i would have been dead for 10 years

22 October 2005, 4:24 pm

. . .if I didn’t routinely wear a helmet when cycling. Or I might be alive, but a vegetable.

That accident happened in daylight, in good weather, on an asphalt surface in excellent repair. A speeding car in the left lane made a right-hand turn across my path. It wasn’t the kind of thing you could anticipate.

This past Wednesday evening my bike/car accident toll increased by one. I think it’s a measure of how dangerous it is to commute on a bike, rather than my carelessness or bad luck, that explains why I’ve lost exact count of my personal total — all but the most severe incidents blend into an amalgam.

This accident was fairly typical, except that I was slowing to stop when it happened, which probably reduced the severity of my bruises. I was abiding all applicable laws. It was fully dark, but I was using a bright headlamp. It was toward the end of rush-hour; traffic was heavy, but flowing fast. The door of a parked car opened into my back wheel; I went down into the street.

You don’t know undertstand the sequence — car door, back wheel, street — like that as it happens. You have to piece it together after the fact. All you know at first is this: you’re riding along, everything is fine, and then suddenly you hurt all over. You experience the unique dread of being very much in harm’s way in the split seconds before you figure out if you can safely move, and before you you know whether you’ll be struck by oncoming traffic.

If you’ve been in an automotive fender-bender, you may have experienced a time-stretching effect: you knew you were going to crash, but you couldn’t make your body react fast enough to prevent it. Things went slo-mo. I’ve experienced that in cars, but few bike accidents have been like that for me.

Once I was driving a car that was rear-ended while I was stopped at a red light. The insurance investigation suggested that the other car was travelling at least 20 mph at the moment of impact.. That was much more like most bike accidents: I had no foreknowledge of any impending problem. Things were fine, and then there was a discontinuity and things were very much not fine. If it’s never happened like that for you, it may be hard to understand how disorienting and frightening it is.

I’m very grateful for the sharp reflexes of the driver in the big black SUV — typically the mortal enemy of the cyclist — who stopped quickly enough to avoid hitting either me or my bike. He even angled his vehicle to protect me from cars passing him on the right. He got out to help me drag my bike out of the street, way above the call of duty, and much appreciated. Thank you, big black SUV driver. You’ve eroded my prejudices a little bit. I’m likewise grudgingly grateful to the guy in the parked car. He stuck around to apologize profusely and make sure I was okay. He even offered to give me money to repair my bike. But what I want from him isn’t money, what I want is for him to stay shaken up enough that he’s more careful in the future.

It’s almost three days later. I have bruises like Gerhard Richter paintings, and I wince and involuntarily say “ow,” when I’m doing ordinary things around the house. And I know that I’m frigging lucky that the consequence is only being pretty darned uncomfortable for maybe a week. The time I went down with most of my weight on one knee? Hurt for months and I was still lucky that the bone was only bruised and not actually fractured.

Here’s what really upsets me:

I got up from the sidewalk as soon as I stopped shaking, and when I was sure I wasn’t in shock and hurt worse than I thought at first, and that the bike was still working properly, I rode home.

And on the way — a distance of maybe 3 miles — I passed two cyclists riding in the street without lights, without helmets. One of them was riding the wrong way on a one-way street. I’ve seen far too many more more helmetless riders since then, including several at night with no lights, and every time it makes me want to scream.

Last night, I saw a young helmetless cyclist pretend to be grazed by the bus I was riding. He toppled on the the sidewalk with his limbs exaggeratedly splayed like a kid playing dead.

At least, I hope he was only pretending.

3 comments on “i would have been dead for 10 years”

  1. Flasshe

    I’m happy you’re okay. It’s stories like this, and my own experiences as a driver, that make me never want to take up bike-riding. It seems like no matter how careful you are, you can’t predict what someone else is going to do. I have enough problems dodging cars when running. Even though I’m not quite as careful as I could be, I’ve nearly gotten creamed in situations where I was doing everything correctly. Too scary.

  2. summervillain

    Convincing people not to bike is emphatically not part of my agenda, and I’m sorry if I’ve swayed you that way. My agenda is to persuade cyclists to wear helmets, and to influence motorists to be more careful and more aware of non-motorized traffic (joggers included). I’d also like to influence cyclists not to act like jerks (flouting traffic laws, riding on sidewalks, not signalling, etc.) but that’s a whole ‘nother fight.

  3. Terri

    We heard a jogger (or was it a cyclist? Now I’m not sure…) get hit by a car one night over the summer in the intersection near our house, and then saw her being taken away in an ambulance. It seemed like she was going to be OK, but it was still pretty unnerving. I’m really glad you’re OK! I tend to think that a lot of drivers in and around the city are too aggressive. I was taught to engage in defensive driving, and I think it has served me well. The same applies for bike riding, I suppose. However you travel, know that you’re being safe and that you’re doing what you can to protect yourself from others who might not be so safe.

    Totally unrelated props to you for mentioning Gerhard Richter… he’s a favorite of mine.


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