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Xavier L. Suarez Headshot

A Cyclist's Departure

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"We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit." - Aristotle
Quoted at the funeral of Aaron Cohen by his grandfather Ron Esserman

I have only been a county commissioner for about eight months, but already have a deep scar in my heart from a tragedy that seems, in retrospect, so avoidable.

Aaron Cohen has been wrenched from our lives. And the sense of loss is overwhelming, despite the wisdom imparted by rabbis and family members. Because the tragedy happened in my district and because my daughter Annie practices medicine with Jim Esserman (Aaron's first cousin), the loss hits home in a particularly poignant way.

Was the tragedy avoidable? I don't rightly know, but I know we didn't try hard enough to avoid it. We know the Rickenbacker Causeway is a narrow, dangerous, treacherous, alluring, spectacularly located and majestic roadway, rising as it does from the shallows abutting the mainland to bring us all (joggers, bikers, motorists) closer to heaven and then quickly deposit us in an island that is mostly unspoiled -- as befits a critical wildlife refuge of some 400 acres.

In between the moments of sorrow, my Annie and I discussed the physics of the problem that led to this tragedy or, rather, the unavoidable elements of the circumstance that make this awful accident likely to happen again in the future.

I refer to the simple variable that physicists call "momentum." Simply put, a 4,000-pound vehicle, travelling at 45-50 mph, possesses about 100 times the momentum of a biker/bicycle whose combined weight is 150 pounds and who is struggling up the bridge at 12-15 mph. A collision between two objects, one of which has 100 times the momentum of the other, means that the smaller object will suffer, in displacement and consequent damage, 100 times more than the bigger object.

In the short term, there is only one variable we can change in the above equation -- and that is the speed limit for cars. I consider that reform a no-brainer that should be instituted without delay. Of course, a reduction in the speed limit needs to be accompanied by traffic management devices (including electronic surveillance) to monitor law-breakers.

The other possible solution is separation. I think, in that context, that we all agree that a simple painted strip (as exists now) is not enough. We will have to consider either rubber cones or well-lit corrugated surfaces which alert and deter the motorist from trespassing on the bike lanes.

Beyond the physics of the problem, beyond the traffic engineering and enforcement, there is the human dimension. And that brings me back to Aaron, whose name technically means, "tower of strength," but was further interpreted by the rabbi as referring to someone who loves life and who runs for life. Aaron Cohen loved to run more than we can imagine. He loved scuba diving and every kind of water sport; he loved ceramic arts and cycling, and -- most of all -- he loved his wife and two children.

As described by family and friends, he was special because he found something special to love in everyone he met, regardless of their station in life. He took time, on the way to the airport, to buy M&Ms so that he could pass them out to the flight attendants.

He was, his sister Sabrina told us, like Elijah, the unforeseen guest for whom we keep the door permanently open, with a cup of wine ready, just in case the prophet visits us.

Perhaps the most appropriate analogy was offered by another rabbi who explained that the whole world is like a narrow bridge. We must do our best to co-exist in the narrow space.
We must, as another relative said in her eulogy, think "WWAD." What Would Aaron Do?

For myself, I will strive to reduce the chances that such a tragedy will happen again on the Rickenbacker Causeway -- which just happens to be where I myself jog.

I will do it because it's my obligation as an elected official and also because of Aaron -- in his memory.

I never met him, but I already miss him as if he had been my best friend.