Politics, open government, and safe streets. And the constant incursion of cycling.

The Facts of Alice Swanson’s Death

Like a lot of people, I just can’t let this one go.  There was a lot of speculation yesterday about exactly what happened that caused the garbage truck to run Alice Swanson over at the intersection of 20th and R St.  Many of us ride through there as a parallel option to Connecticut, know that there’s a bike lane there, and assumed she was in it.  Other people thought she might have been riding on the sidewalk, and into the crosswalk.  Well, this is what we’ve learned today:

The accident took place at 7:40 a.m. in the 1900 block of R Street NW, just north of Dupont Circle. Police said Swanson was riding in or next to a designated bike lane. She and the truck driver were traveling west on R Street when the truck driver turned right onto 20th Street, hitting her, police said.

Swanson was trapped beneath the truck, police said. An officer in the uniformed division of the Secret Service who was nearby pulled her out and unsuccessfully tried to revive her.  [Emphasis supplied]

And what of the driver?

No charges had been filed in the incident as of last night.

Maybe they’re waiting for her to tell her side of the story?

Photo courtesty of The Middle East Institute

Update: More here and here.

Update II:  Please see Honoring Alice Swanson’s Memory: Share the Road.


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  1. J. Tyler Ballance

    I heard this morning that the driver is an illegal alien. If that turns out to be true, this will become a national story and a political football.

  2. MB

    And that was based on what, exactly? And if it were true and did become a national story over that, it wouldn’t be to any good or useful purpose.

    (But hey, when’s the last time anyone mongering the illegal alien line ever had a good or useful purpose?)

  3. Ron

    it is incredibily sad that this young girl died as a result of abike accident. I commute to and from work every day and know the challenges a rider has to deal with each day. Bikes are just no match for cars and trucks. Most people have no respect for those of us on bike. They don’t understand how much damage their automoblie can cause. This has become a nation of the automoblie not the bike. Drivers feel they have total control of the roads and don’t want bikers on them. My hopes for better bike lanes and better traffic separation dim more and more each day. I do believe one day I too will be hit by a vehicle. I just hope it is not as serious.

  4. AR

    I have been cycling in and around DC for more than a decade. I have been in my fair share of scrapes with cars and am very fortunate that nothing like this has ever happened to me. This region needs to do A LOT more to make it safer to cycle. This means dedicated sections of roads for cyclists, and making cycling the MOST SUPPORTED form of transportation. Cycling is the easiest, cleanest, and healthiest way to get around. It is fast and safe (when you have a designated area), and should be supported far more than it is given the problems we’re facing because of rising energy costs, pollution, traffic congestion, and obesity. Look at Europe – they seem to have no problems with cycling. Cycling is still a very safe way to get around DC, but improvements are definitely needed. What happened to this young woman has almost happened to me SO many times. It’s unfortunate, but we need to learn from her death and use it as an example. If the driver is at fault, which it totally sounds like he is, he needs to be criminally prosecuted. Period.

  5. Harold

    Ron: In complete agreement with you. Us who bike (although I do not everyday) think “that could have been me”. As for Tyler’s comment: Does it matter if he was legal or not? If he is at fault he should be charged in despite of his legal status.

  6. fadel

    when I saw that poor girl under that truck, i had a shock,i was destroyed i prayed all day for her so that she can survive but God Plans were different.
    May her soul rest in peace.

  7. J. Tyler Ballance

    What I was trying to convey was that I hoped that speculation about the Driver didn’t become a political football that caused people to ignore the safe sharing of the road issue.

  8. Sharon

    I went to highschool with Alice. She was the sweetest, most kind person I ever knew. She was also incredibly bright. She cared deeply about people, the environment, all things good. She lived her life to better humanity. From what I’ve read and heard about what happened, the accident was due to a traffic situation called a “right hook” and it’s dangerous for cyclists, and trucks have larger blind spots which makes it more dangerous. The truck driver feels terrible about what happened. It sounds like it truly was an accident, and I doubt her family will press charges. Alice was a very compassionate person, and I can’t speak for her, but I would imagine she wouldn’t want the driver to suffer more than he already is with the guilt of running over such an amazing girl that was loved by all she knew. I think she would want everyone to learn something from this incident – to be careful, and aware of what’s going on around you, for motorists to watch out for and always yield right of way to pedestrians and cyclists. I can’t stop crying thinking about this. When I got the phone call, all I could think was, “no, not Alice!” She was such a good person. I always thought she would grow up to be an ambassador in the UN or something, and help bring about world peace or make some huge great difference in the world. Hopefully people will learn from her death, and this will prevent anymore future “right hook accidents”. Hopefully DC and other cities with that traffic situation will change their roads to promote safer conditions for everyone. I just can’t stop crying…

  9. MB

    We’re on the same page then, Tyler. I’m sorry for misunderstanding you.


    Thank you for that reminder, Sharon. A lot of us who never even knew her seem to be taking this really personally – I can only imagine how it feels for you.

  10. Amit

    my condolences to Alice and her family and friends. I felt similar sorrow when the traffic cop was killed in Georgetown a few years ago. that being said, I have to admit I have come close to hitting bikers in DC myself, not because I was driving like a madman but rather bikers were not following the rules and were behaving more like jaywalking pedestrians than vehicles. I know the bikers know they are vulnerable but I guess many of them become numb to traffic rules themselves. be careful!

  11. Itadaki

    I had never heard of a “right hook” before. Having no experience driving a truck, I had no idea the blind spots were that bad. I don’t think this kind of information is common knowledge, nor does there appear to be much attempt to make it so.
    This lack of knowledge cuts both ways — biker or driver, mistakes are more likely to be made and bikers lose.
    It’s a tragedy, but I’m angry that not more is done to study the effectiveness of measures like Leading Pedestrian Intervals at crossings, or even calling this risk out in more detail in basic bike safety classes and driving school. (Been to both, and can’t ever remember anyone handing out this information.)
    So what can we do about this?

  12. Itadaki

    I started reading up on bike safety and found this excellent link on BicycleSafe.com

    Ironically, wearing a helmet and “following the law” could actually lull you into a false sense of security. A natural tendency to bike as far right as possible actually increases your risk of being doored or hit by cross traffic.

    Almost everything I know about biking is wrong.

  13. MB

    Itadaki, I’d put it a little differently, I think. The law, almost every where, provides for cyclists to do what they need to stay safe (see, e.g., “taking the lane”). I think the gap you’re talking about is more one of perception – say, that natural tendency to stay to the right (although I think you only need to (nearly?) get doored once to get rid of the “natural” part of that).

    I have to say that I’m amazed – and encouraged – by the interest in Alice Swanson’s story. I really hope some good can come of this.

  14. NP

    I agree that the law provides for cyclists. The problem is lack of awareness and driver education. We need to get education materials on sharing the road with bicyclists in drivers ed programs and in driving tests. DMVs across the country have to get involved to change attitudes toward cyclists from age 16 on. One way to do this is to write to your Congressperson and your city council members. After accidental shootings or violent crimes there are new laws in the name of a victim. Why can’t we have an Alice’s law about increasing education on sharing the road with cyclists? Why can’t we have new regulations for mirrors on trucks that help eliminate blind spots so bikers (and subcompact cars) can be seen?

  15. Karen

    Sharon, What a beautiful thing you wrote about your friend Alice.

    Thank you for taking the time to share and Blacknell thank you for compiling the facts. I read some where that 20 fatalities have happened so far in the district, is it possible to do a ghost bike for everyone of them??

  16. This will stir up the whole bike lane debate once more. Cyclists have a right to the whole lane, not just a sliver. This accident is powerful evidence that cyclists need to “take the lane” to be safe. Let them honk.

  17. Liz

    This is so sad and shocking. The truck can’t have even been going that fast if it was on R. My heart goes out to Alice’s family and friends. And I will be thinking twice about staying to the side when angry drivers start honking at me. Surely something can be done to make the city safer for cyclists… How do they handle it in Amsterdam where everyone bikes?

  18. MB

    Karen – I’m pretty sure that the 20 fatalities figure (as put out by the Examiner) was for all traffic fatalities in DC. I’m pretty sure that this was the first bicycle fatality in the District this year.


    Liz – they handle it with a lot more public awareness, significant fines for motorists endangering cyclists, and (probably) a much wider perspective on urban transportation. Not a paradise, to be sure, but I hope we can get there someday, too.

  19. Itadaki, et al.

    Your sentiment: “Almost everything I know about biking is wrong,” is not uncommon. That you and I know how to ride bikes does not at all suggest that we know how to drive bicycles safely and effectively. A little education would go a long way, but most people never get that education. The League of American Bicyclists, a non-profit membership organization based right here on K Street, promotes bicycle education through local advocacy groups around the country, has developed a strong curriculum, and certifies bicycle educators.

    Their curriculum, called BikeED, addresses user-groups with age-appropriate subject matter and effective teaching styles. Pedestrian and bicycle safety could easily be a required part of elementary school curriculum. It’s a good idea, if you ask me.

    By the way, BikeED includes significant focus on the “Right-Hook” and other preventable yet common crashes. If you took a bicycling safety class and didn’t learn about it, something is wrong with that class.

    Take a look at The League’s website for additional resources:
    (The site you found is good too, and there are many others.)

    Ride safe, David

  20. There is a video of the ghost bike memorial for Alice at http://bicyclespokesman.com/a-ghost-bike-memorial-for-alice-swanson/

  21. Vic Miller

    I live in D.C. I have noticed that–especially since the price of fuel has skyrocketed–that heavy trucks like garbage trucks do everything they can not to lose momentum.

    Like stopping at stop signs. Like stopping and looking at turns.

  22. Vic

    When I bicycled to work from Adams-Morgan to near the White House, one rule of thumb was never to be on the same side of a vehicle as a one-way street that you were approaching.

    But that is specifically where the bike lane put her.

    We need to investigate the value of bike lanes in terms of both their values and their costs. Why can’t an experiment be conducted for rush hour, which dedicates a city street as bicycle one-way only in morning rush, and another the other way in evening rush.

    We do it for cars; why can’t we do it for bikes?

  23. MB

    That’s an excellent question, Vic. I nominate 16th St.

    Personally, I’ve moved from being an advocate of bike lanes to a lukewarm ally (at best). Roads *are* bike lanes.

  24. JoAnne

    Garbage trucks are so dangerous. I was dragged 60 feet by one when I was a little girl. My heart goes out to the family who lost her. I m lucky to be alive. I just happened on this article. I guess until tonight I thought what happened to me was isolated. i was on my bike on the sidewalk. The truck ran over the stop sign and caught me between the tires.

  25. Mic


    I play it extremely safe when I commute to work. An accident is not worth a few seconds faster to work or for a road ride.

    But really I don’t trust drivers at all.

    I have some friends that find it chic to live in the city (DC) and to ride a bike – and buy baguettes. They ride their bikes with flip-flops like if they just watch Jule et Jim.

    Wish these cyclists took it more seriously.

    -My random thoughts.

  26. A Friend

    I know for a fact the the driver still has nightmares,at night he feals very bad about this,if he turn time arround and change that ugly morning he would,but just the guilt the he has to live with averyday for the rest fo his life is enoght ponishiment for him.

  27. MB

    I don’t doubt that, Friend. And I wouldn’t wish it on anyone. But if you think that’s bad, try being her mother or best friend, who has to live with that loss because someone else wasn’t aware of their surroundings.

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