It's been a long and troublesome cold spell in Seattle. For two weeks I didn't ride my bike. I didn't ride, not because a local cyclist was killed, but because the local area was inundated with over a foot of snow that has clogged streets, shut down everything from newspaper and mail delivery to pick up of garbage from the curb. It is all melting away now, however and leaving in its wake the usual mess of sand, blowing garbage and abandoned cars.
Just before the cold snap started, though, I did a 50 mile ride on Saturday, December 13th. As I rode out of the house the temperatures were just above freezing, and it didn't warm up a whole lot, but throughout the day, I kept thinking about what had taken place just two days before. At a little after 6:00 am on Thursday December 11th, a 56-year old man bid his family farewell and left for work. He did this pretty much the same way he'd been doing it every day for a long time. He was gainfully employed as a mechanic. He loved his family and was a contributing member of his community. Unlike most morning commuters, though, this man was one of a much smaller community of working Americans who chose to ride a bicycle to work and home. Just an ordinary guy, with an ordinary family, living an ordinary life in an ordinary community. Just like me.
At a little after 6:00 am that same morning, I did exactly what this 56 year old man did. I strapped on my helmet, turned on all of my headlights and taillights, straddled my bicycle and headed off to work.
There is one big difference. That night, I got to walk back through the door to my ordinary home, kiss my ordinary family hello, sit down to an ordinary dinner and go on with my ordinary life. This stranger was far less fortunate. As he rode down Renton Avenue South out of Skyway, he was struck by an oncoming driver in a Large American Car and died at the scene before he could tell his wife just one more time how much he loved her.
I found out about Paul Radliff as I was walking to lunch, when I got a call from a friend; a friend who knows I commute by bike every day and was worried about my safety.
And on that Saturday, I rode around on my bike like a deer caught in the headlights, thinking about this man and his family and what had been taken away from him. I was filled with a sadness that doesn't often hit me when I read or hear about a traffic fatality. I wasn't particularly angry at that point, just shocked and sad. Not shocked as in surprised. But shocked because this man was so much like me. I do the same thing every day that he does, and I was still alive and able to enjoy the coming of winter. Sad because he had so much of a life ahead of him that was unfulfilled.
I rode around that day, more conscious of every car that passed me. I was shaken by this incident for a number of reasons, not the least of which was the reaction of our local law enforcement officers and their attitude toward cyclists. Specifically in this instance, is the fact that the 79 year old driver who was never identified in the media "because he hadn't been charged", was neither cited at the scend for failure to yield the right of way nor charged with any major offense (i.e., vechicular homicide, inattentive driving, negligent driving), and the only thing that the police would say was that the investigation was continuing.
I refuse to call this a tragic accident, which is what I have seen it described as. I call it what it is. Vehicular Homicide. I have perused our local newspapers since then. Of course, since we had a major weather event, everything else has taken a back seat to dealing with plowing roads and making it possible to move more and more cars around the city again, and all of the police departments' energies have been re-allocated, so something like investigating a manslaughter becomes a thing of non-importance. This seems to be a trend in my community and it saddens me. I did manage to come across this photograph of Paul Ratliff in the Seattle Times, along with a nice article about him.
photo from Seattle Times - Marie Bolstad
I have sat and studied this photograph a lot over the past few weeks, contemplating what Paul's Christmas would have been like. Would he have been sitting at home like me, staring out the window as more and more snow piled up on his street, wondering when he was going to be able to ride his bike again? Would he have been pacing back and forth through the house like a caged animal, just chomping at the bit to get back out there on his bike? Would he have been cruising the internet scheming on ways to make it so he could ride his bike in bad weather?
Something that has been a bit odd for me is that as I rode to work the day after finding out about this uninvestigated and unpunished homicide, I kept wondering if there was something Paul could have done to make himself more visible. What part did he play in his own death? I found myself falling into the same trap that many motorists seem to put us in. WHY do we instantly blame the victim?
And then I started to feel anger. Anger at the police for failing to make certain that the driver who was responsible was cited and appropriately charged. Anger at the driver who failed to recognize and appropriately respond to an obstacle in front of him and in the process kill another innocent man. Anger at the insensitive assholes who posted in the newspaper every bit of vitriolic hatred toward people on bicycles they could muster from the privacy of their computer keyboard. Finally, anger at myself for falling victim to the same prejudice that I want others to rise above.
Today, I'm on a week of vacation. Shortly after lunch, I strapped on my helmet, cinched up my cycling shoes, put on my reflective rain jacket, kissed my loving wife goodbye and headed south from my ordinary little home on a ride to my mother-in-law's house. Normally, I would ride along Lake Washington to Renton, but today, I was once again thinking of Paul Radliff, and how his life was cut short at the hands of a careless and inattentive man. As I rode down Cloverdale, the light turned green and I went through the intersection and turned right onto Renton Avenue South. There are three steep hills to get to the top of the hill in Skyway, and no hills if I ride around the base. Today, instead of turning onto Henderson and going along the lake, I rode up the hill. I rode up and up and up, thinking of Paul with each rotation of my pedals. It was all I could do not to cry. It was all I could do not to scream at every car that went by me. I know it isn't their fault. I know I shouldn't be angry at everyone in a car, and I'm really not. But today, I rode for Paul. I rode in his honor and in his memory.
As I crested the hill and started down the other side, I felt my speed begin to increase. There were cars coming up the hill and cars behind me. 10....15....20. The winds were strong this afternoon and blowing straight into my face. By the time I got to the intersection where Mr. Radliff was killed, I was up to 25 mph, and I saw the "ghost bike" that some concerned citizen has placed at the corner. I had to concentrate all of my energies on the road in front of me, as I carefully scanned each and every car that approached me as I descended toward Renton. When I got to the bottom of the hill, I was relieved.
Automobiles are responsible for thousands of deaths every year. Drunk drivers, careless and inattentive drivers, inexperienced drivers, drivers who due to their age or other limitations should not be driving any longer, and angry/hostile drivers make up the mix of what ordinary guys like Paul Radliff and I have to deal with every day. Fortunately, I get to live another day.
I want justice for Paul. I want the police to arrest the driver. I want them to perp walk him through to the booking area, fingerprint him and place him in a cell along with the other individuals who are arrested on suspicion of a crime. That won't happen because all he did was kill a guy on a bike.
And that is why I'm angry tonight.