She left the dangers of Ukraine only to be killed on her bike close to home. Hundreds of people will march in her honor to demand change



CNN

Dan Langenkamp marked 12 weeks on Thursday since his wife Sarah was killed.

To honor her, Dan and his two young sons do what they do every day around 4:05 p.m., the time Sarah died: They drop everything they’re working on, gather, hold hands and talk to her, will share details about their day. They tell her they love her, miss her, and hope she’s proud of them.

Sarah Debbink Langenkamp was killed on August 25 while riding her bicycle on a road in Bethesda, Maryland. She was riding in the motorcycle lane when the driver of the pickup next to her turned right into the parking lot and ran over the 42-year-old man, police said. She was pronounced dead at the scene.

“I’ve been trying to understand what happened to Sarah, and since I started looking into it, I’ve realized that it wasn’t a freak accident,” Dan Langenkamp said. “What happened to her is part of a huge, worsening trend in America of people being killed in traffic accidents. There is an epidemic of traffic violence against people walking or cycling.”

The accident happened just weeks after the pair, both diplomats, moved back to the US after spending about a year and a half in Ukraine and later Poland on the border. They were part of a small group of U.S. government employees who stayed after the Russian invasion, but ultimately made the difficult decision to leave to be reunited with their two sons — Oliver, 10, and Axel, 8 — whom they had sent to live with their grandparents. in California when the war first began.

The couple spent a few weeks in Washington DC before moving to Bethesda, where they eagerly prepared to start a new chapter. Sarah enrolled in a master’s degree and attended an open house at her son’s new elementary school three days after they moved. A few minutes before she got on her bike to head home for the evening, she called Dan to share her impressions. It was the last call she ever made.

“We lived in dangerous places,” Langenkamp said. “The last thing we expected was for one of us to die or get hurt in Bethesda.

Dan and Sarah Langenkamp with their two sons, Axel, now 8, and Oliver, now 10, in a 2014 photo.

His anger, Langenkamp said, was the driving force behind pushing for changes in bicycle safety. A GoFundMe campaign Langenkamp created has raised more than $289,000 to help local and national bike safety organizations in their efforts to promote safer bike routes.

And on Saturday, hundreds of people biked to Congress in Sarah’s honor in a 10.5-mile Ride for Your Life event that her husband organized and led. Just yards from the Capitol, a series of speakers, including Langenkamp, ​​spoke to a sea of ​​bikers at the end of their journey who followed Sarah’s route the day she died.

The group’s requests to lawmakers include funding for the active transportation infrastructure investment program, which was approved by Congress but not funded, and which can help local governments invest in bikeway infrastructure. They are also calling for more truck safety measures, including mandating better training and requiring side and front guards on large trucks to prevent people from being trapped underneath.

“It gives me comfort to know that maybe through all the work, some other mother will get home safely after riding her bike to work,” Langenkamp said. “And that makes sense to me.

Sarah Langenkamp seen here with her arm raised, during

For many advocates, the fight for safer roads has been long and difficult, even in the face of worsening trends in cyclist and pedestrian safety. The problems have only been exacerbated by increased driver recklessness during the pandemic and larger, heavier — and deadlier — vehicles on the road, said Colin Browne, a spokesman for the Washington Bicyclist Association.

More than 930 cyclists were killed on American roads in 2020, a 9% increase from the previous year, and more than 38,800 were injured, according to data from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Nearly 80% of cyclist fatalities this year were in urban areas, the agency said. According to NHTSA’s first estimates, at least 985 bicyclists were killed in 2021, a 5% increase from 2020. Since 1975, the number of deaths among bicyclists age 20 and older has nearly quadrupled, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.

“It’s a public health crisis,” Browne said. “All the more so because from a technical point of view it is not a difficult problem to solve. The tools and engineering that make street use safer are there, they’re tested, they’re proven.”

But creating safer streets for cyclists and pedestrians and regulating large vehicles has often proved a politically unpopular move, leading to slow action by local leaders, he added.

“We could provide (funding) for buses and people on bikes and scooters, but we’ve kind of built an infrastructure that assumes most people will drive,” Browne said.

Anna Irwin also rode her ten-year-old daughter to the event on Saturday to honor Sarah’s memory. She told CNN she was moved by the size of the crowd and the sound of bells on bikes to show their support for Langenkamp.

“It was incredibly powerful,” she said. “One of the things I learned very quickly when I got into cycling advocacy is that this community is so passionate. And they will show up.”

Anna Irwin and her daughter rode with hundreds of others in honor of Sarah on Saturday.

Irwin founded the Bethesda BIKE Now Coalition, a grassroots group formed in response to a 2017 decision by local leaders to close a popular bike path that ran through Bethesda during construction of the rail line.

During those five years, the group called for the completion of a network of protected bike trails—consisting of two main trails—running from one side of Bethesda to the other, while keeping the existing trail closed. But progress has been slow, Irwin said.

“Here we are, in 2022, and none of the routes are finished,” Irwin said. “They’ve done a lot of work, but in five years they can’t build a protected bike lane covering two miles of a heavily trafficked area?”

The Montgomery County Department of Transportation told CNN that it recently completed the first phase of two segments in the network and that additional bike lanes are either being designed or under construction, adding that “we’re building them as fast as we can.”

The department also works with the Maryland Department of Transportation State Highway Administration, which manages River Road, where Sarah was killed.

The highway authority said Friday it is committed to the safety of all highway users, but did not respond to CNN’s specific questions about the bike lane projects, including whether there are plans for construction on River Road. On Saturday, the ministry added that it had launched a “comprehensive needs analysis” for the stretch of highway to help identify strategies to “address the needs of the pedestrian and bicycle network, increase safety and improve travel conditions.” In the meantime, officials are considering solutions including lowering the speed limit or upgrading signs on that stretch of road, he noted.

The agency announced last month that it had begun construction on another road in North Bethesda, where an 18-year-old bicyclist was killed in June and a 17-year-old bicyclist in 2019.

“These things were preventable,” Irwin said. “We need to continue to educate people about the need for protected bike lanes. You can’t just paint the road and then expect the cars to give us the space we need. It’s not safe.”

Langenkamp said his fundraising efforts will also help advocate for the state Department of Transportation to create a safer bike lane on River Road, where Sarah was killed.

“Such bike lanes — lacking proper barriers, truck/car driver education, laws and enforcement — are just death traps,” Langenkamp wrote on his GoFundMe page.

A memorial has been set up at the site of Sarah's crash, with a white wheel with flowers.

The fight for change gave Langenkamp purpose during an otherwise excruciating three months. According to him, adjusting to the life of a single father was not easy. Just a few days ago, his son noticed he didn’t have clean pants for school, and Langenkamp realized he hadn’t washed in a week. She often worries about how the holidays and Mother’s Day will be for the children.

Sarah loved their two boys, he said. Even in the midst of a demanding job that took the family around the world — including Baghdad, Ivory Coast and Uganda — she was always able to turn off work and focus on family, Langenkamp said. Working from Poland during the Russian war in Ukraine, Sarah flew to California for a weekend over the summer to surprise her oldest son on his birthday. She returned to Europe after the weekend. And in the weeks before her return to the US, she wrote heartfelt cards to her boys, saying she couldn’t wait to be reunited.

She was just as incredible at her job, her husband said, adding, “She was everyone’s favorite colleague.”

The two met in 2005 at a foreign service orientation class and married a year later. “She had this quiet confidence and a very down-to-earth, friendly demeanor that made her really easy to get along with,” Langenkamp said. “She was the boss everyone loved. Just really smart.”

And she was never afraid to go places where other diplomats were sometimes unwilling to go, telling her husband that this was “where they needed us.”

During her time in Ukraine, Sarah led the US Embassy’s anti-corruption and law enforcement programs and was responsible for equipping and supplying the national police and border guards. And she was a “critical player” in Ukraine’s defense efforts, helping Ukrainian police and border guards obtain equipment such as helmets and body armor after the invasion, Langenkamp added. After her killing, letters of thanks poured in from US leaders including President Joe Biden, Attorney General Merrick Garland and Secretary of State Antony Blinken.

“She was our guiding light, really, and our moral compass,” Langenkamp said. “It was her judgment that helped us with everything.

Sarah Langenkamp with her two sons Oliver and Axel on July 4, 2017.

Three months since her death, reminders of Sarah are all around the family’s Bethesda home, Langenkamp said.

There’s a corner — a part of the home that Langenkamp refers to as his wife’s “shrine” — where a lit candle remains by her urn, surrounded by pictures of family, he notes, that Sarah’s sons wrote to their mother after she passed, jewelry she used to wear, cards from family and friends. Nearby are pictures of Sarah taped to the ceiling. “We try to have her all around us,” her husband said.

There is also a picture that Sarah gave to her husband at their wedding. It is a picture of a bicycle with the words: “Life is a beautiful ride. Dan and Sarah, circa 2006, the year they were married.

“Cycling was a thing for us,” he said. “It was a central part of our lives,” a mode of transportation that was “practical, healthy and environmentally friendly,” Langenkamp added.

Wherever possible, the couple tried to commute by bicycle, he added. Picking up this fight for safety since his wife’s death was almost an “impulse,” Langenkamp said.

“If I can do the smallest thing to honor her, a person who had so much potential in her life.” If we can do a little bit of good as a result, I’ll be a little bit comforted,” he said.

“That won’t bring her back,” Langenkamp added. “But at least it will help a little.

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