May 11-17, 2006
Naked CityRoll Call
Local cyclists unite in silence to remember their fallen.
: mike m. koehler
The driver passed him on a double yellow line, and swerved back into the lane when she saw another car approaching.
"She bumped me," remembers Siemiarowski. "I fell into the road and slid for 40 feet or so. I lost a couple of layers of skin on my left leg from my ankle to my hip. There was no shoulder for me to escape to."
The driver, a nurse, stopped to help"She offered to put Bactine on my wounds," chuckles Siemiarowskiand waited until an ambulance arrived.
Though he happily recounts that he's yet to break any bones, on that day the driver's moment of vehicular carelessness a few years ago cost Siemiarowski months.
"They treated it like a burn," he recounts. "It slowed me down. I spent eight months off the bike. I could walk, but it was not fun."
Siemiarowski, strange as it may seem, will tell you he's lucky. He's still alive and he can still ride. There are many others who are not so lucky. Fourteen years ago Siemiarowski lost his friend Maurice Attie, an endocrinologist at Penn, to a drunk and high driver on what is now Martin Luther King Drive. "The guy veered off the road and onto the [bike] path," he says. "On the way back to the road he hit Maurice's bike and flipped him over. He landed on top of the car and then landed on the road. He died of head injuries. You could see the "Bell' logo of the helmet had imprinted itself on the roof of the guy's car."
It's this tragedy more than his own brush with mortality that's inspired Siemiarowski, with the help of riding buddy Ray Scheinfeld and Masterman senior David Allen Tran to organize, in conjunction with Bike Week, Philadelphia's first Ride of Silence. (Other rides will take place that day in 120 U.S. locations and eight countries. They've been going on since the first in 2003 in Dallas, Texas.) The slow, silent, 7-mile ride, which will start at 7 p.m. on May 17 following a brief ceremony at 6:45 p.m., is meant to commemorate those who have been injured and killed while cycling on the road, and to maybe make motorists a little more aware of the need to share the road and of the fact that they're essentially driving weapons.
Co-organizer Scheinfeld says he and Siemiarowski participated in a Ride of Silence last year in Hatboro-Horsham. "It was a very powerful ride for all of us," says Scheinfeld, who's lost a work colleague in a cab-on-cycle accident.
The organizers don't really know how many people will be showing up at the Art Museum for Philadelphia's inaugural ride. Registration is not required.
They know Jill D. Johnson will be there. Johnson, who lives in the Feltonville section of Philadelphia and will turn 40 this month, remembers Dec. 1, 2001, like it was yesterday. She was riding on Lincoln Drive, crossing near Greene Street when she was struck by a driver who apparently couldn't see her due to sun glare. "I was about 10 feet up in the air," remembers Johnson, speaking raspily with a throat infection. "I came down on top of my helmet. I lost feeling from the neck down."
She broke three vertebrae, one of which was destroyed and later replaced with a cadaver bone. It wasn't until after her surgery two days later that she got feeling back, and 16 hours after that that she could start to walk.
"I have good days and bad days where my neck still bothers me," says Johnson. "I do not have full range of motion."
But she still rides. Though she can't endure the 35 to 40 miles a day she used to, she gets out and does 11 to 16 miles on a good day. "I don't ride in the street anymore," she adds.
Still, she considers herself lucky. "I'm a walking blessing. My neck was broken worse than Christopher Reeve's. But his cervical spine was ruptured."
Johnson will do the ride. Though she's gripped with fear, even when driving her car, that she might suffer another injury, she wants to share her story, to let people know that "there are ways to get over [these things], that God is still in the blessing business. Even if I had come up paralyzed, I can still talk to you." She'll be riding on the same Specialized frame she was hit on.
They know Bill Breedlove, who'll be a senior philosophy major at Penn this fall, will also be there. Breedlove's father, Bob Breedlove, an orthopedic surgeon from Des Moines, Iowa, was a regular participant in the Race Across America. In one installment, he stopped to help a motorcylist who'd been in an accident. Last June 23 during the RAA he was struck and killed by a truck in Colorado.
"I rode across the country when I was 14, with my dad," says Bill. Though the son drifted from cycling in high school, he's since returned to the sport. "Every bike ride I go on is emotional at this point. That was our favorite thing to do together, to go play bikes. The best-case scenario for [this ride] is to see that I'm not alone, and to let everybody else know that they're not alone either."
And they know they'll be getting assistance from the city's Department of Commerce, which has been influential in getting this first ride off the ground. According to Randy Giancaterino, spokesperson for the office of the city representative, this is an event that's very close to all in his department. City PR veteran Tom McNally, who was a key player in the city's Live 8 efforts, was killed last Sept. 25 while biking in Mayfair. "His integrity was inspirational to me," says Giancaterino. Which is why he and his department have backed the ride with their PR expertise.
But the goal of bringing these stories to light isn't to scare people off of riding; it's actually to get more people out on the streets. According to the Bicycle Coalition of Philadelphia's executive director Alex Doty, "When you get into your car, you have a one in 8 million chance of dying, where you have a one in 12 million chance of dying on a bike trip. We use that stat not to argue that you're safer on a bike, but to say that the streets are a dangerous place to be. People tend to underestimate the danger in a car and overestimate it on a bike."
What they really want to get across is that there's greater safety in numbers. "Recent research is reinforcing what is intuitively obvious: The more bikes and pedestrians you have on a road, the safer those people are," explains Doty, citing a study by Peter Lyndon Jacobsen. Essentially, if you double bike traffic, the risk of a crash goes down by a third, the logic being that the more cyclists and pedestrians, the more visible they become.
Doty also hopes to draw attention to a culture where "all users of the road are oblivious to the rules of the road. It's a culture we've allowed to foster and fester for decades." He applauds the installation of red light cameras, noting that the running of red lights is a "minor infraction that can lead to some horrific crashes." It's a measure that requires no change in enforcement behavior in changing the behavior of motorists.
While he admits that periodic tests for drivers to keep their licenses would help, Doty says, "I don't think it's any coincidence that Western European countries that are heavily bicycled are also countries that have strong transit infrastructure and view driving as a privilege."
"We focus on things we have a shot at," he adds.
The Ride of Silence is part of the Bicycle Coalition's Bike Week (May 13-21) activities. A full roster of events, including an urban cycling course, can be found at www.bicyclecoalition.org.
The Ride of Silence, Wed., May 17, 6:45 p.m., starting at the Art Museum steps, www.rideofsilence.org.