Podcast: Crash survivor and safety advocate Sarah Risser

Sarah Risser with the family of Jason Ruhmshottel at a ghost bike installation earlier this month. (Jonathan Maus / BikePortland)

Imagine losing someone you love deeply in a traffic crash. Now imagine being seated next to them when it happened. That’s the tragic reality Portland road safety advocate Sarah Risser experienced in January 2019.

I talked to Risser this week to learn more about the work she’s doing to help families deal with grief and to help our community acknowledge the crushing toll of traffic deaths. But before I asked Risser anything else, I asked her to share the story of her son 18-year-old Henry Zietlow, who was driving their car on a snowy road when “a clearly negligent and reckless” driver coming the opposite direction crossed the centerline and slammed into them.

“It was just heartbreaking,” Risser recalled. “He was a beautiful beautiful young man. Just coming into his own.”

That crash radicalized Risser. “It didn’t have to happen. It was preventable,” she shared with me. And in a moving essay she published last fall, Risser wrote, “Once I began to see how much we’ve sacrificed to our auto-centric lifestyle, I couldn’t unsee it.”

Sign installed by Risser on SE Belmont this week. (Jonathan Maus / BikePortland)

In this chat I’ve uploaded to our podcast (listen above or wherever you get your podcasts), Risser and I also talked about her memorial sign project she’s begun in partnership with BikeLoud PDX, The Street Trust, and Oregon Walks. With a design inspired by the national nonprofit Families for Safe Streets, Risser has erected about 13 of the signs around Portland so far. They state, “Our Neighbor Was Killed Here” and include information about how to get involved with advocacy and supportive resources for survivors. She plans to keep posting them. 

Risser said she embarked on the project for two reasons: to increase awareness of road deaths and to show how widespread the issue is citywide (note that the signs go up for all deaths, not just bicycle riders or walkers). “These crashes are happening all over Portland. The hope really was that an individual might see a sign on SE Belmont and see another one on Naito Parkway and then begin to realize, ‘Yeah, this is a really big issue,'” she said.

Sometimes just being out on the street, installing the sign itself, is a powerful experience.

On Tuesday, Risser visited SE Belmont where David Bentley was struck and killed this past Sunday. As people noticed what she was doing, Risser recalls they were suspicious and assumed the sign was a “No Camping” notice.  But as they looked more closely at the sign, Risser said, “They expressed a lot of gratitude, and a fair amount of emotion. They thanked me repeatedly for putting up the sign and for drawing attention to the issue.”

“Usually when I go to put up a sign, I’m just there by myself,” Risser continued. “But there was another situation recently where a motorcyclist had crashed and I just happened to be there. It was a coincidence when the family members showed up to put out flowers. They expressed a huge amount of gratitude and said to me that they want safer roads and we really need to draw attention to this issue.”

When Risser isn’t telling Henry’s story or volunteering with BikeLoud, she finds happiness in other pursuits. She’s a competitive rower and a member of the Willamette Rowing Club. “I also love photography. I love birds and birding and I really try to balance the hard work of road advocacy, which can be a little bit triggering at times, with other things that just bring me great joy. I’ve also joined a little improv group. We do street theater!”

Risser is in the market for a new e-bike and she hopes it might help her become 100% carfree. And as spring approaches, she’ll use it as her birding-mobile. “When I was living in Minnesota, I had an e-bike and I would put my camera bag in the back and off I’d go. It was so joyful and I’d find beautiful birding spots. And it was all the things that I loved combined. And I’m really hoping to do that again this spring.”

Follow Sarah Risser on X at @Henryz_mom.

Jonathan Maus (Publisher/Editor)

Jonathan Maus (Publisher/Editor)

Founder of BikePortland (in 2005). Father of three. North Portlander. Basketball lover. Car owner and driver. If you have questions or feedback about this site or my work, feel free to contact me at @jonathan_maus on Twitter, via email at maus.jonathan@gmail.com, or phone/text at 503-706-8804. Also, if you read and appreciate this site, please become a supporter.

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Lois Leveen
Lois Leveen
1 month ago

How can we help Sarah in the effort to put up signs? Every day, the coworkers of Jeanie Diaz and the families she served with such love pass by the intersection where a reckless, inebriated driver killed her. It would be nice to have a marker to this wonderful person.

Sarah Risser
Sarah Risser
1 month ago
Reply to  Lois Leveen

Thanks Lois – I agree that it would be nice to have a marker for Jeanie Diaz. FYI, I started organizing to mark sites of fatal crashes in late 2023 with the intention of marking every fatality in the city of Portland throughout 2024 and possibly – hopefully – beyond (into 2025…). I did place a sign at the site of Jason Ruhmshottle who was killed in 2023 because he was the only cyclist killed and also because I had worked with his family to install a ghost bike. Admittedly and in retrospect this was a little bit arbitrary of me. When I first saw your message, my initial reaction was to head out immediately and place a sign for Jeanie Diaz. However, I feel uncomfortable placing signs at some and not all of 2023’s fatal crash sites. I simply don’t have enough signs and I think they are all equally heartbreaking in their own unique ways. However, anyone can make a sign and it would be a beautiful gesture if you or someone else from the community did so.

Lois Leveen
Lois Leveen
1 month ago
Reply to  Sarah Risser

Would you be willing to collaborate with me/other folks who would take on the effort to get signs up at least some (maybe all?) the sites of the 2023 killings? Perhaps we can produce more of the signs you’ve already designed, and learn from you about how to get them in place, then go from there. If this is amenable, I’ll have Jonathan share my contact information with you.

dw
dw
1 month ago

It was heartbreaking to hear about Sarah’s son. Nobody should have to go through what Sarah and her family have been through.

One of my close college friends was murdered by a driver playing on their phone. I really relate to you two talking about how you can’t “unsee” the violence inherent to our transportation system. You don’t really notice it until you lose someone you care about.

In a past article, Jonathan put it really nicely – something like: If you think that traffic deaths are just part of the deal, then tell me, which one of your loved ones would you sacrifice for the sake of car convenience?