Let me be frank about a few things.
First: I break the rules of the road on my bike. I do so often. This usually manifests itself in rolling through stop signs, but I’ve also gone the wrong way down one-way streets in the name of convenience. Sometimes these rules are broken because personal safety depends on it (getting on the sidewalk to get out of the way of a car turning too aggressively, say). Usually it is to save a few minutes.
The “rules of the road” aren’t a natural fit for a bicycle. Those laws were designed with cars in mind. They make clear sense while operating what might as well be speedy land torpedoes. The stakes are clear. In a car, go the wrong way on a one-way street and someone might die. Roll through a stop sign, someone might die.
A bike, though, is so much smaller, so much more maneuverable than a car. It’s easy to talk oneself into the idea that a different, unwritten set of rules are what really matter. The stakes are instantly lower. It fosters a mindset that says “that law is for cars, but I am not a car, so I am free to do as I please.”
This thinking is, obviously, super fucking dumb. I’ve had friends get doored by parked cars and flip over their handlebars. I’ve had friends get purposely chased and hit while on their bikes. I’ve read horror stories in Spoke and Philadelphia Magazine and countless other urban blogs about the real-world consequences of being a cyclist in the city, to say nothing of being a cyclist who breaks the rules. I should be smarter about the entire enterprise.
I am not smart. Up until a few weeks ago, my thinking on bike accidents was always “well, it’ll be the car’s fault, not mine.”
As if fault or credit in a major accident matters in the slightest.
The second thing: I was not wearing my helmet at the time of the accident.
Generally speaking, I don’t like wearing a helmet because it looks dorky and makes my head smell bad, but I recognize that those are stupid and arbitrary concerns compared to, you know, brains leaking out of my skull. So I wear my helmet when I ride by bike, but not every time. Like, if I was riding to the ice cream shop near my house, I wouldn’t wear it. When I ride to work, I wear it. Except that I had left my helmet behind on my recent honeymoon.
There are two good ways to get to work from my house. One involves a road with trolley tracks, which are bad news for bike tires. The other is a little longer and has a few more high-traffic intersections, but comes equipped with a designated bike lane along the entire stretch of road.
The entire stretch, that is, except for intersections. So. I am riding my bike to work, stopped at a red light (which is good), not wearing my helmet (which is bad). The light turns green and I enter the intersection.
It is at this point that I am struck by a car.
Were I to defend the person who hit me, I would have some reasonable recourse to explain how this might have happened. The accident occurred around 8 a.m., with me heading west and the car heading east. That means that the sun was likely in their eyes. That probably makes it hard to see a car, let alone a bike.
On the other hand, no one really expects to get hit by a car at 8 a.m. In the morning. In broad daylight. Following the rules.
I saw the car pull into the intersection, the way any aggressive driver would if they were trying to make a left turn into a gap in oncoming traffic. It looked like the kind of tip-toeing anyone has done a thousand times when working without a green arrow. I assumed it was that, until it wasn’t.
By the time I realized I was going to be hit, I had gained too much momentum to not drift into the path of the car, but not enough to power through the intersection and miss the collision. I looked at the car and hoped that the person behind the wheel would realize what was happening and hit their breaks. We made brief eye-contact as we made impact, the person driving the car and I. I know she looked shocked. I assume I looked the same. She hit her breaks, too late.
In the long history of people being hit by cars while riding bikes, this accident is a minor one, both in terms of property and personal damage. The bike is fine; my wife and I took it to the bike shop the next day and they fixed the (largely cosmetic) damage within 10 minutes, at no charge to me (there is no camaraderie quite like bike professionals and people hit by cars while riding bikes).
In the moments immediately after the accident, I was a bit shaken up. Even then, hubris remains; I still couldn’t believe that I had actually been hit by a car. There were some aches and soreness, but no cuts, broken bones or bruises. There was no physical evidence that anything had happened at all.
There were headaches and fatigue, though. This lead to the following exchange with my wife:
Her: Everything on the internet says you should see a doctor if your head is hurting you.
Me: I know, I just don’t want to.
Her: I really think you need to go.
Me: (Exasperated) I didn’t even hit my head! I’m feeling better.
Her: You aren’t usually this grumpy with me. WEBMD SAYS MOOD SWINGS ARE A SYMPTOM OF BRAIN DAMAGE!
After some apologies for being a dick and a three-hour trip to the emergency room, I emerged with a CT scan, a clean-looking picture of my brain and the diagnosis of a light concussion. In short: no worse for the ware in any meaningful way.
The driver never got out of the car. After the accident, she slowed down to ask if I was okay, but she never stopped. Even her questions seem in memory less like inquiries of health and more like she was looking for permission to get the fuck out of there. I want to be mad at her. I have every right to be. I can’t muster it. No one ever really knows themselves until they have to make a panicked, pressured choice with no time to think. We are not always heroes, and it is important to remember that.