Tammy Gass, 44, was biking when she was run over and killed at 11:30 a.m. on May 23 about two miles from her home on Highway KK south of Wausau, Wisconsin. The section of highway where she was hit is straight, level and has a five-foot paved shoulder. Although this road carries a lot of vehicular traffic, cyclists ride it frequently (I probably pedal it once a week) even though it does not have an official bike lane. That flat, new pavement with the wide shoulder provide a false sense of security, especially after Tammy's death.
The driver who hit Tammy lives even closer to the accident site, so he may have driven Highway KK daily. He was on his way to work and claims he did not see her, which is difficult to believe given how flat and straight the road is there. The police believe that alcohol was not a factor, and since the crash occurred around noon on a cloudy day, the sun couldn't have blinded the driver.
What makes Tammy's death even more heart wrenching is that her husband, Greg Bednorski, was killed while cycling on the same road about a half mile from their home in September 2008, a few days after he raced at the Chequamegon Fat Tire Festival. A cross marks the accident site on the north side of the highway, and since I ride this road weekly I pass it frequently and remember Greg, also known as "Super G." I remember attending the visitation, where two pictures chronicled Greg's memorial ride. Seeing those prints brought back all of the emotion of that sober and tearful event.
But the odds of this happening to one couple in two separate accidents - a husband and a wife both killed three-and-a-half years apart - are incalculable and reminiscent of a Greek tragedy or the Book of Job. No one should have to live with the resulting pain and blackness. The similarity of the circumstances numbs my mind and the injustice of it all makes part of me want to deny that any of it happened. I want to close my eyes and wake up back in 2007. I can't imagine what the families feel.
In January, Tammy married Tim Gass, who had also tragically lost his first wife in an accident. Tammy seemed happy and alive and was riding her bike again after an understandable layoff following Greg's death. Tammy and Tim each had two children, and with their merged families, happy days seemed ahead. Tim and Tammy were to honeymoon in Costa Rica a week after Tammy was run down.
Whenever a cyclist dies on the road, especially one I know well, I reconsider the consequences of road riding and the car culture we have created in this country. It seems to get more dangerous on the roads with each passing day, so much so that one friend of mine recently sold his road bike. My own response to these deaths is to ride fewer and fewer roads. I shudder to think of what could happen if I returned to any of the busy roads that used to be part of my staple routes.
I also wear brighter clothing. I avoid riding at rush hour. I don't ride roads on Friday afternoons when I know drivers are loading up on alcohol during happy hour before heading home for the weekend. Tammy's death on a Tuesday morning on what I considered a safe road, however, reveals just how dangerous and tragic riding in traffic can be anywhere and at any time. As cyclists, we often forget this.
Besides sorrow and fear, I feel angry because I've seen too many friends and good people get killed in this senseless manner. This didn't have to happen. We talk about safety and we live in a culture obsessed with safety, and yet any cyclist who rides a thousand miles on our roads knows their not safe out there. As motorists, myself included, we often forget the consequences of driving a 3,000-pound vehicle at 60 miles per hour. We drive so often and so many miles per year that driving becomes second nature, a skill that we no longer even reflect upon. But it's not like raking leaves, washing dishes or watching TV. Driving requires our full attention.
Add to our inattention while driving behaviors like fiddling with the radio, picking change up off the floor, trying to smack the kids in the backseat, texting, taking a chomp out of a Big Mac, drinking coffee (my vice) and dialing the cell phone. Then throw in alcohol, drugs, sleep deprivation, road rage, emotional problems and our chronic and congenital impatience.
It all adds up to thousands of deaths each year on American highways, including over 32,000 deaths in 2010. Just under two percent of these deaths (618) were bicyclists, but that's almost two per day. Motorists crash into and kill another 50 pedestrians per year in Wisconsin alone.
Some of these deaths can be blamed on the bicyclists killed. A year or so ago, a University of Wisconsin-Marathon County student ran a red light at a busy Wausau intersection in the early morning and was killed by a driver going through the intersection on the green light. There was little the driver could do.
On the other hand, the majority of my friends killed while riding were following the law and had years of cycling experience. They wore helmets. They followed the traffic laws. And still one was run over by a drunken fool with nine DUIs to his credit. Another was struck by a motorist driving the wrong way down a one-way street.
Other than the drunk who did serve serious jail time for vehicular homicide, the other drivers at fault received amazingly light fines and inconsequential consequences.
I will be following the investigation into Tammy Gass' death closely. Whatever the outcome, I hope Tammy's death advances legislation in Wisconsin that hands out tougher sentences to motorists who run over cyclists.
The Bicycle Federation of Wisconsin is working with state legislators to pass a Vulnerable Users Law. I, like the Bike Fed, believe motorists who kill bicyclists and pedestrians through negligence should be charged with a felony instead of a trivial speeding or reckless driving ticket as is currently handed out if a driver is charged at all. If a motorist kills someone because he was turning up the volume on Lady Gaga's latest hit or she was chatting on the phone with her friend about what each of them did last night, a felony charge is appropriate.
A hefty fine or jail time won't bring back loved ones or friends, but I would hope the threat of these punishments would deter some of this behavior and get our minds back on the road. In America, we are simply too flippant about driving and its consequences. Our laws and our driving habits reflect this.
Mark Parman lives in Wausau, Wisconsin, where he teaches English and journalism at the University of Wisconsin-Marathon County.