Houston’s hit-and-run problem: ghost motorcycles honour ‘invisible dead’ cyclists

1, 700 cyclists have been hit by automobiles and trucks in four years, with one in four drivers failing to stop. Personalised ghost motorcycles are an effort to show people noticed when someone was killed and give their families some closure

Its always the same story, says Steve Sims, who runs Houstons Ghost Bike strategy with spouse Melissa. We speak to the family who tell us My loved one was struck and killed. Its devastating for them, but when someone gets hit on a bike here , nothing get done. It happens over and over. You get involved every time but after a while they just various kinds of blend together.

We meet at the tattoo parlour the ghost motorcycle group utilizes as a base. The garage out back is packed wall to wall with old bikes which have been donated and spray-painted white, ready to be used as commemorations to the victims of accidents with vehicles and trucks. Its eerie to gues these bikes will soon mark the site of someones death like visiting the scene of a future mass killing.

Houston has no shortage of victims. Around 1,700 cyclists have been hit by automobiles on the street of Americas fourth biggest city since 2013, with drivers failing to stay at the scene in nearly a quarter of cases, according to data from the Houston police department. Twenty-three cyclists have been killed seven of them by hit-and-run drivers. Many are so-called invisible cyclists, people cycling to and from poorly paid chores early in the morning or late at night, many without illuminates or a helmet. If the cyclist involved violated a traffic law such as not yielding the right of way, or did not have proper illuminations, the driver is usually deemed blameless, one prosecutor told the Houston Press.

The household of Glen Mathews at the put of his ghost motorcycle in June. Photograph: Melissa Sims/ Houston Ghost Bike

Since the first ghost bike was placed in St Louis, Missouri, in 2003, the movement has spread to cities around the world, with a website giving advice on how to set up a ghost bike program. Schemes are often started in response to a spate of local deaths, and tend to come and go, but Houston seems to have a particular problem.

An average of six people on motorcycles are killed every year in the city itself, but that rises threefold or more for the wider urban area, according to Steve Sims. And while Houston has tripled the size of its Metro light rail, concurred a threefold increase in its bike share strategy, and drafted its first new Bike Plan in more than two decades, it remains a city dominated by vehicles and big SUVs.

Cycling some quieter inner city areas, or the bayou roads, is pleasant enough but try riding outside the loop formed by the I-6 10 superhighway and it soon get more aggressive. Census data depicts the number of people commuting by automobile in the Houston metro area has increased over the past decade, to more than 80%, with three-quarters of those journeys made by solo drivers without any passengers.

Richard Tomlinson set up the Houston scheme after the hit-and-run killing of Chelsea Norman in December 2013. She was cycling home late at night from her chore in a Whole Foods store when she was struck by Margaret Mayer, who was driving back from a bar. Mayer didnt stop; Norman died from her traumata a few weeks later. In tribunal Mayer claimed she believed she had struck a tree, but was eventually convicted of failing to stop and sentenced to 15 years.

By the end of 2015 Tomlinson and a band of helpers all volunteers had set out more than 60 motorcycles.

Keen cyclist Jon Trevelise was killed in nearby Galveston in April 2014. He was cycling in the shoulder of the road when he was struck from behind by a vehicle. The 68 -year-old driver told police she was lost, and was driving in the shoulder while she looked for an address. She looked up and the man on the bike was there, the police report stated. She was charged with manslaughter.

The following year, David Rosenfeld was cycling to take part in a memorial bike ride in honor of Trevelise when he too was hit and killed by a auto. Two more cyclists were killed the next month, and that October 56 -year-old Bobby Brooks succumbed after allegedly being hit by local schools bus. The drivers attorney said she didnt realise she had been involved in an accident. She didnt realise she reached anything or anyone, which is why she continued on her bus route, he told reporters.

Melissa and Steve Sims of Houston Ghost Bike. Photograph: Nick Van Mead

Houstons first ghost motorcycles were simply chained to a fencing or signpost at the location of the accident a haunting reminder to drivers and cyclists.

Then graphic designer Steve Sims got involved. He offered to construct something better lasting a permanent plaque and laminated photo in place of the photocopied news clipping or scene which would fade after a week or two.

We want drivers to insure the person, he explains. We need them to recognise it was a human being that was killed, and not the caricature the government had of a cyclist. The people being hit and killed arent generally the people in spandex most people think of when they think of cyclists. They are people who are riding bikes because thats how they need to get out its their transportation.

At the same time Melissa hit on idea of contacting the family and friends of the victim through Facebook.

We realised we had to reach out to the families, she says. They have enough on, though, so Ill send a message to a friend of the family. I construct them aware of what we do and ask them to pass on our details, to see if theyre interested in a memorial.

Not everyone is. One household didnt want a memorial because the victims friend passed the scene of his death every day and it would be too strong a reminder.

But if the family concurs then the ghost motorcycles team are guided by what they want. Generally Steve will unload the motorcycle and let someone from the family roll it over to the place. Some say prayers, or will ask Steve to do so; others tell tales or stand in silence.

Its about remembering, says Steve. Were putting a name on the bike, and stimulating sure it represents a person.

They dont generally mark the locations where children have been killed on motorcycles apart from one 13 -year-old, an exception built on the request of his relatives. Michael Demny was killed as he cycled near his school in the late 1990 s. The car driver fled the scene.

That was the first one we did with the family, says Steve. It happened years ago and nothing was done. The family reached out to us. It was so fresh when they told us the story, they were reliving every detail. The mother you could just see the weight coming off her to know someone was listening, that somethings going to be there that their relative is going to be remembered. I feel my role is to allow some of these families closure to show that someone noticed.

The ghost bike volunteers also hope the sight of increasing numbers of white monuments will encourage drivers to pay more attention to the road, or think twice before texting while at the wheel.

If people see them all over township, if they insure one after the other, then at some phase were going to hit a critical mass, adds Steve. Were going to put under so many that people have got to realise whats happening.

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