Every morning, I ride past the “ghost bike” at Snelling and Summit, where Virginia Heuer was killed on September 27, 2008. It’s a stark reminder that even a relatively safe route like Summit Avenue can be treacherous, and that bicyclists and pedestrians fare very poorly in tussles with automobiles. I keep my wits about me when I ride, pay attention and obey the rules of the road, but 25 pounds of bicycle are no match for a ton and a half of car.
Most roadside memorials are a mixture of the public and the private, erected out of personal grief but also telegraphing the cost of highway fatalities as tables of statistics cannot. We have become largely numb to highway deaths: the CDC estimates about 3,900 deaths from H1N1 between April and October; 300 U.S. soldiers and Marines have died in Afghanistan this year; 37,261 people died in traffic accidents last year, down a bit from the previous year but still far too high.
New York State Senator Joe Griffo has recently called for a uniform memorial marker to replace the “flowers and other makeshift memorials” left by family and friends at the site of a fatal crash. While Griffo’s campaign has a reasonable origin–the recent death of a Henrico, Virginia woman laying flowers at her granddaughter’s roadside memorial highlights the risks they can pose to mourners–it also has a feeling of normalizing something that should really be abnormal and shocking. Standardizing the horrible, making mundane the tragic, seems like entirely the wrong direction to go.
To the extent that roadside memorials jar us out of complacency, remind us that the people who die on our roads every day have families and friends, that the vehicles around us are in fact occupied by fragile and mortal humans just like us, they might even be considered a safety feature. At the very least, an occasional memento mori does wonders for the soul.
I’m glad that the “ghost bike” movement places these stark reminders at the scenes of tragedy; I only hope they don’t have to place any more.