Saturday, September 04, 2010

(Almost) Blood on the Road

Yesterday, Friday, September 3, 2010, I came within what seemed like only inches of disaster. Reflecting now upon what happened then, while I peck-out these lines with a solitary index finger, I realize that there is no identifiable scale that can measure the luck of my escape and the magnitude of the disaster that would have befallen me. As it is, I'm typing this with only one hand, but feel as lucky as a leprechaun to suffer this relatively minor inconvenience. Several years ago, the Churchill Insurance Company determined that approximately one-third of auto accidents happen within one mile of home and a further third within five miles. Churchill's report revealed that "drivers experienced a 'switching off' syndrome on familiar roads which is a common cause of car accidents."

Knocking on wood (before typing this sentence, since again, I've only got the use of my right hand/arm), I've never crashed a car on the open road as a result of carelessness or imprudence. Admittedly, a collision with a deer on I-84 in New York at over 100kph saw me total a Chevy estate car (fancy term for station wagon), and I was hit from behind while stopped at an intersection by a distracted school girl who was regaling her passenger with tales of the latest lunch room intrigues. I even wrote-off a Porsche 993 Turbo at the Nürburgring while running during a closed-session. But I've never "had an accident" as we say here in America. However - before yesterday, I'd been hit three times by cars while riding my bicycle. And yesterday saw number four. And only 1.8 miles from my house.

I'm here today to type-up this blog post, so it couldn't have been that bad, you say. Well, it wasn't (though put that down to sheer luck), though it could have been (and there would have been nothing I could have done about it, except not be on that stretch of rode at that time in the first place). An old lady, who lives a little more than half a mile further down Route 88 than my turn-off, was heading home yesterday at the same time I was finishing a rain-shortened training ride. Though it was dry at the time, and I was on a wide-open stretch of road, riding at approximately 30kph on top of the white line that marks the boundary of the road and the shoulder, the hapless senior citizen in a Chevy passed me like she didn't even see me. And apparently she didn't, commenting afterward that she thought the terrific "THWACK!" she heard came from something in the road that she'd run over. Close...

I'm guessing that her car didn't have breakaway mirrors, because when she smashed my left elbow with her passenger side mirror while she was careening-along at a good 65kph, it was my arm that buckled, and not her car. It's true what they say that things happen so quickly that you don't even realize it, at the same time your life passes before your eyes.

I heard the sound of the impact before I felt it, and what little there was to feel was quickly smothered with a terrifying numbness - my left arm just stopped "feeling." If you'll allow me to indulge myself with a spot of self-praise, I sit like a natural on the bike, and am as relaxed as a cougar perched on the tops of my bars (lol). And this probably saved my life yesterday!

By all rights, I should be dead. The impact should have wrenched my bars around, knocked my front wheel from under me, sent me tumbling into the lane of traffic and deposited me in the path of the next vehicle such that my head was in prime position to be squashed in a residual car vs. "biker" incident. In all honesty, though, I didn't even bobble. That's not to say that our Blind Betty barely grazed me. By her own admission she hit me so hard that the report left her thinking she'd come into contact with something in the road (which, technically, she did). Rather, my default position on the bike is "relaxed," and I was lucky that the impact merely deadened my arm, before almost ripping it off my shoulder. In that horrifying split-second from when a crash begins to unfold, to when you actually become aware of it, I saw my left hand flying off the bars and wondered where it was off to in such a hurry! Next I was wondering why my torso almost collapsed when I tried to re-weight my left arm after regaining the brake hood, and soon I was marveling at how straight a line she held after passing me so closely that she could hit me with her wing mirror, but not her bumper, or miss me altogether.

What was disconcerting was not the horrible pain that flooded my elbow shortly after the collision. Rather, it was the nonchalance with which the driver continued down the road, and her utter incomprehension when I caught her at the next stoplight (about a mile down the road) and advised her that she'd just hit me, and that I wanted to obtain her insurance information, if she would be so kind. She didn't deny it - after all, she said she'd heard something, but just assumed it had been "in the road" (God forbid Fido had been playing in the street, or a herd of deer crossing the road - Granny wouldn't have even noticed as she ploughed into them all). She simply couldn't comprehend what she'd done.

A gouge in the passenger's side mirror housing and paint smeared with my hair and skin testified to the coming-together of man and machine in a way that Chris Boardman would never have approved of.

While now more than ever I believe that senior citizens should face mandatory retesting in order to retain their driving privileges, at least this one didn't make things worse by being rude about what she'd done, or claiming that I shouldn't have been on the road to begin with. And in turn, I managed to keep my mouth shut and choked-down the myriad negative emotions that threatened to ooze-out of my jaded-by-one-too-many-brushes-with-asshole-motorist pores.

I've got to wrap this up, as there are other things to attend to, and I've already seen 24 hours of productivity lost to the mother of all aching elbows, but I wanted to share this story with you. Not because there is some profound moral to the tale, or in an attempt to shamelessly leverage my own near-death experience to demand the building of bike paths or mandatory helmet laws. It's just a reminder that riding a bike in traffic is an inherently dangerous proposition, and not usually because you aren't a skilled athlete, but rather as a result of motorists who either don't think you should be there, or aren't even aware that you are.

I'll try to be less disdainful when loved ones implore me to "be careful out there" when I push-off for my next ride, when my elbow stops hurting and feeling returns to my hand.


  1. Wow - glad to hear that you didn't get hurt worse. Did you bike get banged-up? Were you wearing a helmet??

  2. Shit...glad that you're basically ok. At least around here, PA drivers are really, really bad towards cyclists.

  3. Sorry to hear this happened to you, Joe. We just have to be aware, and yet it is not always enough. I pray you get back to normal soon.

  4. scary; hope the elbow heals quickly and completely; you did see a doctor?

  5. Do you posit that you should have been dead b/c you don't wear a helmet when you're training? Bad example for the wee ones...

  6. Rachel, what part of the state are you in? I haven't found anywhere in PA where drivers aren't at least somewhat annoyed by cyclists - even around the velodrome. In fact, they might be even more hostile there. One refreshing change, however, is in the attitude of Allegheny County Police to road cycling in South Park. Previously, they ambivalent at best, hostile at worst to bikers. But since my return to riding, I've been amazed to learn through direct contact with officers that they fully-support cyclists' rights and have zero tolerance for any abuses by motorists. I can't speak to any unofficial "official" policies, if they exist, but at least the public face of the county police is now one that is incredibly friendly and protective of cyclists. Not to say that South Park is some cycling utopia - you still take your life in your hands every time you ride - but at least if you're hassled by a motorist but can document license, make/model, driver description, the police absolutely won't blow you off or be dismissive of your complaint - and it definitely wasn't like this before.

    By the same token, we're held to a higher standard than before, and there's no excuse for blowing off stop signs and otherwise breaking the traffic laws we expect motorists to obey, but I'm happy to trade outlaw status for the backing of the police in situations on the road.

  7. Ouch, sorry to hear you've been banged-up again! Good job in keeping your cool though,it would have been too easy (but destructive) to launch into a verbal tirade on the (****ing blind) driver...

    Last time someone cut me up, at the next lights I apologised for almost delaying for them for a couple of seconds on their very important day. Their reaction was far more satisfying than what would have resulted from what I really, really wanted to do....


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