My First Bike Commuting Crash

This past Thursday, I was in my first ever bike commuting accident. The result: a broken bike, a broken helmet, a badly bruised knee, a mild concussion, and some post-accident anger.

Now, the purpose of this post is not to scare anybody away from commuting by bike. Accidents do happen, be they on bicycle, in car, or even on foot, (Yes, there are those of us who have the occasional “on-foot” accidents). But as the result of this particular accident, I need to have a good venting session to my fellow bike commuters!Cracked Helmet

I’d like to begin by setting the scene. I’m a graduate student at the University of Arizona (UA) in Tucson. As a rough estimate (yes, very un-graduate-student-like of me), there are approximately 50,000 to 60,000 people on campus on a regular weekday.

The main campus of the UA is one-square mile. So cram 60,000 people into one square mile, and things do tend to get a bit crowded. Now, between classes at UA, something rather strange happens: all hell breaks loose! Many thousands of students, faculty, staff, and visitors move around from building to building, place to place, on foot, bicycle, skateboard, golf cart, motorcycle, car, and jet suit. Okay, no jet suits.

To add to this, a large majority of these people are staring at cell phones, headphones crammed tightly in their ears, not paying the slightest bit of attention to their surroundings. So when I say that all hell breaks loose, I mean it.

Despite the extensive system of bike routes throughout campus, hardly anyone pays attention to stop signs, pedestrians, right-of-way, cars, etc. (if they are on a bike) or oncoming bicycle traffic, other pedestrians, walls, etc. (if they are on foot). And those who do pay attention to signage, changing road types, etc. are definitely in the minority. So accidents do happen. Frequently. Yes, I am making broad, sweeping generalizations about behavior at the UA, but I do invite you down to campus sometime to see for yourself.

Now, I’ve been a student at the UA for eight years–eight long years–since I was a nervous, young freshman to a cynical, old graduate student. And for all eight of those years, I have been riding my bike on campus. Riding a bike is by far the most efficient way to get around the UA. Walking across campus can take longer than the allotted time between classes, and I won’t even touch the nightmare that is driving on campus.

Even despite the chaos between classes, it’s great that so many people use bicycles and their own two feet to get around. It’s cool to be a part of such an environment, so I have happily been riding all over campus for nearly a decade, despite some the challenges of navigating the chaos safely by bicycle. And not once, in those eight years, have I even been in an accident. There have been close-calls galore, and yes, I have crashed in other circumstances. I also happen to be a bike racer.

But I have never crashed commuting on campus (or commuting, in general), and given the environment on campus, I’d say that’s pretty good. So, one might say, it was bound to happen sometime. Oh, I don’t want to hear any comments about how as a bike racer and a helmet wearer, I take more risks as a bike commuter. It’s simply not the case. Believe me, I’m cautious. A commuting accident would put a damper on my training, after all!

Now, I won’t spend too long on the gory details of the crash. Let’s just say, I was happily cruising along to class, when I approached a rather notorious intersection. I was headed straight (directly west), and there were riders turning right (headed south) into my path to go the same direction as me.

Pedestrians were busy weaving in and out of this madness, and I was so focused on the riders turning to head in my direction, that I failed to notice a rider headed east towards me, who was making a left turn (to head north) directly into my path. I noticed him at the very last second, and it was too late. Oh, and I did have the right-of-way.

So we slammed into each other and did what I have coined a “full-body vertical body-slam.” Imagine jousting on a bike and being thrown into the air vertically into your oncoming opponent. That’s precisely what happened. Our bodies met mid air: head to head, chest to chest, knee to knee. The impact stopped our combined momentum (~25 mph), and we both landed on our feet. Our heads hit hard. Very hard. I was wearing a helmet. He was not.

Okay, so I have been in a lot of bike crashes as a professional mountain bike racer and Category 1 road racer. So at this point, unless I am really injured, I react in a relatively calm manner. Assess the bike (bike racers always want to make sure their bikes are okay). Everything okay? Good. Assess the body. Nothing broken? Good. In this case, my first response was to look at the fellow who hit me.

He says, “I’m sorry.” The first thing out of my mouth, “That was totally your fault.” His response, “Yea, that’s why I said I’m sorry.” So I say, “Wow, I hit my head really hard, and I’m wearing a helmet. I hope your head is okay.” His reply, “I’m fine.” And with that, he left. He simply left. Got on his still-working (apparently) bicycle and rode off.

I picked my stuff up off the ground and walked to the side of the bike path. My bike was so broken, it wouldn’t even roll forward. Meanwhile, not one of the 60,000 some-odd people on campus milling around between classes stopped to see if I was okay.

I should not have reacted in such a calm manner. Perhaps a few tears (though they would have been of rage) would have kept him from running off so quickly.

Poor RossSo the result: one bent front wheel, one bent front fork, one broken helmet, one badly bruised knee, one sore neck, one concussion, and one very annoyed person.

And that’s just me! I don’t even know if the kid who hit me is okay I hope he is! I’m sure, at the very least, he has a concussion, as well. After all, his head broke my helmet. But then again, he did act like a jerk and ride off without asking if I was okay.

So what’s the moral to this story?

Well, for one, hit-and-runs make you feel bad inside. Two, I guess I need to find a new fork for my beloved Ross, and a new helmet. Three, despite the accident, I’ll keep riding on campus. After all, it’s the best way to get around. And hey, one crash in eight years isn’t so bad. Here’s to another eight(y)!

But in all seriousness, even though navigating the madness between classes on the UA campus can be challenging, for the most part, paying close attention to your surroundings will keep you safe. The same goes for commuting by bike (or any other mode, for that matter) just about anywhere.

Unfortunately, sometimes you miss one important moment that would have prevented an accident (me looking up ahead to the left instead of focusing on my right, for example), but at some point, it does no good to mull over the details. The best approach is to pick yourself up, get back on the pony, and remember to pay as much attention as possible to what’s going on around you and respect your fellow commuters (of all modes).

And as
a little postscript, here’s a little image series on how to properly dispose of a broken helmet.

Cracked Helmet Dis-assembly
Find a pair of scissors.
Cracked Helmet Dis-assembly
Cut the straps off your helmet
Cracked Helmet Dis-assembly
Insert helmet into nearest trash receptacle

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23 thoughts on “My First Bike Commuting Crash”

  1. Karen says:

    Quite a story! I frequently cut through the campus of NAU to go from my house to downtown Flagstaff and find it quite a gauntlet. Passing through unscathed during the regular academic years requires attention to every direction and a quick response time. I think the headphones and cell phones are a big part of the problem but I also see a utter lack of basic biking etiquette on the part of many young, and I suspect, novice bike commuters. I see not only frequent passing and turning right into my path but pedaling in the wrong direction in the designated bike lane, pedaling the wrong way in the regular drivers lane, and nightime biking in dark clothing with no lighting.

    I think that your story goes to show that we ask cyclists insist in the same respectful behavior from each other that we want to receive from people driving cars. I think we should expect enforcement of the law in both cases – I got stopped myself on campus last year and learned my lesson.

    As for the lack of concern from other the cyclist who hit you and the silent bystanders, I can only shake my head. Probably a subject of a post all its own.

  2. Janice in GA says:

    Yikes! I am so glad you are (mostly) ok. And glad it wasn’t a car that hit you.

    Best wishes on getting the bike back in order again.

  3. John says:

    Dear rider.

    I hope your knee feels better soon. Looks like you could repair that steel beaut down at BICAS. I hope when I’m in town next week I see you taking it a bit easier on campus. Save the ’25 combined mph’ for the roads and always have your hands on the brakes.

    Sounds like you’ve analysed this one to death though.


    1. Josh Lipton says:

      In my experience, 12 to 13 mph is a conservative, safe pace for cycling on bike paths, though of course this varies depending on the specifics of the situation. How fast do you recommend riding in various situations?

  4. Eric W says:

    Please call it what it was – a collision. It was no accident. It was the other guys fault. Don’t reduce this traffic issue to some kind of Karma. This was caused by someone, not fate. If you want to fix this – work in fixing traffic. As bike advocates we may get what we ask for – more uncontrolled bike traffic. This is an issue worthy of working to fix.

    And it sounds like minor damage – easily set right. A bent steel fork can usually be bent back. A used wheel with properly tensioned spokes is well within your grad school budget. Old wheels frequently seem to be too loose and can be bent easily. You might be able to just add new spokes to the old rim! Ice the knee. You’ll be back on the bike in no time!

  5. Rider says:

    Whoa, that’s one cool crash! And you landed on your feet.

    I hope you and the Ross come out of it OK.

    My college riding usually is not that crazy, but all it takes is one or two raging riders to trigger chaos during the class shuffle.

  6. Wylie says:

    John you were too quick to criticize, now I must criticize your reading comprehension; 25 combines was referring to her impact velocity not her ground speed.

    btw why is the captcha getting so freaking hard to read

  7. @Karen – You bring up many good points about issues associated with a high number of novice to advanced riders of all ages all sharing the same space. It can be tricky at times, and even more so with additional distractions. Safe riding to you through NAU & Flagstaff (my hometown, by the way). 🙂

    @Eric – I did not mean to imply that I felt that fate or karma were at work in any way. And yes, it was a collision. As a transportation planning professor once told…there is no such thing as an accident. But you bring up a great point, that with an increased number of riders (which we definitely like to see), there are increased challenges that need to be addressed, as well.

    @John & Wylie – Yes, I should have been more specific. 25 mph was our estimated combined speed. I was riding what I would estimate to be just over 10 mph and definitely a “safe” speed for the area, as a general rule. Thanks for the clarification, Wylie. And John, I will indeed head down to BICAS!

  8. More evidence, albeit anecdotal, that helmet wearing provides little to no benefit.

    1. Ted Johnson says:

      Which article did you just read, Doctor?

  9. Jeff says:

    Sorry to hear it, Melanie. Right now I’m recovering from my third commuter-crash-related surgery from a couple of poorly timed crashes two+ years ago. You know what they say, there are only two types of bike commuters…

  10. A says:

    Sorry about the crash, Melanie, but why did you cut the straps off the helmet? To save the turtles, dolphins… or so someone else wouldn’t use it?

  11. Man, I’m really glad you’re ok.bikes are easier to mend than heads!
    I often go out without a helmet, I just prefer it that way, but in town, no way. People can argue all they like about the whys and wherfores of helmets, but I bet youre glad you had one on?
    I believe the expression for the lack of concern for your wellfare is ‘difussion of responsibility’, it happens when a group of people witness something, but they all think somebody else will take responsibility for it. The result is that nobody does!!
    Good luck mending ‘Ross’and get back out there asap.
    There bu for the grace………….. go all of us 🙂

  12. Andy says:

    Wow… you let them off way too easy. If someone smashed my ride (whether bike or car), I’d file a police report and an likely an insurance claim unless they were willing to hand out cash right there for the repairs.

  13. Shanyn says:

    How about a Segway? My son attends UA, and he tells me there is a whole posse of ’em 🙂 I bike on the NAU campus, and generally think it is pretty safe- but I’m a staff person, and not cycling during class changes, etc.

  14. @Andy – Too bad he ran off before I could even get my bearings…or I would have asked for some kind of reimbursement.

    @A – I hope the helmet never encounters any dolphins…yes, to prevent anyone from using a broken helmet, it’s nice to cut the straps off.

    @Graeme – Diffusion of responsibility, interesting. That’s a very common response in situations like that!

    @Dr. Jenkins – I’m glad I was wearing the helmet. The concussion could have been worse. I could have lost consciousness, etc. I’d rather have one than not. Same goes for the old seat belt argument, too.

    @Jeff – Heal up quick!

  15. Rupert says:

    I commute (usually), but nowhere near the U or downtown. The few times I have gone that way I was impressed in a bad way. Cars, bikes, and pedestrians are all crazy and mostly totally unaware of what’s around them… Hope your head is OK.

  16. Chrehn says:

    I’m glad you are “OK”. I know it is hard to not second-guess yourself after an accident. But, when I am momentarily stunned, whether it be physically or emotionally, I almost always react on automatic- pilot for the next several seconds. I think it is instinct. The good news is you are OK and your bicycle can be fixed.

  17. Chris says:

    Glad you’re okay.

    I’ve had a few commuting crashes, nothing like yours though. Riding my bike in Nashville from my job back to my dorm I had a car try to pass me as I was making a left turn (first time I had every used a hand signal too) and he clipped my handlebar (that was 1992). I was okay, but he had a nice scratch down his passenger side. I was off campus, turning onto campus. At least the guy stopped to see if I was okay.

    Two years ago I had a teenage kid step off a sidewalk in front of my and I hit him square in the back. I was going uphill and he was walking away from me. I didn’t hit him too hard, but we both went down. Neither of us were hurt, but he was pretty embarrassed.

    Last year I hit a 200′ long tunnel with a sheet of ice from end to end at about 15 mph and slid most of the length of the tunnel on my butt. Got a nice scuff on my helmet from that one too. Would have lost some scalp otherwise.

    But like you, the time span has been great enough that I don’t worry so much about continuing my commute by bike.

  18. Sounds like quite the mayhem on and around the campus between classes with 50-60K people I guess it’s a small city within a city.

    I like the fact that you will continue!

    If I was in your situation I would run and get my mtb and go for a ride to get rid of the stress!

    Happy Trails!


  19. Minh says:

    If someone broke my $230 S-Works helmet… I would kill them… end of story, nevermind everything else…

    1. Ted Johnson says:

      So helmets are a liability. The anti-helmet crowd is right!

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