“It’s nerve-wracking”: Deadly crash fuels are pushing for better bike paths in Flagstaff

A memorial to 29-year-old cyclist Joanna Wheaton grows in Flagstaff after police say a driver ran over a red light and hit her and five other cyclists.

FLAGSTAFF, Arizona – Cars zoom by as people come to bring flowers. A memorial is growing at the intersection of Butler Avenue and Beaver Street in Flagstaff, the site of a fatal accident nearly a week ago.

Flagstaff police said a tow truck with a moving truck crashed into a group of cyclists on Friday, killing 29-year-old Joanna Wheaton and injuring five others.

“I was just like, ‘No, it can’t be her,'” Stacy Allana said.

Allana said she and Joanna Wheaton, or Jo as her friends called her, met in elementary school at NAU. She said Wheaton was a staple on the social justice scene and a well-known activist in the close-knit Flagstaff community.

“She was the bravest and best type of person,” said Allana.

Wheaton was out with a group called the Flag Bike Party, who were focused on building the cycling community and promoting bike safety, when police announced that a rider had been plowed into them.

Four of the five other injured cyclists were hospitalized, including one named “Dapper Dre”. In a statement, his family said that his recovery would be “a long one”.

Nick Jones drove with them and saw the impact unfold before his eyes.

“I still couldn’t get on my bike,” said Jones. “It feels too real.”

Now he’s mobilizing in a different way. He said her group is working to turn the Flag Bike Party into a nonprofit advocating improvements in bike safety like reduced speed and barriers to bike lanes.

“We like to say we’re bike-friendly, but we’re not,” said Adam Shimoni, a member of Flagstaff City Council, who is also part of the cycling community.

Like many in Flagstaff, he knew Wheaton and the other injured personally. When he first became a councilor, his mission was to build safer roads for all commuters and pedestrians.

“Any time you put a cyclist on the road to separate them with a stripe of paint next to a faster moving vehicle that weighs tons, you risk that person’s life,” he said.

Flagstaff’s Active Transportation Master Plan data says the city has an average of 52 accidents between cyclists and cars each year.

According to Flagstaff Police, there were 53 bicycle accidents involving cars with no fatalities in 2016; 53 in 2017 with no deaths; 49 in 2018 with no deaths; 43 in 2019 with one death; 26 in 2020 with no deaths; and so far 13 in 2021 with two fatalities including last Friday’s crash.

While most accidents are non-fatal, the city has been tracking hot spots, including Route 66, Milton Road, and Butler Avenue.

The city of Flagstaff has already moved the Wheaton memorial from the intersection where the accident happened to the other side of the road, as it was a safety hazard on a road that was already being used.

“Our cities, our communities are all built around the car,” Shimoni said.

Shimoni hopes, however, that other city guides will soon switch gears and adopt the bicycle safety measures outlined in the Active Transportation master plan, which would make barriers for cycle paths the standard for roads.

Changes won’t happen overnight and such a move would cost time and money. After all, many roads would have to be retrofitted. Shimoni said the city’s current budget already includes funding for bicycle lane closures.

He said the master plan should undergo a 60-day public review later this year before the council can vote on it. In the short term, he hopes to be able to install a flap system to prevent drivers from crossing the cycle path.

But any change that comes will come with a void as the monument to Wheaton grows.

“My grief does not only apply to myself or those with whom she was close friends, but to the community,” said Allana.

The police arrested the tow truck driver Normand Cloutier after the accident. He is accused of causing death from movement injuries.

He is out of jail and had no comment when 12 news items reached him by phone. Nor did the company he worked for, Johnson’s Heavy Towing, comment.

For the latest information on accident victims and fundraisers, visit flagbikeparty.com.

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