Unwelcome Answer to My Question

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At approximately 7:25 a.m. on Thursday, October 24th, I was struck by a car while riding my bicycle. It was after daybreak, it was light out. I was riding in a bike lane with traffic on Fairfax Drive crossing a side street ( Wakefield St.) and preparing to enter the sidewalk to connect to a multi-use trail.

I was wearing my usual gear- my bright, yellow and reflective safety vest over my bright fuchsia rain jacket. My lights were on, I have reflectors and reflective tape in all the right places. The light was green for me. I obeyed all traffic signals, stayed to the right within the lane, scanned the intersection to make eye contact with any persons in stopped vehicles.

Despite all of my efforts to be predictable, alert, lawful and highly visible; the accident came down to a disturbing and unwanted answer to the question from the blog post I wrote 24 hours prior to being hit, entitled “Can you see me now?”.

The answer came directly from the driver of the car that struck me. She said to me, ” I was only looking for cars. I didn’t see you. I wasn’t looking for bicycles.”

Another answer to my question came to me while waiting for X-Ray results in the hospital bed in the ER:

A person cannot see what they are not looking for. If you do not believe you are going to encounter something, you will not see it.

So, this left me wondering what was missing from the equation. I had done everything right and still I was hit. I was being a PAL ( Predictable, Alert, Lawful) but the driver was not.

The driver was turning right on red from the side street and because she was only looking for an opening in the car traffic, she did not see me in my ridiculously bright clothing as I crossed the intersection ( no “A” for alert).

As she hit me, her car was going too fast to have been stopped behind the crosswalk and I did not see her car when I initially scanned the intersection. This leads me to believe that she had NOT come to complete stop before proceeding to turn right on red. ( no “P” for predictable or “L” for lawful. )

How do we demand that people pay attention? Especially in a world where people are traveling through the environment more and more distracted. I am not sure.

How do we raise awareness about how important it is to look for EVERYONE, especially pedestrians and cyclists, when driving?

I imagine the woman who hit me with her car will look out for cyclists for the rest of her life. Probably everyone who knows me or has heard my story has had their awareness of bicycles on the road raised to a new level. Maybe this is part of the “something good” that can come out of me being hit by a car. Although, I don’t think this kind of accident martyrdom is a sustainable model for raising awareness.

I certainly can’t recommend the experience of getting hit by a car. It really sucks ( a lot more than riding without incident on a cold, dark rainy morning).

I am grateful that I wasn’t killed or that my injuries aren’t more severe. But I can’t say I feel lucky. I am in pain and dealing with the shock and trauma of being hit by a car.

I will get back on my bike ( assuming it is ride-able). I might hesitate at first to go that particular route again. Although, it is a heavily traveled pathway for cyclists and pedestrians. Perhaps, Wakefield Street would be a good candidate for one of those “No Right Turn on Red” signs.

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21 thoughts on “Unwelcome Answer to My Question

  1. Also so very sorry you were hit. I HATE Right on Red laws. They were allowed to flourish in an era of “move traffic quickly” and are now a bane to cyclists and pedestrians (and parents teaching teens to drive as the teens have watched traffic around here too long to believe what the parent is telling them).

    Praying for your quick healing.

  2. Jackie

    I’m so sorry you were hit! I’d like to see more “No turn on red” signs, or at the very least, I’d like to see signs that say “STOP on red light and LOOK BOTH WAYS before turning right”. I was almost hit crossing a street because the driver swooped into the crosswalk, only looking left for oncoming traffic in preparation for turning right. And she had the nerve to yell at me to look where I was going, even though I was in a cross-walk and my light was green. To make matters worse, this was right in front of a school. Most drivers are not looking for bikes or pedestrians, and the consequences are dire. I’m going to post a reminder about looking both ways on Facebook. Thank you for sharing your story; I hope you heal quickly and that this helps raise awareness.

  3. Courtney

    i think many people using that side street are looking to bypass the main Glebe intersection to get to the 66 onramp faster, so they really aren’t focused on anything but getting to that onramp faster, no matter who is in their way. but sadly, this could have happened at nearly any cross street because, exactly like you said, people are not looking for bikes or pedestrians. there is no awareness.

    Glad your injuries will not keep you from getting back on your bike. 🙂

  4. G, well written as usual. Love “accident martyrdom”. Excellent turn of phrase.

    I had similar experiences while riding motorcycles. I was convinced that drivers who simply motored right into me were trying to murder me. I finally realized that they just didn’t see me. Even drivers who aren’t being deliberately obtuse like your person don’t see motorcycles or bicycles, because their brains are so wired to see cars and trucks.

    Hopefully, as bikes become more prevalent in cities around the country, drivers’ brains will adapt. I think that’s happening here in Portland, although bicyclists are still getting hit by cars here. In the meantime, I think you just have to assume that drivers who appear to be looking straight at you don’t in fact see you, notwithstanding your bright clothes, lights, etc.

    Anyway, I am really hoping that you never have to go through this again.

  5. Cathy

    Right on red was/is the most dangerous traffic law ever passed. Drivers simply do not stop and look for pedestrians, bicyclists, or even other cars. Most treat right on red as “glance and go”.

  6. I am very sorry to hear about your accident.

    Unfortunately, several years ago, I had a similar experience. Down on Lincoln Circle, I was wearing high-viz, I had flashing headlights, I was riding with a pack, I was in a cross walk, and when I started crossing, all the cars were stopped. What happened? The light one block away on Independence turn green and a car in the middle lane decided it was her turn to go and plowed right into me. She didnt see me; she wasnt even beginning to pay proper attention. I had done everything right – I still got hit.

    The motor cycle police officer who came said exactly the same thing. When they go through motorcycle training, they are taught that when drivers look at them – they do not look at the cyclist – they look THROUGH the cyclist.

    I believe the cycling can be safe. But I also believe that it requires more than doing everything right – it requires more than PAL. It requires an accident avoidance approach. It requires assuming that the car does not in fact see you. It requires, when crossing two lanes of traffic, waiting for BOTH lanes to actually stop before crossing (this drives the driver in the first lane, who in fact stopped, crazy – because that driver cannot understand why I will not go). It requires changing routes to safer routes. It may even require refusing to ride in “bike lanes” that are dangerously placed next to parked cars.

    It took me a long time to regain my confidence on my bike. I have. I love cycling. What I might recommend is taking one of WABA’s Confident Cycling classes. It might be a good way of getting back up on the horse.

  7. Oh no! I’m so sorry that happened, and I hope you recover quickly. It is remarkable how cars can look into an intersection but not pick up anything but other cars. As I said, I hope your pain eases and you heal soon.

  8. I’m so sorry this happened to you. It’s awful.
    I don’t know what the answer is, but when everyone blabs all the time about safety for pedestrians and cyclists I wonder why they don’t more often address the real problem: drivers.
    I almost got hit while running with my dog in the almost exact same situation. The driver was turning and despite the pedestrian signal for me, she didn’t even register me as being there. Despite it being total daylight and me being dressed in crazy colours without very many other things going on.
    She looked shocked when she slammed on the breaks. It was a close call. And I was angry.
    Except, the tendency is for people to be angry at the cyclists and pedestrians because often they believe they have no right to be there on the roads or near them.
    One day I hope that will change. And let’s hope if cars still do own the road in the future they at least are smarter and drive themselves because people are clearly (for the most part) really really too stupid to be handling such dangerous machinery.

  9. chris

    well, i was in a similar situation only i was the driver of the car. as i pulled up to the busy intersection i did not notice any bicyclists on the corner (to my right). i was turning right so after coming to a complete stop i looked left for oncoming traffic. it took a minute before there was a break and i did not look back to my right again before i started to go. i was driving an automatic and i think there can be a tendency to remove the foot from the brake before the head turns around to see where one is going. i did not actually press the gas so i was only creeping forward when the bicyclist was trying to cross. they yelled at me ” hey!! ” and so i immediately put my foot back on the brake and fortunately did not come close to hitting him. it scared us both though and helped me learn to pay better attention. it can be difficult when an intersection is busy to see everything that is going on. perhaps it is best to not allow right turns on red, especially in busy areas.
    my point is that for me it was the noise that caught my attention. so i was thinking that if you had a horn on your bike (a loud one, not a little clown horn) you could use it when approaching problem areas to help you get noticed. just a thought … hope you heal quickly!

  10. Hugh Strickland

    Welcome to the club. When you have been hit by a car or as in my case hit a car that suddenly back out in front of me, it takes a while to figure out what your going forward strategy will be. My was to lay low for two weeks, get my medical team fully involved and come up with a healing plan. I did not get a lawyer, this was my mistake. I cannot explain the additional suffering that the insurance companies involved put me through, mostly needlessly.

    On a hopeful note, I recovered, rode my bicycle to rehab, toured by bicycle for two week in the Loire Valley of France, and am well on my way to riding 13,000 miles this year.

    So, you got hit, welcome to the club, good energy to your healing. I will bet that the good physical shape you were in will make recovery much faster than many doctors will believe. So go show them. Bon ton Roule!

  11. Miss Gulch

    I’m so sorry that you were hit. It is the thing I most dread when I’m out on my bike in traffic. I’m in search of a super loud bike horn to warn cars that I’m there. It is amazing to me how often I feel invisible. Wishing you a comfortable, quick recovery and hope that you are back up on your bike soon!

  12. I’m so sorry to hear this as well! It super-sucks to know that you did everything you were supposed to and yet still ended up in the hospital. I am also glad the driver stuck around (or so it seems), because I’ve heard of too many hit-and-runs. I hope you heal quickly and get back on the bike soon enough!

  13. Patrick

    I’m a long time bicycle commuter and had several close calls due to both drivers not looking for bicycles and not making full stop as part of Right on Red. We must be ever, extra vigilant and way more alert than car drivers.

    My wishes for a speedy recovery.

  14. Glad the collision was not worse. I hope for a speedy recovery.

    I’ve almost been hit as a pedestrian walking in the opposite direction — towards the Metro — for the same reason. The driver was making a right-on-red and looking for motorized traffic.

  15. Phil Wandrey

    So sorry to hear this….prayers for a speedy and full recovery back to the bike. I have learned accident avoidance includes waiting for 2-3 seconds to let the cars blow through red lights, ensuring I have eye contact before entering the crosswalk, etc, etc, etc. This is on my commute which is 90% on established bike trails which cross 3 main streets on my 7 mile work commute.

  16. I’m sorry you were hit by a car and hope you recover fully.

    “How do we raise awareness about how important it is to look for EVERYONE, especially pedestrians and cyclists, when driving?”

    “I don’t think this kind of accident martyrdom is a sustainable model for raising awareness.”

    Thanks for introducing the concept of “a sustainable model for raising awareness.” We do not have one of those and clearly need one. Education is fine, but it fades. It isn’t sustainable.

    This reminds me of the problem of sidewalk riding, which seems safe, but isn’t. Sidewalk riding is safe only if riders have the discipline to slow down to walking speed at every intersection. That level of discipline is unsustainable. The solution there is to get cyclists onto the street, where they are simply seen more easily by drivers (no sustained effort needed). That is a step forward, but not enough, since too many drivers still don’t see cyclists or pedestrians.

    Here are some ideas:

    – If we build the expectation of pedestrians and cyclists into the infrastructure, drivers are more likely to expect them. Right on Red does the opposite–it is based on the idea that pedestrians are unlikely to be in the crosswalk. Getting rid of Right on Red is a good first step. Making bike lanes more common and more prominent on major roads is another good step. Abandoning the “level of service” intersection metric (a measure of automotive throughput) and instead adding bike-only signal phases is another good step.

    – Use legal means to discourage automotive violence. It might surprise people when I say that we don’t do this. Instead we give out token “failure to yield” tickets and say, referring to the driver, “it could happen to anyone.” This is forgiveness, not discouragement. In some cases, such as a “drunk driver,”[1] the driver gets the book thrown at her and gets jail time. This isn’t discouragement either. It is punishment of a “bad person.” But there is no middle ground. A $300 fine is easily forgotten and jail time can ruin a person’s life. If we want to discourage dangerous driving, we need a middle ground, such as license suspension for at least 6 months.

    – Get people out of cars. Getting people to try healthy walking, biking and transit instead of unhealthy driving benefits everyone. I’d go on more about this, but I’m sure this blog has it covered.

    [1] I put “drunk driver” in quotes because anecdotal evidence suggests that people will sometimes get punishment instead of forgiveness (or a ticket instead of nothing at all) simply because they have a past record of drunk driving. In other words it is the label that matters in court, not the drunkenness. There was a great article in Bicycling Magazine back in 2008, called “Broken”, that gives examples: http://www.bicycling.com/news/advocacy/broken

  17. Sorry you were hit. Welcome to the club. Get back on your first day; don’t wait.

    In twenty years I’ve been hit 4 times: u-turning car ran me down from behind (Adams Morgan 18th Street), rear-ended by a cab (White House H Street), my T was crossed by a car that attempted a left turn in front of me but then stopped right in front of me in reaction to seeing me late (Buckingham, Pershing Drive), and side swiped by a car attempting a left turn from their parking spot on the right side of the road (Courthouse, Wilson Blvd). No injuries, no police reports.

    It’s not if, but when.

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