On Thursday, Dan Langenkamp marked 12 weeks since his wife, Sarah, was killed.
To honor her, Dan and his two young sons do what they do every day at around 4:05 p.m., the time Sarah died: They drop whatever they are working on, gather together, hold hands and talk to her, sharing details about their day. They tell her they love her, they miss her, and they hope she’s proud of them.
Sarah Debbink Langenkamp was killed August 25 while riding her bike on a Bethesda, Maryland, road. She was traveling on the biker’s lane when the driver of a flatbed truck alongside her made a right turn into a parking lot and ran over the 42-year-old, police said. She was pronounced dead at the scene.
“I’ve tried to make sense of what happened to Sarah, and since I started looking into it, I’ve realized this is not a freakish accident,” Dan Langenkamp said. “What happened to her is part of a huge, worsening trend in America of people getting killed in traffic crashes. There’s an epidemic of traffic violence against people walking or biking.”
Preparing for a new chapter
The accident came just weeks after the couple, both diplomats, moved back to the US after spending roughly a year and a half in Ukraine and later in Poland, on the border. They were part of a small group of US government employees who stayed behind after Russia’s invasion but ultimately made the difficult decision to leave, so they could reunite with their two sons – Oliver, 10 and Axel, 8 – whom they had sent to their grandparents in California when the war first started.
The couple spent a few weeks in Washington DC before moving to Bethesda, where they were eagerly preparing for the start of a new chapter. Sarah enrolled in a master’s degree course and, three days after their move there, attended an open house at her son’s new elementary school. A few minutes before she got on her bike to return home that evening, she called Dan to share her impressions. It was the last call she ever made.
“We’ve lived in dangerous places,” Langenkamp said. “The last thing we expected was that one of us would die or get hurt in Bethesda.”
A ride in Sarah’s honor
His anger, Langenkamp said, has been a driving force to push for change in bike safety. A GoFundMe campaign Langenkamp created has raised more than $289,000 to help local and national cycling safety organizations in their efforts to advocate for 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 her husband organized and led. Just feet from the Capitol, a line of speakers, including Langenkamp, spoke to a sea of bikers at the end of their journey retracing Sarah’s route on the day she died.
The group’s requests to lawmakers include funding for the Active Transportation Infrastructure Investment Program, which was authorized by Congress but not funded and which can help local governments invest in bike lane infrastructure. They’re also asking for more measures around truck safety, including mandating better training and requiring side and front guards on large trucks to prevent people from getting caught underneath.
“I get comfort knowing that, maybe through all of this work, some other mother will ride home safely after riding her bike to work,” Langenkamp said. “And that’s meaningful to me.”
A worsening trend on American roads
For many advocates, the fight for safer roads has been long and difficult, even amid worsening trends for biker and pedestrian safety. The problems have only been exacerbated by increased driver recklessness during the pandemic and bigger, heavier – and deadlier – vehicles on the roads, said Colin Browne, a spokesperson for the Washington Area Bicyclist Association.
More than 930 cyclists were killed on American roads in 2020, a 9% increase from the prior year, and more than 38,800 were injured, according to data from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Nearly 80% of fatal bicyclist crashes that year were in urban areas, the agency said. At least 985 cyclists were killed in 2021, a 5% increase from 2020, according to early estimates from the NHTSA. Since 1975, deaths among cyclists 20 or older have nearly quadrupled, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.
“It’s a public health crisis,” Browne said. “Even more so because this is, from a technical standpoint, not a challenging problem to solve. The tools and the engineering to make the streets safer to use is out there, it’s tested, it’s proven.”
But creating safer streets for bikers and pedestrians and regulating large vehicles has often proved a politically unpopular move, which has led to slow action from local leaders, he added.
“We could give (funding) to buses and people on bikes and scooters, but we have sort of built an infrastructure that assumes the majority of people will drive,” Browne said.
Solutions slow to materialize
Anna Irwin also rode her bike with her 10-year-old daughter at Saturday’s event to honor Sarah’s memory. She told CNN she was moved by the size of the crowd and the sound of bike bells ringing to show their support for Langenkamp.
“It was unbelievably powerful,” she said. “One of the things that I learned very quickly when I got into bike advocacy is this community is so passionate. And they show up.”
Irwin founded the Bethesda BIKE Now coalition, a local group created in response to a 2017 decision from local leaders to shut down a popular bike trail which ran through Bethesda during the construction of a rail line.
In these five years, the group has called for the completion of a network of protected bike routes – formed by two major paths – running from one side of Bethesda to the other, while the existing trail remains closed. But progress has been slow, Irwin said.
“Here we are, in 2022, and neither one of the routes is completed,” Irwin said. “They’ve done some work, but in five years they can’t build a protected bike lane to cover two miles of heavily trafficked area?”
The Montgomery County Department of Transportation told CNN it recently completed the first phase of two segments in the network and more bike lanes are either being designed or under construction, adding “we are building them as fast as we can.”
The department is also working with the Maryland Department of Transportation State Highway Administration, which controls River Road, where Sarah was killed.
The highway administration said Friday it is committed to the safety of all highway users but did not answer CNN’s specific questions on bike trail projects, including if there are plans for construction on River Road. On Saturday, the department added it has begun a “comprehensive needs analysis” for a stretch of the highway which will help identify strategies to “address pedestrian and bicycle network needs, enhance safety, and improve travel conditions.” In the meantime, officials are considering solutions including a speed limit reduction or sign upgrades in that part of the road, it noted.
“These things could have been prevented,” Irwin said. “We have got to just keep educating people about the need for protected bike lanes. You can’t just paint the road and then expect cars to give us the space that we need. It’s not safe.”
Langenkamp has said his fundraising effort will also help advocate for the state’s transportation department to create a safer bike lane on River Road, where Sarah was killed.
“Such bike lanes – lacking proper barriers, truck/auto driver education, laws, and law enforcement – are only death traps,” Langenkamp wrote on his GoFundMe page.
A weekend flight for a birthday surprise
The fight for change has given Langenkamp purpose in what otherwise has been an unbearable three months. Adjusting to life as a single father hasn’t been easy, he said. Just a few days ago, his son noted he had no clean pants for school, and Langenkamp realized he hadn’t done laundry for a week. He often worries what holidays and Mother’s Day will look like for the children.
Sarah loved their two boys, he said. Even amid a demanding job which took the family all around the world – including to Baghdad, the Ivory Coast and Uganda – she was always able to turn off work and focus on her family, Langenkamp said. While working from Poland during Russia’s war on Ukraine, Sarah flew to California for a weekend over the summer to surprise her oldest son on his birthday. She returned to Europe when the weekend was over. And in the weeks before her return to the US, she wrote heartfelt postcards to her boys, sharing she couldn’t wait until they were reunited.
She was equally incredible at her job, her husband said, adding, “She was everybody’s favorite colleague.”
The two met in their Foreign Service orientation class in 2005 and were married a year later. “She had this quiet confidence, and a very down-to-earth, friendly demeanor that just really made her easy to get along with,” Langenkamp said. “She was the kind of boss that everybody loves. Just really smart.”
And she was never afraid to go to the places where other diplomats were sometimes unwilling to go, telling her husband it was “where we were needed.”
During their time in Ukraine, Sarah headed the US Embassy’s programs on corruption and law enforcement and was responsible for equipping and supplying its national police and border guard. And she was a “critical player” in Ukraine’s defense efforts and helped Ukrainian police and border guard forces receive equipment like helmets and body armor after the invasion, Langenkamp added. After her killing, letters of appreciation 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 through everything.”
‘Life is a beautiful ride’
Three months since her death, reminders of Sarah are everywhere around the family’s Bethesda home, Langenkamp said.
There’s a corner – a part of the home Langenkamp refers to as a “shrine” to his wife – where a candle remains lit by her urn, surrounded by pictures of the family, notes Sarah’s sons wrote to their mom after her passing, jewelry she used to wear, cards from family and friends. Nearby, pictures of Sarah are taped right up to the ceiling. “We just try to have her around, everywhere,” her husband said.
There’s also a picture Sarah gifted to her husband at their wedding. It’s a picture of a bike with the words, “Life is a beautiful ride. Dan and Sarah, est. 2006,” the year of their wedding.
“Biking was a thing for us,” he said. “It was a central part of our lives,” a mode of transportation which was “down-to-earth, healthy and environmentally friendly,” Langenkamp added.
Wherever the couple found themselves, they tried to commute by bike when possible, he added. Choosing this fight for safety since his wife’s death was almost like an “impulse,” Langenkamp said.
“If the least I can do 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 of this, I’ll have been consoled slightly,” he said.
“It won’t bring her back,” Langenkamp added. “But at least it will help, a little bit.”