Yesterday I was driving downtown to buy groceries with two of my kids. I was driving slowly and I put the signal on to make a right turn into the gas station. All of a sudden I heard someone scream.
It was a cyclist in the bike lane. She had been in my blind spot and I didn’t see her as I was turning.
“So sorry,” I cried out the open window.
“FUCK YOU LADY!” She screamed.
That experience left me really shaken.
We use our car as little as possible.
We bike and walk as much as we can.
All my kids, even our three year old, bicycle commute to school.
To be sworn at by a cyclist–one of my tribe–was really upsetting. Even more upsetting was the idea that I almost hit her. This past May I got hit by a car while I was on my bicycle, by an 85-year-old driver who forgot to look as she drove through an intersection. I spent the day in the ER. I lost three days of work. My back and neck may be permanently damaged. And I’ve had recurring nightmares and insomnia because of it. My bicycle–my main mode of transportation–was totaled.
But worse than any of that was the realization that I was lucky. I could so easily have been killed, as my friend’s son was years ago when he was bicycling.
I’ve obsessed about the moment I was hit and wondered if there was anything I could have done to avoid it. I was riding at a modest speed in the bike lane. I was alert. I was wearing my helmet and I was not talking or texting on a cell phone. I remember thinking very distinctly, “Let the bike take the impact, get away from that car.” Somehow I did. The bike got wedged into the car and I managed to scramble off and away from it. Eyewitnesses say I fell to the ground. I don’t remember that. I don’t know why. I did not have a concussion, as far as I know. But I have no memory of being on the ground or of what happened right after the impact. Maybe it was the adrenaline.
There was nothing I could have done to be safer or to avoid that crash. The car that hit me literally drove right into me. I was doing things right. But cyclists aren’t always as safe as they can be. Bottom line: We can’t compete with cars. We have to be extra safety cautious because we are in the more vulnerable position.
We’ve talked a lot with our kids about bike safety. These are our family’s rules:
1. Ride in the bike lane, not on the sidewalk. Drivers don’t look down the sidewalk for bikes, and they pull right into it when coming out of driveways.
2. When cars are parked on the right side of the street, watch out for opening doors. Ride three feet away from the cars: just imagine that all the cars’ doors are wide open, and ride so you won’t hit them–that way they can’t hit you.
3. Where cars are crossing your path at intersections or driveways, yield the right of way to them. Before you cross any place where a car can drive, slow down and get ready to stop if you have to, and look all ways: not just right and left, but in front and behind for cars turning into the crossing.
4. When you’re in a bike lane, never pass a car on the right side of it. Drivers don’t look for you before they turn right, and may cut you off or turn right into you. When stopped at a light or stop sign, and there is a car next to you, don’t start into the intersection before you know if the car is turning right.
5. Always pick the safest streets, even if it’s not the shortest route. On a street with no parked cars and no bike lane, ride to the side but leave at least a couple feet of room between you and the curb. If you don’t feel safe on a street like that, just take your bike down the sidewalk to a better street. If the lane isn’t wide enough for a car to pass you, but there are other lanes, you can ride right down the middle of the right lane. Oregon law lets bikers use one whole lane when they need to–but most drivers don’t know that, so do this as seldom and briefly as possible. On Main St. in Ashland, for example, to stay away from the parked cars’ opening doors, you have to ride in the middle of the lane. Or avoid Main Street, or walk your bike.
6. Make eye contact. When a driver is waiting to turn in front of you, look at their face and see if they are looking at you. If they are looking the other way, don’t cross in front of them. When they see you, signal clearly with your hand where you are going (don’t just nod, which could mean “Go ahead!”).
7. Use lights on your bike. Reflectors are not enough, though you should wear them and reflective clothing too. The more lights the better! Check them before you leave, and always carry extra batteries.
8. Always wear your helmet. A lot of parents insist their children wear helmets but will not wear them themselves. This gives children the wrong message. Helmet wearing needs to be a non-negotiable family rule. For everyone.
9. Expect and anticipate driver mistakes. Drivers make lots of mistakes, and they often just don’t see bicyclists, especially children. Sometimes when you are riding, drivers will actually make a mistake and not do what you expect. It is not an if, it’s a when; so you need to be ready for it. Always ride so that when a driver makes a mistake or doesn’t see you, they can’t hit you.
10. Ride slowly. Riding slowly is the best way to stay safe. You have more time to see what’s happening, and if something does happen, you have time to stop. Plus, you get a lot less tired: with the energy it takes to walk a mile, you can bike 15 miles at the speed of a speedwalker! So take it easy and enjoy the scenery.
James thinks the young woman on her bicycle swore at me because she was scared and she knew she was in the wrong.
She was flying down the hill at a dangerous intersection where cars turn right and she must have seen me slow down but decided to go anyway.
Since she was in my blind spot, I didn’t brake to let her pass. I do not fault her in any way.
Cyclists and drivers need to work together so everyone stays safe.