Ghost Bike

“While crossing John Nolen Drive against a red light, police said, Heninger collided with a truck and later died.” This false story appeared on the front page of our local paper on 10/29/2022. It fit the narrative that bicyclists are scofflaws and, when they are killed, they get what’s coming to them. [Okay, the story isn’t false. It is what the police said. It’s the narrative that is false, as you’ll see below.]

Ghost bike in memory of Tom Heninger, killed by motorist 10/27/2022.

Nearly six months later, on page three of the same paper, the following headline appeared: “Driver charged in crash“. Evidence now reported indicates: 1) the driver was using a cell phone at the time of the crash; 2) he was traveling at 60 mph in a 35 mph zone; 3) he ran a red light.

The good news is the driver is now being charged with “homicide by negligent driving” [WI Statute Sec. 940.10] and “second-degree recklessly endangering safety” [Sec. 941.30].  The statute states, “Whoever recklessly endangers another’s safety is guilty of a Class G felony.” First degree requires “utter disregard for human life”. I guess killing people does “endanger [their] safety” but apparently doesn’t show “utter disregard” for that life when you run a red light at 60 mph. The negligent driving statute has been invoked (per case law cited in the statute) when someone ran a light at below the posted speed limit.

The bad news is that a person is dead. While it is heartening that the alleged killer is being charged, it seems to this writer that running a red light at nearly double the speed limit creates “an objectively unreasonable and substantial risk” and that adults driving cars should possess a “subjective awareness of that risk” if we allow them to drive. [See below.]

Both charges are Class G felonies, punishable by “a fine not to exceed $25,000 or imprisonment not to exceed 10 years, or both.” He wasn’t charged with “reckless homicide”. “The second-degree reckless homicide statute requires both the creation of an objectively unreasonable and substantial risk of human death or great bodily harm and the actor’s subjective awareness of that risk.” [Sec. 940.06] If you add “utter disregard for human life” it becomes first degree. “Whoever recklessly causes the death of another human being under circumstances which show utter disregard for human life is guilty of a Class B felony.” [Sec 940.02] “For a Class B felony, imprisonment not to exceed 60 years.” [Sec 939.50]

I’m not saying that ten years is nothing. I am saying that the crime here is killing someone, not just “endangering safety” and that the driving wasn’t merely “negligent” but did, according to current evidence, demonstrate “an objectively unreasonable and substantial risk” and that a motor vehicle operator ought to have “a subjective awareness of that risk” when running a red light at 60 mph in a 35 mph zone while manipulating a cell phone. The punishment should fit the crime. At the very least, the charge ought to.

The bad news is that it took six months for this to come to light. The good news is that it indicates the police did not simply disregard the bicyclist (though they did so initially) and did complete an investigation which led to a decision directly contradictory to their initial conclusion.

Meanwhile, the narrative of the careless bicyclist who disregards his own safety and makes a poor driver suffer with the guilt of accidentally killing him is reinforced. That the bicyclist was at fault was front page news. That he was murdered with a 2 ton weapon was not.

Bell or yell?

Spring seems to be creeping up on us. The latest sign? The B-Cycles appeared at the library when I was there Monday.

B-Cycles in foreground. Covered bike parking in the background for the rest of us.

They may be parked in snow, but they’re ready. When the program first began, the bikes looked a lot like these (but were red) and weighed a ton. They offered free or heavily-discounted memberships through employers to try to stimulate interest. I tried a membership that first year and I think I used the bikes twice – once when I had a mechanical problem on the way to work and I locked my bike to a pole and jumped on a B-Cycle in order to get work on time, and once when I considered using them as my bad-weather commuter to save wear and tear on my own bike. I seldom saw them on the road.

A few years ago they switched to a fleet of e-bikes and now I see them almost daily. This is a case of e-bikes working. I see a lot of folks on bikes that might not be riding otherwise. They don’t have to think about plugging them in when they get home. The program takes care of that. They don’t have to worry about other maintenance. The program takes care of that, too.

Today I had golden opportunities to revisit the “bell vs yelldiscussion. (I wrote a series on bike safety in April, 2018.) I have written before about having a bell on each of my commuting bikes to use on multi-use paths. When you approach pedestrians on these paths, it is prudent to let them know you are there. You don’t want to startle them. Calling “on your left” is generally advised. But what happens? Some hear “left” as a command and immediately move left. As they do that, they process the sentence and realize you said “on your left” and that means they should move right – so they suddenly veer back to the right.

Or they turn their head to the left to see where you are. The way humans are built, we follow our heads. If we start to fall, we jerk our head in the opposite direction of the fall in order to remain upright. If we look or turn our head to the left, our bodies will follow. That happens walking, riding a bike, riding a horse, or driving a car. It can be overcome with training, but it is our natural tendency. So the person who heard you call out now veers into your path unintentionally.

Ringing a bell has a different effect. First, the cheerful “ding” sounds less obtrusive than a yell. Second, we seem to have a better ability to localize the sound. Hearing a bell on the left makes us move to the right out of the way. Our brain does not confuse us with words that tell us one thing and sound that tells us another. While the evidence is empirical, not experimental, years of experience bear this out. It would be interesting to try to design a controlled experiment to test this.

That said, the bell has limitations. That became clear later on Tuesday’s commute. A bell is neither loud nor urgent enough to gain the attention of most motorists. It also requires use of a hand that may be better used another way in that moment. I don’t mean flipping them off, I mean braking and/or steering.

As I proceeded down the street, a motorist at a stop sign to my right stopped, looked right, then proceeded into the intersection without looking left to see me coming. I screamed “STOP!” and she did so, instantly…just before she looked left to see me and as I swerved left to get around her (since I was going 20+ mph and she was just starting from a standstill).

In this case, language is not confusing. Language and sound send the same message. A loud and insistent voice, coupled with an unambiguous word, often results in the desired effect. Just as hearing “left” sounds like a command to move left, hearing “stop” sounds like a command to stop. People often apply the brake before they consciously process the word and connect it to the situation.

While I will resist the temptation to get deeply into the weeds of linguistics, neurolinguistics, and psycholinguistics, I will refer you to the Stroop Color and Word Test. This test consists of a page filled with columns of color words (red, blue, yellow, green, brown if I remember correctly) but written in a color of ink that does not match the word. Your job is to either read the word or call out the color of ink, depending on the instructions. You are timed and errors are recorded. It is way harder than it might sound.

RIP Ugo DeRosa

Ugo DeRosa died this week at the age of 89. He founded the company that bears his name in 1953 and his sons and grandsons continue to run it. DeRosa’s bikes were well-known in the pro peloton. (He built bikes for Eddy Merckx beginning in 1973.) Like all long time framebuilders, he started in hand-brazed steel. You can still buy a brazed steel DeRosa frame, but you can also get frames TIG-welded in steel or titanium, or molded in carbon fiber. DeRosa bikes were known for the heart-shaped cutout lugs.

From the DeRosa website. A modern DeRosa.

Road to nowhere

Wisconsin once had the nation’s best system of secondary and tertiary roads. When the economy was dominated by family dairy farms, the milk truck had to be able to make daily pickups all year. That meant well-paved and well-maintained roads.

If a road was named after a person, they were the first white settler to farm there, not a wealthy developer wanting fame. If a road was called “Oak Grove”, it was because there was an oak grove there; it wasn’t a suburban fantasy to sell over-priced lots in a former cornfield.

The roads were used by the people who lived there, the milk trucks, (and bicyclists). These were the roads that made me fall in love with bicycling. As the dairy industry consolidated, with larger farms, each with more cattle, the back roads fell into disrepair. Money for infrastructure is not popular, especially when it serves the remaining small family farms and not the captains of industry.

But these “roads to nowhere” are what we a rode across Wisconsin. Today we are in Manitowoc. The ship doesn’t sail until 2pm Sunday. We can’t get into showers until 1:30. After picnic I pitched the tent and loaded what laundry I could fit into my tiny lumbar pack and headed to the laundromat. Then it was a trip to the Y for a shower, then clean up time for the bike. The chain is only a week old but today’s fresh (and dusty) chipseal ensured that a clean and lube was needed.

First view of Lake Michigan
Future cyclists in training

We rode north and east until we reached Lakeshore Road, which offers only fleeting glimpses of the lake, as we made our way to Manitowoc.

The sky is the bluest of blues…all along the lakeshore and as I sit outside a brewpub in Manitowoc. Various blue sky songs have been running through my head. I settled on this one, as Dickey Betts was always (unfairly) in the shadow of Duane Allman. [You may have to imagine this one or look it up yourself, as both wi-fi and cell service have failed me this evening. We’ll see if either makes a comeback.

Tomorrow we will be incomunicado for four hours (five by the clock due to a time change) as we make our way across the lake. There are no cell towers or wi-fi in the middle of a 100 mile wide lake.

I won’t yell “clear” for you

When I’m riding with others, I point out hazards (gravel, debris, holes). At an intersection I will call out “car left” as a warning if I see a car approaching from the left that a following rider might not notice.

Other riders call “clear” to tell you no one is coming, so you can run stop signs. Don’t look to me to do that. Calling “clear” is taking responsibility for another’s life. It is giving your assurance that a situation is safe. I am not willing to make that decision for another, nor do I expect them to make that decision for me. I do not want to encourage others to abdicate responsibility for their own safety. The same reasoning is why you won’t find me bungee-jumping.

Ghost Bikes

Ghost bikes are bikes painted all white and placed at the spot where a bicyclist was killed. I only recently learned that they are controversial.

Some say they send the wrong message. What message are they sending and what message are you receiving? I once spent hours in a workshop engaged in dyads with the simple aim of communication. I learned that communication as our facilitator defined it (one person getting another person’s experience) is rare and a religious or psychedelic experience, not like what we usually think. I learned that there are countless barriers to communication, even when we are consciously working to communicate. I learned that communication requires work from both the speaker and the receiver.

When you talk, is it for the purpose of communicating your experience to another, or is because you like to hear yourself talk? Or because you think you have something important to say and you want the other person to get its (your) importance? Are you even paying attention to what you’re saying?

When you listen, is it for the purpose of getting another’s experience, or to plan your response? Are you actually listening, or do you find that you have to stop what you’re doing when you realize that you just missed something? Do you think you’ve heard it before so you’re tuning out?


I ride past a ghost bike every morning on the way to work. I know its story. It was late at night. The rider was drunk. He was dressed in dark clothing. He was not wearing a helmet. He ran a stop sign. He ended up dead. I know its story, but I don’t know his story. He was a person with a life, presumably with people he loved and who loved him.

I ride past a different ghost bike when I go to visit my daughter. We don’t know the circumstances of his death. We know where it occurred. The only living witness was the driver who killed him. She has a vested interest in the narrative. That bike is redecorated seasonally. If the decorations stopped being renewed, I’d worry about Brendan’s father. The rider would have turned 31 this month.

A third site has no ghost bike. It was the other kind of cyclist – a motorcyclist. His killer was just charged. She said he was riding erratically, as if confused or lost. He cut in front of her and she had no choice but to hit him. The evidence told a different story. The computer in her car said she was going 57 mph five seconds before the crash and 65 mph 1.5 seconds before the crash. The speed limit was 30 mph and she was accelerating when she hit him. A traffic camera showed her running a stop sign just before the crash. It did not show the crash. A witness said the motorcyclist was turning left into the driveway at his workplace when the driver tried to pass him on the left. Since it is the turn he makes every morning, he was not confused. The road is one lane in each direction with a double yellow line. Another witness saw the car go airborne and strike a utility pole, causing a transformer to explode and showering sparks on the scene.

What to make of all this? We have written here before of the penalties for killing a bicyclist with your car (rare and small). Bicyclists and motorcyclists tend not to be believed. There is a public perception of recklessness. The motorist almost always survives to tell their side of the story. The bicyclist or motorcyclist is less likely to be able to tell their side. Thus, the driver gets off.

In these three stories, once the bicyclist was clearly at fault, once we have no one’s word except the motorist, and the third time the motorist’s fiction is contradicted by the evidence. Still, it took 6 months for charges to be filed and we don’t know if she will be convicted or punished.

When I see a ghost bike when on my bike, I remember that I am ultimately responsible for my own life. If I can’t see a driver’s face, they can’t see me. If I see their face but I can’t see their eyes, I know they can see me but I don’t know if they do see me. It reminds me to be extra vigilant.

When I see a ghost bike in my car, it reminds me that bikes are less obviously visible than cars and they need to be in my awareness. It reminds me to make my intentions clear – if I am turning across a bicyclist’s path and they have the right of way, I want to be sure to let them know I see them and am waiting for them to go. It reminds me of their vulnerability relative to mine and that their life has value. It reminds me of the awesome responsibility that comes with driving a two ton vehicle.

The pro-ghost bike articles I have read claim that they honor all bicyclists and remind us all to be careful. The anti-ghost bike article I read claimed that they send the message that bicycling is inherently dangerous and we shouldn’t do it or we’ll wind up dead. Adudeabikes has written about ghost bikes multiple times.

What message does the ghost bike send? What message do you hear?