On Thursday, Dan Langenkamp marked 12 weeks since the death of his wife Sarah.
In her memory, Dan and his two young sons do what they do every day around 4:05 p.m., the time Sarah died: They stop what they were doing, get together, hold hands and talk to her , to share details of their day. They told her they loved her, they missed her, and they wanted her to be proud of them.
Sarah Debbink Langenkamp was killed on August 25 while riding a bicycle on a road in Bethesda, Maryland. She was on a bike path when the driver of a flatbed truck next to her turned right into the parking lot and ran over the 42-year-old woman, police said. She was pronounced dead at the scene.
“I was trying to figure out what happened to Sarah, and since I started investigating, I realized it wasn’t a weird accident,” Dan Langenkamp said. “What happened to her is part of a huge, worsening trend of people dying in traffic accidents in America. Traffic violence against people walking or biking is rife.”
Just weeks before the accident, the couple, both diplomats, moved back to the United States after spending about a year and a half in Ukraine and Poland on the border. They are part of a small group of U.S. government employees who stayed on after the Russian invasion but ultimately made the difficult decision to leave so they could be with their two sons, Oliver, 10, and 8. Axel – reunited, they sent them to their grandparents in California when the war first started.
The couple spent a few weeks in Washington, D.C., before moving to Bethesda, where they’re eagerly preparing to begin their new chapter. Sarah enrolled in a master’s degree program and attended an open house at her son’s new elementary school three days after they moved there. That night, minutes before she got on her bike and headed home, she called Dan to share her impressions. This is her last call.
“We live in a dangerous place,” Langenkamp said. “The last thing we thought was that one of us would die or be injured in Bethesda.”
Langenkamp said his anger has been a driving force for change in bicycle safety. Langenkamp’s GoFundMe campaign raised more than $289,000 to help local and national bike safety organizations in their efforts to advocate for safer bike routes.
Hundreds of people attended the 10.5-mile “Ride for Your Life” organized and led by her husband Saturday in Sarah’s memory. Just steps from the Capitol, a line of speakers, including Langenkamp, addressed a throng of cyclists at the end of their journey retracing the route Sarah took the day she died.
Among the group’s demands to lawmakers is funding for the Active Transportation Infrastructure Investment Program, mandated by Congress but not funded, that could help local governments invest in bike lane infrastructure. They also called for more to be done on truck safety, including mandating better training and requiring side and front guards on larger trucks to prevent people from getting caught under them.
“I take comfort in knowing that maybe through all of this work, some other mother will ride home safely after biking to work,” Langenkamp said. “It makes a lot of sense to me.”
For many advocates, the fight for safer roads is a long and difficult one, even as trends in cyclist and pedestrian safety continue to worsen. Colin Browne, a spokesman for the Washington Area Cycling Association, said the increase in driver recklessness during the pandemic and the presence of bigger, heavier and deadlier vehicles on the road will only exacerbate the problems.
More than 930 cyclists were killed on U.S. roads in 2020, a 9% increase from the previous year, and more than 38,800 were injured, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Nearly 80 percent of fatal bicycle accidents that year occurred in urban areas, the agency said. According to early NHTSA estimates, at least 985 cyclists will be killed in 2021, a 5 percent increase from 2020. According to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, the number of cyclist fatalities of 20-year-old or older riders has nearly quadrupled since 1975.
“This is a public health crisis,” Brown said. “What’s more, it’s not a difficult problem to solve from a technical standpoint. The tools and engineering to make streets safer to use are there, tested and proven.”
But he added that creating safer streets for cyclists and pedestrians and regulating large vehicles is often politically unpopular, slowing local leaders to act.
“We can provide (funding) for buses and for cyclists and scooters, but we’ve created an infrastructure that assumes most people will drive,” Brown said.
Anna Owen also rode a bike with her 10-year-old daughter at Saturday’s event in honor of Sarah. She told CNN she was moved by the size of the crowd and the ringing of bicycle bells to show their support for Langenkamp.
“It’s unbelievably powerful,” she said. “When I started bike advocacy, one of the things I learned very quickly was that the community was very passionate. They showed up.”
Irwin founded the Bethesda BIKE Now coalition, a local organization that responded to a 2017 decision by local leaders to close a popular bike path through Bethesda while the railroad was under construction.
Over the five years, the group is calling for the completion of a network of protected bike lanes — made up of two main paths — stretching from one side of Bethesda to the other, while existing paths remain closed. But progress has been slow, Owen said.
“We’re in 2022, and neither route is done,” Owen said. “They’ve done some work, but in five years can’t they build a protected bike lane to cover two miles of heavy traffic?”
The Montgomery County Transit Department told CNN it recently completed the first phase of two road segments in the network and that more bike lanes are being designed or built, adding that “we’re building them as quickly as possible.”
The department is also working with the Maryland Department of Transportation’s National Highway Administration, which controls River Road, Where Sarah was killed.
The highway authority said Friday it is committed to the safety of all highway users, but did not answer CNN’s specific questions about the bike lane project, including whether there are plans for construction on River Road. On Saturday, the department added that it had begun a “comprehensive needs analysis” for a section of the highway that will help identify strategies to “meet the needs of the pedestrian and bicycle network, improve safety and improve travel conditions”. In the meantime, officials are considering solutions, including lowering the speed limit on the stretch of road or upgrading signs, the report said.
The agency announced last month that construction had begun on another road in North Bethesda, where an 18-year-old cyclist was killed in June and a 17-year-old in 2019.
“These things could have been avoided,” Owen said. “We have to keep educating people about the need to protect bike lanes. You can’t just paint the roads and expect cars to give us the space we need. It’s not safe.”
Langenkamp said his fundraiser will also help advocate for the state’s transportation department to create a safer bike lane on the River Road where Sarah was killed.
“Bike lanes like this – lacking proper barriers, truck/car driver education, laws and enforcement – are just death traps,” Langenkamp wrote on his GoFundMe page.
Fighting for change gave Langenkamp meaning to an otherwise unbearable three months. Adjusting to life as a single father has not been easy, he said. Just a few days earlier, his son had noticed that he didn’t have clean school pants, and Langenkamp realized he hadn’t done laundry in a week. He often worries about what the kids’ holidays and Mother’s Day will be like.
Sarah loved their two sons, he said. Langenkamp said that even taking her family around the world in a demanding job — including Baghdad, Côte d’Ivoire and Uganda — she was always able to let go of work and focus on her family. Sarah was working in Poland during Russia’s war against Ukraine, and she flew to California for a weekend in the summer to surprise her eldest son’s birthday. After the weekend, she returned to Europe. In the weeks before her return to the US, she wrote heartfelt postcards to her sons, sharing how she can’t wait to see them reunited.
Her work is just as incredible, says her husband, adding, “She’s everyone’s favorite co-worker.”
The two met in 2005 in a Foreign Service orientation class and married a year later. “She has this quiet confidence and a very down-to-earth, friendly demeanor that really makes her easy to work with,” Langenkamp said. “She’s the kind of boss everyone loves. She’s so smart.”
She was never afraid to go where other diplomats were sometimes reluctant, telling her husband that was “where we were needed”.
While in Ukraine, Sarah led the U.S. Embassy’s corruption and law enforcement program and was responsible for equipping and supplying its national police and border guards. Langenkamp added that she was a “key figure” in Ukraine’s defense efforts and helped Ukrainian police and border guards acquire equipment such as helmets and body armor after the invasion. Following her killing, U.S. leaders including President Joe Biden, Attorney General Merrick Garland and Secretary of State Anthony Blinken sent letters of thanks.
“She was our guiding light, really, our moral compass,” Langenkamp said. “It was her judgment that got us through it all.”
Langenkamp said Sarah was everywhere in her Bethesda home three months after her death.
In one corner — Langenkamp refers to part of the home as his wife’s “sacred place” — her urn is still lit with a candle, surrounded by family photos and letters from the sons to their mum after Sarah’s death , ever worn, cards from family and friends. Nearby, photos of Sarah are taped to the ceiling. “We just want her to be around, everywhere,” her husband said.
There is also a photo of Sarah giving her husband at the wedding. Here’s a picture of a bike with the words: “Life is a beautiful ride. Dan and Sarah, est. 2006,” the year they got married.
“Cycling is very important to us,” he said. “It’s a central part of our lives,” Langenkamp added, a “practical, healthy and environmentally friendly” form of transport.
No matter where the couple are in the world, they try to commute by bike whenever possible, he added. Langenkamp said it was almost like an “impulse” to choose this fight for safety since his wife’s death.
“If the least I can do is respect her, someone who has such a huge potential in her life. If we can do a little bit of good because of it, I’ll take a little comfort,” he said.
“It’s not going to bring her back,” Langenkamp added. “But at least it will help, a little bit.”