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20 Years Ago, I Accidentally Struck And Killed A Cyclist

No destination, no text, no drink, writes Shane Snowdon, is worth knowing that you have killed another human. Pictured: A "ghost bike" is placed in memory of Marcia Deihl, who was killed in a crash in Cambridge, Massachusetts, on March 11, 2015. (Rachel Zimmerman/WBUR)MoreCloseclosemore
No destination, no text, no drink, writes Shane Snowdon, is worth knowing that you have killed another human. Pictured: A "ghost bike" is placed in memory of Marcia Deihl, who was killed in a crash in Cambridge, Massachusetts, on March 11, 2015. (Rachel Zimmerman/WBUR)

Two years ago this week, checking my laptop for local news, I saw a tragic headline: “Cyclist Struck, Killed by Truck in Cambridge.” Reading on, I began to cry: The cyclist was my friend, Marcia Deihl, a Cambridge activist and musician. I thought of her dazzling smile and throaty laugh — and the night in 1997 when I struck and killed a cyclist.

Marcia Deihl, the author's friend, was killed two years ago this week while riding her bicycle in Cambridge. Deihl was 65.
Marcia Deihl, the author's friend, was killed two years ago this week while riding her bicycle in Cambridge. Deihl was 65.

For 20 years, I’ve said almost nothing about that night. But I recently read another headline that prompted me to break my silence: “2016 traffic deaths jump to highest level in nearly a decade.” Over 40,000 people in the U.S. were killed in auto crashes in 2016 — a toll that ties car collisions with suicide as the leading non-illness-related cause of death in this country, ahead of opioids and firearms. There are over 100 auto fatalities every day in our nation, and six times more Americans die every year in car crashes than have died in all Iraq and Afghanistan combat since 9/11.

This means that over the last three decades at least a million of us—about 1 in 200 U.S. drivers -- have been behind the wheel of a vehicle that killed another person. Yet our stories go untold, except in fictionalized films and TV shows that use fatal crashes to horrify viewers. It would be easy to conclude that in real life, only a few famous people — former first lady Laura Bush, actor Matthew Broderick, reality TV’s Caitlyn Jenner — have been drivers in deadly collisions. The pain of over a million other drivers is hidden in plain sight.

With auto deaths rising, I feel I have to share my experience. Many campaigns for safe driving, like distraction.gov and Mothers Against Drunk Driving, feature the loved ones of those who have died in car crashes. They warn drivers against speeding, operating under the influence, becoming distracted or letting passengers go without seatbelts — the leading causes of auto fatalities. They implore drivers to be mindful of the power of cars and the fragility of human bodies. Now I want to add my voice to theirs.

You do not want to be me ... You don’t want to struggle to go on living, convinced you don’t deserve to exist, wishing you hadn’t been born.

I wasn’t found at fault in my crash; I wasn’t speeding, distracted or impaired on the night I rounded a highway curve and a bicyclist crossed in front of my car, too close for me to avoid. But I will always see him staring wide-eyed at me as he flew into and over my windshield. I will never forget his body at roadside, utterly motionless.

If you remember nothing else I write, I hope you’ll remember this: You do not want to be me. No destination, no text, no drink, no glance away from the road is worth knowing that you have killed another human being. You don’t want to feel you’d give anything not to have been on that road at that time. You don’t want to believe that anything you accomplish in life is offset by the death of another person. You don’t want any happiness you experience to remind you of the happiness denied the person you hit, her family, his friends. You don’t want to struggle to go on living, convinced you don’t deserve to exist, wishing you hadn’t been born.

Like the loved ones of those who have died, in honor of those who have died, I beg you to join our efforts to spare others what we’ve experienced — for your own sake. My crash might have been prevented by simple, cheap, decades-old technology that should be standard equipment on every bicycle sold in this country: blinking lights, front and rear, powerful enough to draw attention in daylight and darkness. Lights are not optional on the cars and motorcycles we buy, and they shouldn’t be optional on bikes.

As a driver who brought death to someone, I can’t say too many times that no text, no email is worth killing or maiming another human being.

And while we’re asking the bicycle industry to add lights, let’s push automakers to make technology like blind-spot monitoring, automatic emergency braking and smart cruise-control as widespread as seatbelts, airbags, back-up cameras and stability control — life-saving equipment once considered exotic. Let’s also insist on side guards for large trucks, give bike lanes better protection, and install blinking lights at heavily used crosswalks.

But lights, technology and shields — crucial as they are — won’t do enough to keep us from killing tens of thousands of Americans in our cars every year. We drivers need to change, too.

We need to remember that speed limits exist not to irritate us, but to keep us from killing or dying. We need to take a second to fasten our seatbelts and tell our passengers to do the same. And we need to check over our left shoulders for cyclists before opening our car doors.

We also need to shun driving while phone-impaired, just as we do when alcohol-impaired. Jay Winsten, an associate dean of the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, helped persuade Americans to designate drivers and not let friends drive drunk. Now he and the school's Center for Health Communication, which he directs, have launched a new campaign targeting distracted driving and promoting “situational awareness.” I pray it will be as widely embraced as its predecessor. And we should embrace, not curse or sneakily violate, the Massachusetts law that bans texting while driving. As a driver who brought death to someone, I can’t say too many times that no text, no email is worth killing or maiming another human being.

Every day since my accident, I’ve struggled to believe my life has meaning. I can’t bring back the 40,000 people who died last year, or the young man in my windshield, or Marcia, on her ride home from Whole Foods. But on the anniversary of her ride, I can try to give their deaths meaning. I can break my stricken silence and ask that we honor them, and care for ourselves and each other, every time we get behind the wheel.

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Shane Snowdon Cognoscenti contributor
Shane Snowdon is a health educator and consultant who has headed several non-profit groups.

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