What Should Happen to Drivers Who Kill Cyclists?
The family of Lauren Davis desperately sought answers after she was fatally struck by a driver while biking to work in New York City in 2016. At every step, the criminal-justice system let them down, raising the question of what justice should look like for victims of traffic violence.
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On April 16, 2016, Danielle Davis stepped off an overnight flight from San Diego to New York City with her mother, Lana. The morning before, Danielle’s older sister, Lauren, had been killed by a driver while riding her bike to her job at the Pratt Institute, an art and design school in Brooklyn. She had just turned 34. Lana had the address of a police station, the location of the crash site, and nothing else.
Danielle and Lana went to the site of the crash, on the corner of Classon Avenue and Lexington Avenue in Brooklyn’s Clinton Hill neighborhood. A streak of Lauren’s blood was on the cement, next to a broken pair of sunglasses. “When you’re grieving, you’re just looking for signs that she’s still around, that this person has not completely disappeared,” Danielle says.
Later that morning, one of Lauren’s friends drove them to the New York City Police Department (NYPD)’s Collision Investigation Squad (CIS) headquarters in Brooklyn, where they met an officer named Christophe Paul, who was in charge of the case. “He told us that she was ‘salmoning’—biking against traffic—south, instead of north, to her place of work,” says Danielle. The NYPD gave this information to local news outlets, too.
In the notebook that Danielle kept at the time, she wrote, “The car bumps Lauren, she falls off the bike, they’re unsure how.” Paul handed them a copy of a crash report that said the same, but he told them the final copy he was writing could change if more information came to light during the investigation.
From the police station, Danielle and Lana went to the medical examiner’s office in Brooklyn to identify Lauren. In life, Danielle says, her sister had been the brave one. “She wouldn’t take no for an answer,” Danielle told me. She was “a self-described goth” and had spent the previous few months studying the way the Dutch masters symbolized death in their paintings. “Lauren really encouraged me to go outside and explore—to not feel afraid,” Danielle says. But now all of that was gone. Her face was smashed beyond recognition, her skin swollen and bruised. “She was an amazingly beautiful person,” Danielle says, “and the crash just tore all of that away from her. Not only her life, but whatever semblance of who she was. She wasn’t there.” They ultimately identified Lauren by a tattoo of an Egyptian ankh on her back instead.
Danielle, now 36, describes this day as a series of fragmented scenes, full of surreal decisions. “You want to know: What happened, where’s Lauren, why isn’t she alive? And suddenly you’re asked, ‘Which organs do you want to donate?’” She tried to make sense of the passing time by keeping fastidious notes. “I documented everything, every single day—what we did, where we went, what happened. I think it was just because I didn’t believe it myself.”
Back at Lauren’s apartment, Danielle and her mother agreed that there was a disconnect between what they’d seen at the medical examiner’s office and the detective’s account of the crash. “There was this one quote that made me really start to doubt him,” Danielle told me. “He said he doesn’t believe that she made contact with the car.” The medical examiner told them that Lauren had likely been run over—the car had left a smear of red paint across her helmet. (When asked about these initial discrepancies in Paul’s account of what happened, the NYPD responded, “When the NYPD’s Collision Investigation Squad responds to a collision, a preliminary investigation is conducted based on available evidence. However, the investigation is ongoing and is subject to change as additional evidence is gathered and documented over the coming weeks and months.”)
The next morning, Danielle and Lana decided to go back to the scene of the crash to set up a memorial and to see if they could figure out more about Lauren’s death on their own. “We were told that videos would disappear from local businesses within a week,” says Danielle. “So we had seven days to hunt down witnesses, videos, whatever evidence we could to help Officer Paul do his job.”
They staked out the corner where Lauren was hit, figuring they might meet someone who had seen the crash on their regular commute. Lana says she flagged down sanitation workers and anyone passing by who might have been nearby that morning. Danielle stood by the spray of blue and yellow flowers they placed on the sidewalk and solicited people as they walked past: “My sister was killed here on Friday, do you know anything?” Danielle describes herself as the more reserved of the two sisters, but stopping strangers on the street felt natural, she says. “It just felt like what Lauren would have done for me.”
A woman in scrubs told Lana that she’d been walking past on her way to work at a hospital and had held Lauren in the road after the crash. Others told them about being hit by drivers on nearby streets. “My mom and I were so desperate to find answers that, even though it was traumatic to hear, it felt like piecing together the puzzle,” Danielle says.
Three days later, they found what they were after. A woman in a red bike helmet rode past the memorial. “She looked at us from the other side of the street,” Danielle recalls. “And then she rolled up and asked us, ‘Is she OK?’”
They’d soon learn that the police did have it wrong. “Watching a person who’d been made a victim be erased, almost consumed by an institution that was supposed to serve and protect her, it felt like a betrayal,” Danielle says. “It just felt like humanity let us down that day.”
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In 2020, I was part of a team at Outside that attempted to track every bicyclist killed by a driver on an American road over the course of the year. Using news reports and other statements found publicly online, the Cycling Deaths project recorded nearly 700 deaths.
We took on this effort because, since 2010, the number of people on bicycles and on foot killed by drivers has skyrocketed, even as local officials have nominally embraced “Vision Zero” campaigns to eliminate traffic deaths in their cities and counties. In 2018 and 2019, more than800 people across the country were killed by drivers while riding bikes, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, the highest annual totals since 1990. In 2020, the NHTSA recorded 938 cyclist deaths, and in May of this year, the agency released preliminary data showing that 985 more bicyclists had been killed in 2021.
The Cycling Deaths project wasn’t able to record everyone who appeared in the official final tally that year, but we were able to gather real-time details on hundreds of lives and contextualize a crisis that plays out in a series of “quick and lonely deaths, not reported beyond the police blotter, if at all,” as journalist Jessie Singer put it in her recent book There Are No Accidents: The Deadly Rise of Injury and Disaster—Who Profits and Who Pays the Price.
Drivers are offered a kind of impunity that doesn’t exist in just about any other situation where a human kills another human.
It’s very hard to find comprehensive data on penalties issued after car crashes, but among the safe-streets advocates and legal experts I talked to, it’s generally taken as a matter of course that people who kill cyclists while driving—even recklessly, even illegally—are rarely held legally accountable for their actions. The big picture, those observers say, is that drivers are offered a kind of impunity that doesn’t exist in just about any other situation where a human kills another human. “The judicial system is applying laws in a way that results in widespread injustice to victims of traffic violence,” says Gregory Shill, a law professor at the University of Iowa. “I would go beyond courts—a common root of all this is that we have a high social acceptance of traffic deaths.”
While working on the Cycling Deaths project, I encountered a Medium post from Danielle about the aftermath of her sister’s death. Danielle told me about the notebooks she’d filled documenting how the minutes, hours, and days had played out, from the police station to the morgue to the courtrooms. “I couldn’t grasp onto what we needed to do next,” she told me, “so I just had to write it all down.” She felt that the system had failed Lauren, making a tenacious person invisible. Danielle picked up her life, leaving her home and a job tutoring children with learning disabilities in Southern California, to fight for Lauren. But she ended up banging her head against nearly every part of the system that was supposed to give her justice. I wondered if delving into what had happened to Lauren would help me understand the bigger picture of why it’s so rare for drivers to be punished—and maybe what a more just system could look like.
What I found were hopeful solutions and plenty of dead ends, all aiming toward the same thing: How do you get people in positions of power—from the police to prosecutors to neighborhood councils—to stop seeing the death of a cyclist as an everyday inevitability?
Rebecca Ballantine, the woman in the red bike helmet who rode past Lauren’s memorial, is an elementary school teacher who bikes to work along Classon Avenue most mornings. She was riding behind Lauren the day she was killed. She didn’t see the crash itself, but she did see Lauren lying in the road afterward and rode off when she saw police officers arrive. “She was sitting up,” she told Danielle—it seemed like she might have made it through.
Crucially, Ballantine had been biking with the flow of traffic, and she swore that Lauren had as well. She remembered Lauren passing her a few blocks before the crash. She’d noticed her jeans and thought they were trendy. Danielle and Lana asked her to contact Officer Paul.
A week after Danielle and Lana met Ballantine, Paul called back with news: Lauren had been biking with traffic, and there was video footage to prove it. Now the picture of what happened was becoming clearer. Danielle wasn’t given access to police reports, so she filed public-records requests at her own expense and compiled a file on the crash. (Outside’s account of the investigation is based on the final investigation report and supporting videos, obtained by the Davis family through a Freedom of Information Act request.)
It turned out, the initial police report was based on the accounts of eyewitnesses, including the person who’d dialed 911, who misremembered what had happened—this is not uncommon. They told investigators that they’d seen Lauren bike the wrong way through the intersection of Classon and Lexington before “the front of the car struck the bicyclist [who] went under the vehicle and out the rear side.” On the day of the crash, a second CIS investigator visited 15 surrounding buildings, unsuccessfully looking for security cameras that might have filmed the crash, noting two that needed a follow-up. Paul drafted his initial report before getting that final footage.
On April 16, about 18 hours after the crash, Paul obtained footage that showed Lauren biking with traffic. But although police had video evidence the day after the crash of Lauren riding with traffic, it wouldn’t be incorporated into the official record for two months, when an amended report was finally made available on June 11. Throughout all of this, Danielle says, the family felt in the dark about the investigation.
When asked about the delays in amending the report, the NYPD responded: “In this particular case, a thorough investigation was conducted, the case was updated as new evidence was obtained, and the investigator consulted with the Kings County District Attorney’s Office throughout the investigation. Additionally, the case detective maintained ongoing contact with the family, keeping them updated throughout the investigation.”
Paul did attempt to stay in contact with Danielle and Lana during this time. On April 23, a week after the crash, Paul visited the site of the incident and talked to Danielle and Lana; he noted that Lana “thanked me for working on her daughter’s case, and for being out there.” He tried calling them multiple times after that, but Danielle and Lana missed them. They were busy packing up Lauren’s apartment and figuring out what to do with her dog. They didn’t receive details about the investigation until finally connecting on the phone with Paul on May 4.
At that point, Lauren’s family had a definitive account of what happened at last. The driver of a red Fiat with fake eyelashes glued over the headlights had turned left into Lauren’s oncoming path while she biked past Lexington Avenue. The driver later told investigators that “she was sitting in very heavy traffic” when she decided to turn onto Lexington. She “stated that she did not see anything, then heard a boom from the front passenger side of her vehicle.” After hitting Lauren, she continued for a block, then put the car in reverse and backed up to the intersection. (The driver cooperated with police but declined to comment for this story.)
Having a correct account was only a start. Danielle could paint a picture of the crash, but she couldn’t see inside the driver’s head. “It’s very strange to see the videos—they make you wonder, What was she doing that she didn’t see a five-foot-nine woman on her bicycle to her left when she was turning? How would you not see someone and then roll over them with your car?” That summer, while living in New York, Danielle says that pestering the NYPD’s Collision Investigation Squad to keep track of legal proceedings became her “new preoccupation.”
Legal accountability—like a criminal charge or a lawsuit—starts with the investigation of the crash itself. And yet I heard over and over again that investigations, like Lauren’s, routinely go wrong. Lawyers and traffic-safety experts across the country told me that it’s extremely common for local police to rush investigations, misinterpret laws, or disregard witnesses. If the bicyclist is lucky enough to survive the crash, usually they’re in the hospital, and so they often aren’t even asked for their side of the story.
In some cases, responding officers are simply ignorant of the laws. They don’t know that a driver needs to leave enough room to pass a cyclist, or they believe that a cyclist should have been riding further to the right, even if it meant rattling down a gutter. Megan Hottman, a Colorado-based lawyer who specializes in cycling-collision cases, says that when she first started her practice in 2010, “it was alarming to me how many of these police reports either did not cite the driver or were doing their very, very best to place blame on the cyclist.”
Then there are situations that sound more like Lauren’s: evidence exists, but it’s slow to be gathered or simply ignored. In 2018, The New York Times reported that, every year, police failed to issue crash reports at all for thousands of collisions causing injury in New York City.
This isn’t something that just happens in New York, though the city’s robust network of safe-streets advocacy groups makes crashes there more visible. Take, for example, the 2014 death of 23-year-old Iain Gerrard, who was killed in Mississippi by the driver of a semi on a cross-country bike trip; the investigating state trooper maintained that Gerrard was riding the wrong way, until a personal-injury lawyer convinced him to take another look at the case. That same year, after a woman in Sacramento, California, was killed by a driver who turned out to be a local judge, the initial police account stressed that the cyclist was not wearing a helmet; however, a witness said the cyclist was wearing a helmet, and her family said they recovered two helmets from her belongings at the hospital. And in July of this year, a 13-year-old cyclist was killed while using a crosswalk near Tacoma, Washington; although the crosswalk was equipped with flashing warning lights, and the driver admitted to passing other cars who’d yielded to the child, the driver was neither cited nor charged.
Such occurrences are common enough that Families for Safe Streets, an advocacy group of individuals who have lost loved ones to car crashes, recommends that if you’re hit by a car while biking, you should start tracking down evidence as soon as possible. Meanwhile, most families of victims don’t know exactly what a police report says or how to amend it. And without any kind of advocate in traffic court, errors in initial investigations ripple into later proceedings; when investigations do get corrected and move forward, it’s typically because families have the time and money to keep pushing.
The underlying barrier to more thorough investigations, most observers say, is that our society is so dependent on cars that key players in the criminal-justice system—police, prosecutors, and juries—are more able to identify with a negligent or distracted driver. As Shill, the law professor, put it on the podcast The War on Cars, “For a century we have said we don’t want to scratch too much on the surface [of fatal crashes], because the overriding goal is facilitating driving. And so once we start peering in too closely, it could be me.”
Take cell-phone use: a study in 2013 estimated that between 2005 and 2010, close to one in ten fatal bike crashes involved a distracted driver. That number is likely to have risen since then: 62 percent of drivers in a recent survey admitted to texting, video-calling, or talking on the phone while driving, while one in four checked or sent email while driving. Forty-eight states prohibit texting while driving, and 24 of them ban all handheld phone use, but prosecutions and citations in crashes involving distracted driving appear to be rare. One study of 26 Washington State police officers, published in the journal Injury Prevention, found that some officers didn’t want to write tickets for distracted driving because they also drove distracted.
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And whether a driver is charged depends heavily on what a prosecutor sees as dangerous driving. The standard for reckless driving and similar criminal offenses varies from state to state, but in general, says Martina Kitzmueller, a deputy district attorney in Sonoma County, California, pressing criminal charges requires proving that the driver had some kind of awareness of the danger they were causing. “They knew it was dangerous and did it anyway,” she explains. It’s hard to convince a jury of this beyond a reasonable doubt, she says, partly because jurors can see themselves taking the same actions that led to the crash. For that reason, without a slam-dunk case—like the truck driver who plowed into and killed five cyclists outside Las Vegas while on meth in December 2020—prosecutors are leery of pursuing criminal charges after fatal crashes.
Without criminal charges (from a misdemeanor like reckless driving to a more serious, harder-to-prove felony like vehicular homicide or manslaughter), it’s unlikely a driver who hits and seriously injures or kills a cyclist will lose their license. The more likely result is a civil infraction—a ticket—which results in no more than a fine.
The fact that it’s so hard for drivers to lose a license after hitting a cyclist is a failure, Shill says. He makes the comparison to gun laws. “If you commit a felony, you forfeit that right to own guns,” he says. “Supposedly, driving is a privilege—you don’t have a constitutional right to drive. But you kill somebody with a car, even on purpose, chances are you’re going to keep your license.”
So could we simply make it easier to pull a license? That’s the strategy some safe-streets advocates have pursued for more than a decade through legislation that would create a more severe charge for drivers who run over cyclists and badly hurt or kill them.
Ten states and a growing patchwork of cities have already passed such legislation, known as vulnerable road user laws, which give prosecutors another option for punishing drivers responsible for serious crashes where a person on foot or bike is killed or injured. Under these statutes, if a driver violates an existing traffic offense—say failing to yield or passing too closely—and in the process kills a bicyclist, they can be charged with violating the VRU law. A prosecutor must still press charges but doesn’t need to prove that a driver was acting with willful disregard for human life, only that they caused harm while breaking a rule. In effect, this escalates offenses likely to be treated as traffic infractions to criminal misdemeanors. In most cases, the punishment for breaking the law includes a lengthy license suspension.
Megan Hottman, who advocated for a Colorado VRU law, likes to compare it to how such a situation might be dealt with were it a gun: “Somebody was killed because somebody was waving a gun around recklessly and it went off. That person didn’t mean to kill anybody, but they should have known better.” The same logic applies—drivers should have a baseline responsibility for dangerous actions they take while driving, regardless of their intent.
What she kept coming back to was the feeling that Lauren had been turned invisible—that every step of the way, people had stopped feeling the full human weight of her death.
But some bike advocates I spoke with have begun to doubt that they can solve the problem through the existing criminal-justice system. Alex Alston, state policy director of the cycling advocacy nonprofit Washington Bikes, says that her organization, which pushed for a Washington State VRU law, has been rethinking its approach to justice since the killing of George Floyd in 2020. “We were so enthusiastic about enforcement,” she says. “And now, when I think about that, I just cringe.”
Alston and others fear that VRU ordinances could become another well-meaning policy that leads to the disproportionate incarceration of nonwhite people. That proved true for the victim’s rights movement of the 1960s, which tried to reform the criminal-justice system to better handle violent crimes against women through policies like allowing impact statements in criminal court. But those reforms helped white defendants much more than Black defendants. According to a 2018 New Yorker story by historian Jill Lepore, white victims were twice as likely to make victim-impact statements, even though violent-crime victims were overwhelmingly poor and nonwhite. The victim’s rights movement also played a role in the push to end parole and impose mandatory minimum sentences, policies that led to the mass incarceration of Black people. The lesson: anything that expands the criminal-justice system’s reach also risks expanding its inequities.
Says Alston, “For me, digesting the statistics and the data around where things go wrong interfacing with law enforcement, being Black or brown or homeless right here in our jurisdiction, it’s just too striking.”
Some opponents of criminal VRU charges that I spoke with argued that these situations are better resolved in the civil system. Why not let personal-injury lawyers determine the damages to the victim and their family without permanently adding criminal charges to the record of someone who probably will not be a threat to society in the future? But civil suits generally involve a fight between an insurance company and the victim’s family and can drag on for years before a family is compensated. And that’s if they have the time and money to go to court in the first place—and if the driver has insurance. If they don’t, there’s likely to be no financial recourse whatsoever.
Shill says he’s unsure about the efficacy of VRUs, but he maintains that general enforcement of traffic laws is a necessity. “There’s no question that the criminal-justice system has been, and is, biased against people of color, and we can’t think about enforcement detached from that reality,” he says. “At the same time, we can’t have prohibitions on killing people and then not enforce those prohibitions.” The solution, Shill says, is to reduce the role of police officers by implementing more automated enforcement tools, like speed cameras and red-light cameras.
Yet perhaps the greatest weakness of VRU ordinances is that such laws, though less severe than felony criminal charges, are still rarely enforced. Vicky Clarke, policy director of the Cascade Bicycle Club, a partner organization to Washington Bikes, sees a strategy with few benefits and many downsides. “There’s this dance around these different sorts of policies that we’re trying, but they’re not moving the needle,” she says. In Washington, which has had its VRU ordinance on the books since 2012, just over 70 drivers were charged under the law between 2012 and 2017, according to data compiled by the Washington state legislature. (The Washington State Patrol reported more than 500 bicyclists and pedestrians who were seriously injured or killed in 2020 alone.) In 2019, the law was updated in hopes that prosecutors would use it more often, but that hasn’t been the case, says Alston.
That’s something that even Hottman, with years of courtroom experience, has experienced firsthand. In 2019, she was hit on a road near her home, after pumping her brakes to avoid colliding with a car whose driver was turning right, across the street’s bike lane, without looking. Another car following behind slammed straight into her, sending her to the ground and running over her bike. Based on the extent of her injuries—brain trauma and a fractured knee—and the fact that the driver was cited for carelessness, the local district attorney could have pursued a VRU charge, which would have suspended the driver’s license. Instead, Hottman says, the DA told her that they’d gone with a plea deal, explaining that they felt it would be an extreme punishment to pull the license entirely. “She seemed more interested in taking care of the defendant than she did me, and it got pretty heated,” Hottman says. And that’s been typical, she says. “Not one of my clients has actually had a driver lose their license yet.”
So I suspected that Hottman would think similarly to the advocates in Washington. I was wrong. “We really do need a law that starts to impose some responsibility on motorists to drive carefully, and I don’t think that’s an unfair trade,” she told me. Even if it doesn’t always work, she says, the potential matters: “I believe that motorists’ behavior in the United States is not going to change unless and until we start revoking driver’s licenses for even a brief period of time.”
The driver who killed Lauren Davis didn’t face criminal charges, misdemeanor or otherwise. In New York, under a judicial precedent known as the rule of two, prosecutors won’t charge a driver with criminal negligence unless they have broken at least two traffic laws while hitting a cyclist. Officer Paul told Danielle that they could only find one infraction: failure to exercise due care. Instead of criminal court, the driver who killed Lauren ended up in traffic court, where she faced several thousand dollars in fines and the possibility of a temporary license suspension.
The proceedings of traffic court were arcane to Danielle, who made sure to show up for everything pertaining to Lauren’s crash. There were two hearings: a five-minute one, in which the driver could fight the ticket itself, and another, called a fatality hearing, in which the judge would decide whether the fatal crash warranted suspending her license.
In April 2017, more than a year after Lauren’s death, Danielle and her family arrived at the fatality hearing, which was held in what she describes as “a ramshackle version of a courtroom.” They sat at a set of tables across the room from the driver and spread out photos of Lauren. “It was never made clear what the result of the hearing might be,” Danielle says. “To the best of our knowledge, it was that she would have her license revoked for up to 12 months.”
Danielle says things quickly went south. The driver had a lawyer, but there was no prosecutor to represent the city’s case. The officer in charge of the investigation, Paul, hadn’t shown up. The judge made it known that only limited testimony would be heard. “Remember, this hearing is regarding a driver’s license,” the judge, Jettie Thomas, told Lana and Danielle. “It’s very, very limited in scope. I’m sure there are other proceedings where you will have an opportunity to present your full case.” It then became apparent that the judge had an out-of-date copy of the crash report: hers showed Lauren going against the flow of traffic. Lana piped up: “Excuse me, that’s not correct.”
“Ma’am, you’re not allowed to speak,” the judge said. “The bicyclist, Lauren E. Davis, was traveling southbound, against traffic,” she continued, emphasizing the last two words.
Over the course of the half-hour hearing, the judge softened. She allowed a representative for the family to read the amended police report into the record, over the objections of the driver’s lawyer. “I’m convinced that I don’t have enough information here today,” Judge Thomas said. She adjourned the hearing and postponed it until she was sure that a police officer could show up to testify.
While that meant she would get the right information, it also meant that Danielle would have to wait weeks more for an answer. “I was really tired,” Danielle says. “It was just incessant work. I was ready to tap out.”
“Danielle isn’t the only one,” says Chana Widawski, an organizer with Families for Safe Streets, which helped Danielle navigate the court system in New York. Many families don’t even realize that a hearing is taking place. To that end, Families for Safe Streets is pushing for the New York State Assembly to adopt a Crash Victim’s Bill of Rights. The legislation would require that police departments provide families with free copies of crash reports and other documents. It would also require that the DMV grant them the right to provide a personal statement at hearings. For the moment, the bill is sitting in limbo in the New York state legislature.
The driver’s rescheduled fatality hearing took place two months later. This time, Paul showed up, as did the accurate report. And fully a year and a half after Lauren was killed, the judge issued her decision: the driver’s license would be suspended for 90 days, with the opportunity to appeal after 30 days. Danielle never found out if her license ended up suspended for the full three months.
That left Lauren’s family in a confusing position. There were penalties, but they felt like half steps. The driver’s license was taken, but not for very long and only after an interminable fight. I asked both Lana and Danielle what they wished had happened. Neither had a precise vision of the “right” outcome, but Lana emphasized wanting to see stricter laws. The way she sees it, “If you’re gonna kill, and keep on driving or keep on walking away from it scot-free, nothing is going to change.” Danielle was less sure that the criminal-justice system was the answer. “Ninety days for the loss of a life… I’m not sure that’s enough,” she said, adding that she believes a one-year license suspension for the driver would have been more appropriate.
But the glimpses of the driver she’d gotten through the hearings made it “difficult to think about punishing someone.” At Danielle’s request, Outside has not used the driver’s name in this story. The NYPD investigation describes the driver as Black, and reports that she lived in public housing at the time of the crash. “A friend of the driver’s told me that [the driver] was being pestered by individuals online and going through her own trauma after the crash,” she wrote in an email. In an interview a week later with police, the driver said that she hadn’t been able to eat or sleep. “I’m sure if she comes across the article, she will know that it’s about her, and then she’ll have to reckon with her actions again,” Danielle says.
Both Lana and Danielle craved an apology, or just a direct conversation with the driver—though the thought of reaching out to her felt too painful. That was part of a broader pattern throughout our conversations: while the outcome felt wrong, Danielle said, what she kept coming back to was the feeling that Lauren had been turned invisible—that every step of the way, people had stopped feeling the full human weight of her death.
So Danielle started looking for a different kind of justice. In our conversations, both she and Lana returned again and again to the circumstances that had put Lauren on that street on that day. It wasn’t her usual route to work. “She had called me the night before—she was telling me how the normal road she rode on, which was a street over, was being ripped up, and how it was really messing up her bike,” Lana remembered. Danielle began to think that the street itself was to blame.
Classon Avenue, where Lauren was killed, is a well-known, signed cycling route, but it wasn’t painted with bike lanes at the time. Instead, most bicyclists rode along the extra-wide parking lane on the left-hand side. “That was the basis of everything that happened,” says Danielle. “There wasn’t a designated bike lane.” Danielle decided to do something about it.
A community board had advocated for one in 2011, but Classon Avenue sits on the boundary between two community boards, and the second board opposed the change, with its president later telling the transit-news site Streetsblog NYC that street safety “is not an issue in our community, by and large.” In 2012, the New York Department of Transportation (DOT) considered the bike lane but decided against it. Instead of a bike lane, the road got the wider parking strip.
Danielle wanted to right those past failures. “What does it take?” she says. “It takes a little bit of perseverance and tenacity.” She pestered elected officials and became an expert in street infrastructure. “I would take voluminous notes on the average cost of a bike lane, what bike lanes do to protect cyclists and also protect cars and pedestrians,” Danielle says.
A current look at the intersection of Classon and Lexington Avenues on Google Street View, with bike lanes painted on the left side of street
In the end, it took a stroke of luck. In June 2017, Danielle was at a protest in the state capitol, and the then New York City DOT commissioner Polly Trottenberg, who Danielle had written letters to before, was there. Someone pushed Danielle forward. “I told her about Lauren,” Danielle says. “And I just repeated the same information, and she told me personally it was going to happen. I heard it straight from Polly Trottenberg’s mouth.” (Trottenberg is now the U.S. Deputy Secretary of Transportation under Pete Buttigieg.)
More than a year after Lauren’s death, Classon Avenue had bike lanes installed. But it should be said: Those bike lanes aren’t separated from traffic, they are lines simply painted on the road. They provide more visibility and legal protection than an expanded parking strip, but they don’t physically separate bicyclists from car traffic, the standard that safe-streets advocates push for.
Kevin Daloia, a volunteer with Street Memorial Project, which places ghost bikes and organizes memorial rides in the Bronx to honor cyclists killed by drivers, says that Danielle’s story is pretty typical of what it takes to make a street safer in New York. Three years ago, he told me, two pedestrians were hit by cars in his neighborhood on the same stretch of East Tremont Avenue within a few months: an 85-year-old woman was killed outside her apartment, and a 28-year-old man was left in a coma by a hit-and-run. Daloia circulated a petition to ask the DOT to review the street design, gathered hundreds of signatures, and got the community board’s support.
A year and a half after the crashes, the DOT decided to implement a “road diet” to the street, reducing the number of driving lanes and adding bike lanes. The project broke ground in September 2020, but then the community board reversed course and tried to halt construction. It eventually got back underway, and the project was completed by the end of 2020. “That’s what it takes to do 0.6 of a mile,” says Daloia. “What makes bike lanes happen is somebody has to die.”
In the spring of 2021, however, New York City took a step toward making that system more just. As part of a larger police-reform package, the New York City Council quietly passed a bill that would “require [the DOT] to create a crash investigation and analysis unit,” which would “be required to make recommendations for safety-improving changes to street design and infrastructure.” In other words, the DOT would still be acting after, not before, serious crashes, but it would automatically take on many of the responsibilities that Danielle shouldered herself. At the beginning of this year, the DOT implemented the Serious Injury Response, Tracking and Analysis Program and completed 436 investigations, but only took immediate action at three of the sites.
“What makes bike lanes happen is somebody has to die,” says Kevin Daloia.
When it comes to making streets safer for bicyclists, “design change to the street is far more important than education and enforcement,” says Marco Conner DiAquoi, the deputy director of Transportation Alternatives, a New York safe-streets advocacy group that has called for similar proposals. “The best thing is to design for the behavior that you want.”
This approach has already been adopted overseas in places like the Netherlands. “Traffic safety there is seen as an engineering problem, not an enforcement problem,” says Chris Bruntlett, marketing manager for the Dutch Cycling Embassy, a government-funded nonprofit. “If there’s excessive speeding on the street, if there’s a problem with collisions happening, if there is especially a serious incident where someone is severely injured or killed, there’s always a postmortem on whether the street could have been engineered differently to avoid that outcome.”
That’s the direction that Washington Bikes and its partners are moving toward as well. They’re now pushing to redirect state funding into projects that will build safer infrastructure—sidewalks, bike lanes, speed bumps—in low-income communities. “We need streets that are going to be taking better care of people,” says Alston. That approach represents a rethinking of where blame lies in a crash. Rather than reacting to fatal crashes by trying to establish fault and mete out punishment, it focuses on preventing the crash in the first place. “People are fallible, we make mistakes,” says Clarke. “So we need to build our transportation such that when people make a mistake, they don’t cost somebody their life.”
And for Danielle, the bike lane is something else: a way of making Lauren present again on the street that had erased her in so many ways. “I was interviewed when the bike lane was being installed by somebody from a news channel,” Danielle says. “And he said, ‘Would you say this bike lane is a silver lining?’ And I said, ‘No, there’s no silver lining. My sister is dead, and she’s never coming back.’” But the bike lane might save another life, and in that way, Danielle says, “it feels like a mark of Lauren’s life on the neighborhood.”
This feature originally appeared on Outside Online.
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