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‘We’re Luring Bicyclists To Their Deaths’: Husband of Diplomat Killed While Cycling Turns Anguish Into Advocacy

Image description: Sarah and Dan Langenkamp pose with their two young sons at a swimming pool. Photo: GoFundMe

The husband of a U.S. diplomat who survived the war in Ukraine only to be killed in a car crash as she biked on a Maryland road is raising money to stop other families from having to endure similar tragedies — and urging the public to reckon with an epidemic of traffic violence that's left his children without a mother.

Last week, Sarah Langenkamp, 42, was killed when the driver of a flatbed truck turned into a parking lot along the 5200 block of five-lane River Road in Bethesda, Md., passing through the unprotected bike lane in which she was traveling, and running her over.

"I’m livid about the way that Sarah died," said Dan Langenkamp in an interview with Streetsblog. "This just didn’t need to happen. Cities are, rightly, trying to make themselves more livable for those that do not want to rely on cars — but at this point, we as a society are only beginning to realize that we can’t do it by just throwing paint on the streets... We're luring bicyclists to their deaths."

Sarah Langenkamp. Photo: US Embassy Kyiv, via Twitter
Sarah Langenkamp. Photo: US Embassy Kyiv, via Twitter

Langenkamp, who was a highly accomplished diplomat for the U.S. State department of more than 17 years, had moved back to the greater D.C. area just weeks before, following a recent assignment in Ukraine. She and her family — fellow state department officer and husband Dan, as well as the couple's eight year-old and ten year-old sons— were ultimately forced to evacuate Europe, but not before Dan says Sarah "almost singlehandedly" coordinated the shipment of key military supplies to Ukranian forces within days of the Russian invasion. Their sons, who were briefly separated from their parents when the children went to live with relatives during most dangerous days of the siege, later became the subject of a viral new story about the boys' efforts to fundraise for Ukranian refugees.

At the time of the crash, Langenkamp had been reunited with her children and was on her way home from an orientation event at their new elementary school; she never made it.

Though Sarah Langenkamp's legacy is undoubtedly remarkable, the circumstances surrounding her death are all too familiar.

Nearly 1,000 cyclists died on U.S. roads in 2021, a total that's been climbing almost every year since 2010. According to federal data, a whopping 58 percent of those fatalities happen on wide, fast arterial roads like the one where Langenkamp died, and another 17 percent happen on collector roads, which are often designed to similarly dangerous standards. Both types of roads are typically carved directly through residential and commercial areas that people without cars rely on.

In Langenkamp's case, her route took her through a particularly notable gap in the city's bikeway network, which required her to travel amongst 35 mile per hour car traffic in order to access the disconnected segments of the protected trail system nearby. That lapse left her vulnerable, despite being an experienced cyclist who had ridden her bike all over the world.

"Sarah and I have ridden our bikes on roads in Ukraine, in Uganda, in Cote D’Ivoire, but I feel more endangered on roads in the D.C. area than I did [in those countries]," Dan added. "I cannot tell you how many times we have almost been in crashes here because of the carelessness of drivers."

Image description: The approximate site of the crash that killed Sarah Langenkamp, via Google Maps. Cars drive along a five-lane arterial; the painted bicycle lane where Langenkamp rode is obscured by the automobile to the right. In the image, a cyclist can be seen riding in a parking lot, and a large van is parked on the sidewalk.
Image description: The approximate site of the crash that killed Sarah Langenkamp, via Google Maps. Cars drive along a five-lane arterial flanked by gas stations, drive-thrus and other auto-oriented businesses; the painted bicycle lane where Langenkamp rode is obscured by the automobile to the right. In the image, a cyclist can be seen riding in a parking lot, seemingly avoiding a large van which is parked on the adjacent sidewalk.

Dan Langenkamp also cites vehicle design as a factor in his wife's death. The 2013 Volvo commercial truck which struck her was so large that he believes the driver, who has not been identified by police, may not have physically been able to see her, though he doesn't accept that as an excuse.

"Why are there not laws that say to trucking companies, you have to have sensors on the side of your truck if you can’t see down to the pavement or the sidewalk beside you?" he added. "Why aren’t there laws that say, if you have any questions about visibility, you have to make a full stop before you turn?"

Pedestrian detection sensors are available on many commercial trucks — Volvo itself will begin offering them next month— but federal regulators have been slow to require the technology on even the deadliest vehicles, whether they're sold to commercial or civilian drivers. They also have yet to mandated so-called "Direct Vision" standards, which would make it easier for truck drivers to see their surroundings without an advanced warning system.

A calculator developed by U.S. DOT's Volpe Center estimates that a 2012 Volvo commercial truck, which is similar in design to the one whose driver killed Langenkamp, can fit a total of 27 adult bicyclists in its front and side blind zones. The truck itself weighs at least 13,000 pounds.

"The public needs to understand that these deaths are incredibly violent," added Dan. "We cannot show the public her body because it’s so badly damaged. They won’t show me her body because it was so badly damaged. The people on the crash site are traumatized by what they saw. And my sons broke down on the way to school when I told them that they can never see their mother again."

Screen Shot 2022-08-31 at 2.43.08 PM
Graphic: Blind Zone Calculator

Dan Langenkamp hopes that the money he's currently raising in Sarah's memory can help advocates push for policy solutions that will spare other families the pain he and his children are enduring, though he's not yet sure exactly what that will look like. He's considering starting a foundation, contributing to the work of road safety organizations he admires, or pushing for tech companies to make simple but potentially life-saving changes, like adding bicycle safety advisories on popular navigation apps. The fundraiser blew past its initial $50,000 goal and had reached over $160,000 at the time of publication.

In the meantime, he's simultaneously navigating a difficult new reality as a single father who may no longer be able to manage the 12-hour work days of a diplomat, all while grieving the loss of his spouse of 16 years. Their home is filled with reminders of their life together, and especially their shared love of cycling; even the welcome mat outside their front door, he tearfully notes, is shaped like a bicycle.

"Biking is just so in keeping with who we are as people; it was a big part of our marriage," he said. "We were always deep believers in living lives that are green, and healthy, and humble...[My sons and I] are doing okay, but I think have to ask ourselves as a society: is leaving kids without their moms okay? Is it okay to rob children of their parents, and to do it in such a violent way that you can never be completely honest with them about how it happened? There needs to be a reckoning."

To contribute to Sarah Langenkamp's bike safety memorial fund, click here.

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