On Thursday, Dan Langenkamp celebrated 12 weeks since the murder of his wife, Sarah.
To honor her, Dan and his two young sons do what they do every day around 4:05 p.m., which is the time Sarah died: they drop everything they’re working on, huddle together, hold hands and talk to her, and share details about their lives. day. They tell her they love her, miss her, and hope she’ll be proud of them.
Sarah Diebenk Langenkamp was killed on August 25 while riding her bike on a road in Bethesda, Maryland. Police said she was traveling in the driver’s lane when a flatbed truck driver turned right into a parking lot and ran over the 42-year-old. She was pronounced dead at the scene.
“I’ve been trying to make sense of what happened to Sarah, and since I started researching it, I’ve realized that this isn’t a freak accident,” said Dan Langenkamp. “What happened to it is part of a massive and worsening trend in America of people being killed in traffic accidents. There is an epidemic of traffic violence against people who walk or ride bikes.”
The incident occurred just weeks after the couple, diplomats, had returned to the United States after spending nearly 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 the Russian invasion but eventually made the difficult decision to leave, so they could be reunited with their two sons — Oliver, 10, and Axel, 8 — who had 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 were anxiously preparing for the start of a new chapter. Sarah took a master’s degree course and, three days after they moved there, attended an open house at her son’s new primary school. A few minutes before catching her bike home that evening, Dan calls 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 for one of us to die or get hurt in Bethesda.”
Langenkamp said his anger was a driving force to push for change in cycling safety. A GoFundMe campaign set up by Langenkamp has raised more than $289,000 to assist local and national cycling safety organizations in their efforts to advocate for safer ways to cycle.
And on Saturday, hundreds of people biked to Congress in Sarah’s honor at a 10.5-mile Ride for Your Life event organized and led by her husband. A few feet from the Capitol, a group of speakers, including Langenkamp, spoke to a sea of motorcyclists at the end of their journey following Sarah’s path on the day of her death.
The group’s requests to lawmakers include funding for the Active Transportation Infrastructure Investment Program, authorized but not funded by Congress that could help local governments invest in bike path infrastructure. They are also calling for more measures around truck safety, including mandating better training and requiring side and front guards on larger trucks to prevent people from getting trapped underground.
“I feel comforted knowing that, perhaps through all this work, another mom will ride home safely after riding her bike to work,” Langenkamp said. “And that makes sense to me.”
For many advocates, the fight for safer roads has been long and difficult, even as safety trends for motorcyclists and pedestrians deteriorate. Colin Brown, a spokesman for the Washington-area Cyclists’ Association, said the problems have only been exacerbated by an increase in driver recklessness during the pandemic and an increase in heavier — and more deadly — vehicles on the roads.
More than 930 cyclists were killed on American roads in 2020, up 9% from the previous year, and more than 38,800 were injured, according to National Highway Traffic Safety Administration data. Nearly 80% of fatal bicycle crashes that year were in urban areas, the agency said. At least 985 cyclists were killed in 2021, up 5% from 2020, according to preliminary estimates from NHTSA. Since 1975, deaths among cyclists ages 20 and older have nearly quadrupled, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.
“It’s a public health crisis,” Brown said. Even more so because this is, from a technical point of view, not a difficult problem to solve. The tools and engineering to make streets safer to use are there, they’ve been tested, and they’re proven.”
But, he added, creating safer streets for cyclists and pedestrians and regulating large vehicles has often proved a politically unpopular move, slowing action by local leaders.
“We can offer (funding) buses and people who ride bicycles and scooters, but we have the kind of infrastructure that assumes the majority of people will be driving,” Brown said.
Anna Irwin also rode her bike with her 10-year-old daughter at a party on Saturday honoring Sarah’s memory. She told CNN she was moved by the size of the crowd and the sound of bicycle bells to show their support for Langenkamp.
“It was incredibly powerful,” she said. “One of the things I learned very quickly when I started advocating for bicycles is that this community is very passionate. And they show.”
Irwin founded the Bethesda BIKE Now Coalition, a local group created in response to a 2017 decision by local leaders to close a popular bike path that ran through Bethesda while a railroad was being built.
In these five years, the group has called for the completion of a network of protected bike routes—consisting of two major trails—that stretch from one side of Bethesda to the other, while the existing trail remains closed. But Irwin said progress has been slow.
“Here we are in 2022, and neither path is complete,” Irwin said. “They did some work, but in five years they couldn’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 of two parts in the network, and more bike lanes are either under design or under construction, adding, “We’re building them as fast as we can.”
The department also works with the Department of Transportation’s Maryland 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 specific CNN questions about bike path projects, including whether there are plans to build on the river road. The department added Saturday that it has begun a “comprehensive needs analysis” of a section of the highway that will help identify strategies to “meet the needs of the pedestrian and bicycle network, enhance safety, and improve travel conditions.” Meanwhile, officials are studying solutions, including reducing the maximum speed or registering upgrades in this section of the road.
And the agency announced last month that it had begun construction on another road in North Bethesda, where an 18-year-old cyclist was killed in June, and a 17-year-old cyclist was killed in 2019.
“These things could have been prevented,” Irwin said. “We just have to keep educating people about the need for protected bike lanes. You can’t just paint the road and then expect the cars to give us the space we need. It’s not safe.”
Langenkamp said his fundraising efforts will also help advocate for the state transportation department to create a safer bike lane on River Road, where Sarah was killed.
“Like bike lanes – lacking proper barriers, trucker/car driver education, laws, and law enforcement – they are nothing but death traps,” Langenkamp wrote on his GoFundMe page.
The fight for change has given Langenkamp a goal in what was otherwise an unbearable three months. He said adjusting to life as a single father wasn’t easy. Just a few days ago, his son noticed that he didn’t have clean pants for school, and Langenkamp realized he hadn’t washed clothes for a week. He often worries about what the holidays and Mother’s Day will be like for children.
He said Sarah loved their two children. Langenkamp said that even amid the hard work that took the family all over the world – including Baghdad, Ivory Coast and Uganda – she was always able to stop work and focus on her family. While working from Poland during Russia’s war on Ukraine, Sarah travels to California for a weekend getaway during the summer to surprise her eldest son for his birthday. She returned to Europe when the weekend was over. And in the weeks leading up to her return to the States, she wrote heartfelt postcards to her boys and said she couldn’t wait for them to be reunited.
She was equally incredible at her job, her husband said, adding, “She was everybody’s favorite fellow.”
The two met in a Foreign Service orientation class in 2005 and married a year later. “She had this quiet confidence, her friendly demeanor that made her easy to get along with,” Langenkamp said. “She was the kind of boss that everybody likes. Just really smart.”
She was not afraid to go places that other diplomats were sometimes unwilling to go, telling her husband that it was “the place we need to be”.
During their time in Ukraine, Sarah headed the US Embassy’s programs on corruption and law enforcement and was responsible for equipping and staffing the National Police and Border Guard. It was a “critical player” in Ukraine’s defense effort, Langenkamp added, and helped Ukrainian police and border guards obtain equipment such as helmets and body armor after the invasion. After her killing, letters of appreciation poured in from US leaders including President Joe Biden, Attorney General Merrick Garland and Secretary of State Anthony Blinken.
“She was our guiding light, really, and our moral compass,” Langenkamp said. “It was her judgment that helped us through everything.”
Three months since her death, Langenkamp said, memories of Sarah are everywhere around the family home in Bethesda.
There is a corner—a part of the house that Langenkamp refers to as his wife’s “shrine”—where a candle remains lit in her urns, family photos surround her, Sarah’s children note who wrote to their mother after her death, and jewelry she used to wear with cards from family and friends. Nearby, pictures of Sarah are taped to the ceiling. “We just try to make it all over,” her husband said.
There is also a picture that Sarah gifted her husband at their wedding. It’s a picture of a bicycle that says “Life is a beautiful journey. Dan and Sarah, Established 2006,” their wedding year.
“Cycling was our thing,” he said. “It was an essential part of our lives,” Langenkamp added, a mode of transport that was “unpretentious, healthy and environmentally friendly.”
Wherever the couple found themselves, he added, they tried to get around by bike when possible. Choosing this fight for safety since his wife’s death was a “motivation,” Langenkamp said.
“If it’s the least I can do to honor her, she’s someone who has so much potential in her life. If we can do a little good as a result, I’ll have a simple consolation,” he said.
“It won’t bring her back,” Langenkamp added. “But at least it will help a little bit.”