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!
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.
So 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).
a little postscript, here’s a little image series on how to properly dispose of a broken helmet.