete understanding of the risks our motion poses to others, and we have to let that understanding guide our behavior every time we travel.
The staff and board of WABA send our heartfelt condolences to the family, friends, and community of Jane Bennett Clark.
I echo WABA's condolences.