Sunday, July 15, 2012

My July 13 2012 bike crash

Road rash
On July 13, I had my first bike wreck in quite a while. I do fall off or fall over from time to time, but not such that I get hurt. This time, I polished quite a bit of skin, though as far as I can tell, I didn't break anything. (Of course, I will never know that, since I am not going to get my hand X-rayed since I have no health insurance. But that's a rant for a different day.) All I care to do here is diagnose how this happened, and work through what it might mean.

The bike and I are both fine. Within a couple minutes of going sideways, I got back on it and rode the rest of the way home. The handlebar tape on the right side is chewed up a bit, and there's a scuff on the rear derailleur I don't remember seeing before. But it shifts, all the pieces are there, all the cables work, the wheel is not bent, and nothing was broken, as far as I can tell. I landed just about flat, on my hands, shoulder and especially chin. Minor tear on the left shoulder of my shirt; the right knee of my pants has a significant stain from whatever I landed on, plus a drop or two of blood from within. My right hand has a sizable gash, but does not hurt. My right thumb got enough skin chewed off to make it difficult to type and, um, take care of certain bodily functions. But I'll manage. The abrasion on my chin did not bleed all that much, mainly seepage from serous fluid. Even the laptop I had slung over my shoulder was undamaged.

Now 36 hours post-crash, pretty much everything is back to normal. I took a shower, put a bandage on my chin, and went about my evening as if nothing happened. About an hour after the incident, I was bouncing on a neighbor's trampoline while taking care of her dogs, and an hour after that, had to retrieve something from inside a dumpster. (We had a carful of newspapers to recycle, and in tossing the papers in, also tossed in a car part, so had to climb in to retrieve it.) I drove the car 20 miles just after this. Other than being hard to grasp anything with my left thumb, I seem to be in good working order.

OK, so what happened?

The short version is that a car passed me too closely. While it did not hit me, it passed closely enough that the air wave pushed me into a six-inch curb at a 30-degree angle, the bike went out from under me, and I went down. I never saw the car, though in the couple of milliseconds between when I realized I was off course and when I hit the curb, I registered that it might have been grey. There was barely time to realize I was off course, let alone correct that course, or glance up to catch a license plate, maybe nine-tenths of a second from air wave to curb. The car passed me with maybe 12 to 15 inches of clearance, instead of the required four feet.

Last week, I took a picture of a drain grate less than 100 yards from this spot, noting that there was a slot on the side of that grate wide enough to grab a narrow road tire. With that squarely in mind, I know that when I crossed that grate, I was squarely in the middle of it. The car passed me less than five seconds after that. But since I know my exact coordinates to the inch at that spot, I know that I was exactly where the law suggests I be when riding on the road: As far to the right as practicable. Any farther right, I would have been right on top of the curb. Any farther left, I would have been lined up with that open slot.

In general there is no reason to take the lane here. In retrospect, though, maybe I should start doing that, but to do so invites other problems, specifically forcing drivers to slow to my speed far more often than they now do. I'm not sure anyone is ready for that quite yet.

Moving on to possible motives on the part of the driver. I find it hard to believe s/he did not see me. It was 6:40 p.m.; sunset would not occur for another two hours. The sun would have been well to the left. The road at that spot points straight north. I had a light colored shirt on, though not my orange vest. I can only think of three possibilities: (a) There were two cars at that point, one in each northbound lane, and the driver in my lane chose not to slow to get around me. (b) The driver was occupied with a cell phone or changing a CD or some other distraction, and did not realize I was there. (c) The driver intentionally tried to pass me too closely. Had there been a shoulder, I would have merely veered off course and back on, but once I hit the curb, there was nowhere else to go but down. No, the driver did not stop. In cases (b) and (c), I would not expect the driver to stop. I went over so fast, I likely disappeared from view. In case (a), perhaps the driver thought I turned onto Manor Road, mere feet from where I went over.

So all this comes down to two things: First, driver inattentiveness (or worse). Second, road design. Why does Perry Highway have a curb? Is that really necessary? And why six inches? Also, why does Perry Highway have four lanes? It is posted 35 mph, but a significant portion of it beginning less than a mile south of this is only two lanes at the same speed limit. Being four lanes here allows drivers to exceed 35 more easily. The curb lane might go 35, but traffic speed in the inner lane is more typically 40 to 45, often higher.

This incident occurred less than 1/4 mile from my house, within easy sight of where I caught my inbound Perry Highway bus every day for close to 20 years. I am well acquainted with this piece of road. I've driven it thousands of times, bicycled it hundreds of times, and walked it hundreds of times, in the 21 years I've lived here.
On this particular trip, I had just bicycled four miles from the Perrysville Avenue park-and-ride lot, as I had just missed my McKnight bus, and did not want to wait 20 minutes for the next one. I guessed correctly when leaving my desk that I would be home by 6:45, and even with the tumble, walked in the door when I thought I would, thus proving that the O1 flyer and a bike ride was just as fast as a 20-minute wait for the O12 Flyer that would have gotten me four miles closer.

All of this leads me to make one conclusion: If we are ever to use anything but the car to get around, we need to change the whole concept of how we get around. Eliminate the curb lane on Perry as a driving lane; go back to it being a two-lane road. But leave the curb lane there, only mark it as a bike and pedestrian lane. Note that there is no sidewalk along here, either.

"Anything but the car" means that in order to make it possible to use anything but the car to get around, we need to change fundamental road design, and that means fundamental change in the concept of how we get around at all. Some of this is chicken, some of it egg, but the first thing that has to happen is changing demand. That means get on your bikes and ride, and stop driving cars.

Yes, even in the suburbs.


  1. Sorry to hear about the incident, glad you're OK and +1 to you for writing about it.

  2. Accidents can happen anytime, so be extra careful when you’re on the road. May I ask if you were wearing protective equipment when the incident happened? Helmets and pads can significantly reduce the damage you take from accidents. In cases like this, you can try to be more vigilant next time, so you can at least maintain your presence of mind and catch even some of glimpses of info of the car that got you to be reported to the police later on.

    Nannie Leick

  3. Stuart sorry this happened to you. Applaud you for your sense of environmental conservancy. We all deserve choices on how to navigate and travel our paths to work or play. Keep fighting the good fight.