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'It's nerve-wracking': Deadly crash fuels push for better bike lanes in Flagstaff

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

FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. — Cars race by as people come to bring flowers. A memorial is growing at the intersection of Butler Avenue and Beaver Street in Flagstaff, the scene of a deadly crash almost a week ago.

Flagstaff Police said that a tow truck carrying 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,'" said Stacy Allana.

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

"She was the bravest, best type of person," Allana said.

Wheaton was out on a ride with a group called Flag Bike Party, focused on building the cycling community and promoting bike safety when police said that a driver plowed into them.  

Four of the five other cyclists injured were rushed to the hospital, including one known as "Dapper Dre." In a statement, his family explained that his road to recovery would be "a lengthy one."

Nick Jones was riding with them and saw the crash unfold before his eyes.

"I still haven’t been able to get on my bike," Jones said. "It feels too real."

Now, he’s mobilizing in other ways. He said that their group is working to turn Flag Bike Party into a non-profit, advocating for bike safety improvements such as reduced speed and barriers for bike lanes.

"We like to claim that we’re bicycle-friendly, but we’re not," said Flagstaff City Council Member Adam Shimoni, who is also part of the cycling community.

Like many in Flagstaff, he personally knew Wheaton and the others who were injured.  Part of his mission when he first became a council member included building safer roads for all commuters and pedestrians.

"Anytime you put a cyclist on the road to separate them with a strip of paint next to a vehicle moving faster, weighing tons, you’re risking that individual's life," he said.

Data in Flagstaff's Active Transportation Master Plan said the city averages 52 crashes between cyclists and cars each year.

According to Flagstaff Police, there were 53 bike crashes with cars in 2016 with no fatalities; 53 in 2017 with no fatalities; 49 in 2018 with no fatalities; 43 in 2019 with one fatality; 26 in 2020 with no fatalities; and 13 so far in 2021 with two fatalities, including the crash last Friday.

Although most crashes aren't deadly, the city tracked hot spots for crashes, including Route 66, Milton Road and Butler Avenue.

The City of Flagstaff already moved the memorial for Wheaton from the intersection where the crash happened to the other side of the street, saying it was a safety hazard in an already busy road.

"Our cities, our communities are all built around the car," Shimoni explained.

But Shimoni hopes that other city leaders will soon switch gears, and adopt the bike safety measures outlined in the Active Transportation Master Plan, which would make barriers for bike lanes the standard for roads.  

Change won't happen overnight and a move like that would take time and money. After all, many of the roads would need to be retrofitted. Shimoni said the city's current budget already includes funding for bike lane barriers.

He said the Master Plan should be up for a 60-day public review later this year before Council can vote on it. In the short term, he hopes to install a flap system to try and deter drivers from crossing over into the bike lane.

But any change that comes will come with a void as the memorial for Wheaton grows.

"My grief is not just for myself or for those who she was close friends with, but the community," Allana shared.

Police arrested the tow truck driver, Normand Cloutier, after the crash. He’s charged with causing death by moving violation.

He’s out of jail and had no comment when 12 News reached him by phone. The company he was working for, Johnson's Heavy Towing, also had no comment.

For the latest information on crash victims and fundraisers, you can visit flagbikeparty.com.

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