Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Why I Think Ghost Bikes Should Be Exorcised

I would never tell anyone how to grieve.

I know that we all grieve in our own way and we all do what we feel is right, to try and come to terms with our loss, to remember and honour our loved ones, and to move forward.

In Ottawa, we have recently been debating the idea of implementing a limit on the roadside memorials that are left in the place of a victim who has died in that location. The memorials can include ghost bikes, crosses, and other markers. In one spot, on Woodroffe Avenue, between Carling Avenue and Richmond Road, an outline of a pedestrian stands on a life-sized board.

I'm against such roadside reminders, and I'd like to share my thoughts on why we don't need such reminders of personal tragedies. I am, however, mindful of the many people who do favour these sad landmarks, and I'm not about to tell those people how to grieve.

It's hard to drive by one of these markers and not turn your head to work, and this is one of my main reasons for opposing them: they are a distraction. In some cases, a person met his or her end at this spot because it is a tricky part of the road. It may be a curve on a remote stretch of road, where there is poor lighting at night. Someone, who may have been driving on a rainy night, did not anticipate the bend, may have had to swerve to stay on the road, and lost control. As sad as that accident is, I feel that placing a marker at that spot may cause another driver to take his or her eyes off the road. Maybe, on another rainy evening; maybe, causing another such tragedy.

I don't think adding a visual distraction is a good idea. And for that reason, I don't think that these makeshift memorials should be allowed.

What if a collision results in multiple fatalities, from multiple vehicles? Is a memorial erected for each victim? What if there is more than one form of memorial? A couple of crosses and a ghost bike? For me, that type of distraction is truly unsafe. Also, if the accident occurs at a busy, urban intersection, wouldn't the use of that space encroach on a sidewalk or pathway? Who gets to decide the type of memorials that are put in place?

When Meg Dussault was killed on her bicycle by a truck that was making a tight turn at the corner of Bank Street and Riverside Drive, in July, 2013, it was a true tragedy. It raised our awareness of the dangers of that intersection and how large vehicles tend to roll over the sidewalk in an attempt to negotiate that turn.

Personally, I felt a heightened awareness of that corner and a connection with Ms. Dussault. I have found myself on my bike, stopped on that very spot, waiting for the light to turn green so that I could continue my commute. On a couple of occasions, I have had to move for an oversized vehicle, that was turning from Bank onto Riverside, and the driver who could not negotiate that turn without putting a couple of wheels on the sidewalk.

When the ghost bike was first placed on that corner, I couldn't stop without thinking of poor Ms. Dussault.

But the site evolved, turned into more than a reminder of a tragedy, marked by a bicycle, painted a ghostly white. Ms. Dussault's husband, Paddy, placed flowers. On Christmas, he added holiday decorations. On St. Patrick's Day, green streamers and Irish bowler hat. On Hallowe'en, pumpkins. On what I assume was her birthday, balloons. A plaque, with a photograph of his wife, has been mounted onto the concrete portion of the retaining wall and bridge that spans the Rideau River.

One of three Hallowe'ens that have expired since tragedy struck this corner. Photo courtesy of CBC, accessed through Google images.
The Dussault memorial is starting to take up real estate on this corner. For me, what is one person's memorial is another person's eyesore. Now, when I see this ghost bike and all of the paraphernalia, I am no longer reminded of the tragedy that befell this intersection, almost two-and-a-half years ago: I merely wonder when it's going to go away.

For me, I wonder what gives a person the right to claim a part of public space for his or her own?

I'm not trying to tell someone how to grieve.

I'm not trying to say that Mr. Dussault is wrong for maintaining a memorial to his late wife, for decorating the bike for the third Hallowe'en since his wife's tragic end.

I do think that 29 months is excessive to maintain a ghost bike. I even think that the 90-day proposal by the city is a bit much, as I don't think these roadside memorials should be allowed at all. But that's just me.

For me, I don't know how I'll meet my end. I don't know if I'll live to a ripe, old age, whether I will suffer some health failure, or whether I will be killed in some accident, meet my demise on some roadside.

And if I should be taken out on my bicycle, in a car accident, or while crossing the road, I don't want a memorial. If someone wants to lay flowers on the spot where I die, that would be sweet, but I would want those flowers removed with the next street cleaning.

For me, I don't want to be remembered for where I died: I want to be remembered for how I lived.

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