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Saturday, September 25, 2021
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For most of Suzette Wanninkhof’s life, she rode her bicycle alongside her brother.

She and Patrick learned how to ride their bikes in their hometown of Key Biscayne, Florida. As the siblings grew older and their bikes got bigger, they tackled hundred-mile-long rides and trails in Gainesville when she visited her brother, a then UF materials science and engineering senior.

It was always hard for them to stay quiet for long, the rides punctuated with random conversations and music. She sang while Patrick, four years older, beatboxed down winding paths.

But today, Wanninkhof rides without her brother.

Just over a year ago, three years after his graduation from UF, Patrick died while bicycling, hit by a distracted driver. And now, she and three other riders are just under a month into “Patrick Rides On 8,000,” a seven-month cross-continental road trip honoring the UF alumnus and calling attention to the distraction that caused the accident.

“We’re celebrating my brother’s life,” the 22-year-old said. “This is the adventure that Patrick would’ve loved to be on.”  

balloon

Patrick Wanninkhof shields himself from water balloons at the World's Largest Water Balloon Fight against Breast Cancer at Flavet Field in February 2010.

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Bicycling started with their father, Rik Wanninkhof.

The 58-year-old still bikes to work every day and taught both children how to ride when they were in kindergarten.

From there, it remained a passion for Patrick, even as he pursued his engineering degree in Gainesville, said Debbie Wanninkhof, his mother. After graduating, he took a job in New York as a physics teacher.  

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In New York, he would go on long bike rides to relieve the stress of teaching and joined Bike and Build, an organization that invites cyclists to help build affordable housing across the country.

And it was on a Bike and Build trip in Oklahoma on July 30, 2015, when the accident happened.

He was bicycling with others when the car hit him. Sarah Morris, the driver, had taken her eyes off the road to check three notifications on her phone.

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Patrick died on the scene. UF alumna Bridget Anderson, who was with him, survived with a fractured spine and damaged nerves.  

Debbie’s knees buckled when she got the phone call telling her there had been an accident. She started shaking when the police officers arrived at her door.

“I knew that’s what it was. We just fell apart,” the 57-year-old said through tears. “The shock lasted for months, and we kept going, but we were just a mess. It was unbelievable, and it still is unbelievable.”

Morris is being charged with first-degree manslaughter.

Injuries from distracted driving have been on the rise since smartphones were introduced, said Seth LaJeunesse, a research associate at the University of North Carolina Highway Safety Research Center. Distractions account for 10 percent of collisions between cyclists and cars, he said.

“Everyone out there is more likely to be distracted than they were 10 years ago,” he said, adding that distractions can range from texting, reading or even eating.

The difficult part is identifying whether the numbers are growing because there’s an increase in drivers being distracted on the road, or if it’s because cases of distracted drivers are becoming more easy to identify through the use of cellphone records, which can tell investigators when a phone was accessed.

“It’s pretty clear that distraction on the roadway among all users is going up,” LaJeunesse said. “The groups that seem to be most affected are groups outside of the vehicle.”

But months after her brother’s death, Wanninkhof wanted to do something to honor her brother’s memory. Around Thanksgiving, she called Rachel Hartsell, the woman who was dating Patrick when he died.

“‘Do you want to bike from Florida to Alaska?’” Suzette asked.

It had been a hard winter for Hartsell and Wanninkhof’s family, coping with the loss, Hartsell said. But the thought of going on such a trip made her pause.

“In the wake of a tragedy, especially one like Patrick’s, you just realize how valuable life is and how life is worth living,” Hartsell said, “And so when Suzette called me on a cold November day and asked me to bike across the country – not just across the country, across North America – I was like sure, yeah.”

They decided they would start in Alaska and finish 8,000 miles away in Key West, Florida. And when the two women reached out to Bike and Build for additional riders, two strangers who never met Patrick volunteered.

Greg Powell and Megan Ryan felt connected, they said, to Patrick, because a loss in the biking community impacts everyone.

Powell, 28, said it could have been any one of them.

A week after Wanninkhof’s death, he said he found himself facing the hills of South Carolina. Doubt creeped in: Can he do it? Should he stop?

“I can’t get off my bike right now,” he told himself, “Because Patrick’s not going to do it, but he would do it. So why am I going to stop?”

Powell pedaled faster.  

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Wanninkhof and the rest of the group plan to finish their trip in late February.

The riders have raised over $9,000 for their trip and more than $18,000 for Patrick Wanninkhof’s Memorial Foundation, which will launch a nonprofit organization that will teach Miami residents to ride a bike.

Along the way, they’ll stop in Gainesville to visit with Patrick’s friends at UF. At the end in Key West, Debbie will breathe a sigh of relief before throwing a homecoming celebration. She keeps an eye on her daughter with a GPS tracker that gives her frequent updates of the riders’ locations.

“Somehow, God gave me a sense of peace that I have now,” Wanninkhof said.

Debbie isn’t sure if her daughter will do another ride. But, she said, they will continue to bring attention to the moments of distraction that ended her son’s life and could end another.

She will speak to high-school students in Miami in hopes of getting them to sign a promise to protect all cyclists, a form that she wants students to keep in their cars.

“The five seconds that you may take to look down at your phone could change your life

forever and the lives of all your loved ones,” she will tell them after she shares Patrick’s story. “I am hellbent on saving your life and the life of others.”

Correction: It was previously incorrectly stated that Sarah Morris had been charged of first-degree manslaughter. Morris is being tried for first-degree manslaughter. 

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