With pedestrian and cyclist deaths rising, activists erect permanent memorials
Since the pandemic more than 100 pedestrians and bicyclists have been killed by vehicles in Los Angeles. Impromptu memorials often line sidewalks or street corners, but those often disappear and few signs remain of their death.
“People have gone numb to the number of lives that have been lost,” said Damian Kevitt, executive director of Streets Are For Everyone, an advocacy group for safer streets. “But when you have lost a loved one, you remember.”
While riding his bike in 2013, Kevitt was struck by a minivan near Griffith Park and dragged 600 feet. He underwent 10 surgeries and had his leg amputated.
Now his group is planning to place permanent memorials at the sites where pedestrians and cyclists have been killed. The first will be unveiled Saturday in memory of cyclist Jeff Knopp, who was struck from behind in 2016. The 16-foot-tall post with the shape of a bicycle on top — made of welded steel tubing and painted street-sign yellow — stands along Foothill Boulevard near Wentworth Street in Sunland where he died.
“For me, for the city, for my husband, this is an honor,” said his widow, Jennifer Knopp, in tears. “Is it gonna make a difference? I hope so.”
Three months after her husband was hit, another pedestrian was fatally struck along the same stretch. The following year, the Los Angeles Department of Transportation added bike lanes along some protective posts. There haven’t been fatalities since, city officials said.
Traffic fatalities are soaring nationally, amid a rise of reckless driving two years into the pandemic.
In Los Angeles, Mayor Eric Garcetti launched a campaign in 2015 to end traffic deaths in 10 years — an ever-receding goal as 294 people died on city streets last year, the highest since record keeping began in 2003. In those crashes, 132 involved pedestrians and another 18 involved bike riders, according to Los Angeles Police Department data.
Traffic deaths in Los Angeles remained stubbornly high last year, with distracted driving a prime culprit, officials say.
Critics say the city is not putting nearly enough resources to stem the number of injuries and deaths. In the first three months of this year, 76 people died in traffic collisions, including 39 pedestrians and two people on bicycles, and hundreds more have been severely injured, according to the LAPD. The victims are often left on the road. In the same time period, there were 729 felony hit-and-runs resulting in 19 deaths.
In February, a sedan barreling through Hoover and 84th streets fatally struck Jemmy Chavarria, after he pushed his wife and 2-year-old son out of the way. They were on their way to church.
Knopp said in many ways she is the anomaly. The man who hit her husband, Joshua Willis, was coming home from work and distracted, she said. But unlike many drivers, he stopped and prayed for her husband, a Marine veteran and avid cyclist who had recently raced with their son in San Luis Obispo.
At the time, Jennifer Knopp had been waiting for her husband at their Sunland home. He was on his regular 14-mile bike ride. She had made dinner plans with neighbors and when she saw on her GPS her husband’s location had not moved, she drove about a mile to check on him, thinking he might have a flat tire.
“There was police tape. I pulled over and noticed there was no ambulance,” she said. “It is kind of a blur. I kind of knew it.”
He died at the scene.
Knopp has struggled with her loss, but said she is not angry, in part because Willis did not flee.
“Forgiveness, I am coming from that point of view, because my story is different,” she said. She hopes this memorial, with a sign with his name and the date that he died, will be a reminder for drivers to focus on the road.
In her grieving, she found connection to other victims’ families.
Conor Lynch, 16, was struck and killed in 2010 by a driver as he ran across a street in Sherman Oaks to catch up with his high school cross-country team. Knopp’s son’s high school team competed against Lynch’s and they prayed for him at every event. She turned out to have mutual friends with his mother.
In 2019, the city of Los Angeles created a memorial for Lynch called “Rainbow Halo.” The multicolored disc casts a rainbow shadow across the pavement. Lynch received one of the first of 100 set to be installed at intersections across Los Angeles where drivers, pedestrians and cyclists were killed in traffic collisions.
But Knopp thought that no one would understand what the colors meant, and vandals removed the one memorializing Lynch.
The new memorials, created by experimental artist Scott Froschauer, are meant to draw attention to the need to drive safely. Kevitt, who helped crowdfund the signs, said there are already plans for another in remembrance of Sebastian Montero, who was killed while riding his bicycle with his friend in Tarzana.
“The more that we can raise awareness and see that there are actual lives being lost, the more that we can get support for safer streets,” Kevitt said.
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