Five times my bike has touched a car
This is one of my ♥ favorite essays
I have been bike-commuting regularly in Portland for more than 20 years and average about 5000 miles a year. In those 20 years I can remember five times that my bike (or my body on my bike) has touched a car in a collision-ey fashion.
Sometime between 2003 and 2006, a driver turning right across a bike lane (at SW Broadway and Clay) failed to yield for me and I sprawled across his hood. This is the only time a driver got directly angry at me for such a collision. He entirely saw me and expected me to yield to him, this was his understanding of the law (he was wrong.) What makes it worse is that he had a commercial driver’s license. I got his license and insurance information but never followed through. There was no damage to my bike or body.
In 2012, a driver turning right across a bike lane into a parking lot (at SW Terwilliger or 6th Ave and Caruthers st.) failed to yield for me and I ran into the rear right quarter panel of her car. She didn’t see me and was very apologetic and helpful. A random bystander — not so much. I blogged about it at the time. I don’t recall that there was any damage to my bike; my body suffered very mild road rash.
In 2013, a driver turning right across a bike lane into a parking lot (at SW Terwilliger and Taylor’s Ferry) failed to yield for me and I ran into her passenger door. It was a very low velocity collision. I was uninjured and at the time did not notice any damage to the bike, but later discovered I had damaged one of my shifter pods.
In 2014, a driver opening his car door without checking the bike lane knocked me off my bike into the street. The bike was severely damaged and I broke my collarbone. I blogged about it at the time. This was my worst bike/car collision to date. Our car insurance companies handled all the claims, to better than my satisfaction. (In fact, my car insurance company was a better health insurance company than my health insurance company! That might be worth another blog post in the future.)
In 2015, a driver pulling out of a driveway failed to look both ways before pulling across the sidewalk and struck me head on. It was a very low velocity collision. There was no damage to my body or my bike. I blogged about it at the time.
In 20 years, with at least 100,000 miles of bike commuting on Portland area streets, I have had five collisions with cars. Two of them damaged my bike and two of them damaged my body. In only one incident did it do any significant damage to either my body or my bike.
Depending on how you define “close call,” I might have a close call at least once a day. I ride very defensively, and also am not afraid to direct cars with signals, gestures, and shouting. I ride as if I am invisible, unless I get positive affirmation that a driver has seen me. For example, a common thing that happens in Portland is drivers, thinking they are being “helpful,” will surrender their right-of-way to me to cross a busy street. I do not cross the street until I see that all other traffic has completely stopped. This happens several times a day to me, I have learned that blindly accepting a driver’s “goodwill” is dangerous because the driver hasn’t considered what other drivers might do.
Most other “close calls” are potential right hooks like three of the collisions I describe above. I have learned to recognize, almost by smell, when a driver can’t see me and will probably try to turn across my line of travel. Once I learned to recognize this — and I’m not sure I could describe, in words, how I know a driver will do this — it stopped happening to me. I have so many close calls that they no longer raise my blood pressure.
Drivers also yell insults at me, or other threatening behaviors (rolling coal, gunning the motor). This used to bother me, but it doesn’t any more. It seems like this happens much less frequently than it used to, or maybe I just stopped caring (and noticing).
I can also think of two times that I have collided with a pedestrian or another bicycle, both times on multi-use paths along the Willamette River.
Probably sometime around 2009, I was passing another bicycle in a narrow section near some construction, and our handlebars collided. We were mutually angry at one another but did not damage each others’ bikes or bodies.
Sometime around 2016, I was overtaking a runner who made a sudden U-turn directly into me. We were both thrown to the ground. My bike was undamaged. We looked ourselves over for physical damage, and realized that we had almost identical injuries: mild road rash (scrapes and bruises) on opposite sides (my left thigh, hip, and forearm; her right thigh, hip, and forearm).
These two instances are worth thinking about, because they illustrate that when a bicyclist strikes anything, even a pedestrian, they are as likely as the other party to be injured. There’s an old joke that we could make cars 100% safe by removing the driver’s side seatbelt and affixing a dagger to the middle of the steering wheel. Riding a bike is kind of like that! When non-bike riders complain about “bikers” in a shared space like a multi-use path, they out themselves as having car-centric modes of thought.
I have lost track of how many times I have crashed while racing bicycles or recreational mountain biking. A lot. At a guess, those activities are many hundreds of times more dangerous than riding my bike on city streets.
This accounting was prompted by a friend who was seeking reassurance about the safety of riding a bike in Portland, after seeing a mutual friend was in a collision with a car that had run a red light. I’m a big believer in intuitive statistics — that is, when deciding whether to worry about something, mentally tallying the number of times people like me have had that happen to them. I don’t know if this exercise is actually reassuring to other people, but I find it useful.
- In my lifetime, at least four people I love have been killed while riding in or driving a car.
- In the same 20 years that I have had 5 collisions with a car while on my bike, my wife has been in 3 major collisions while driving a car (none of them were her fault). The last one totalled our car, and would likely have killed one of our kids if she had been in the car in her usual spot.
- I know two people who were very seriously injured — spinal or brain injuries — while riding their bikes, when they collided with cars.
I can’t claim that riding a bike in Portland is “safer” than driving. It probably isn’t, statistically. (Although if you factor in health issues like cardiovascular fitness, on net the bike might prolong my life.) What I will claim is that my experience suggests I have more control over my fate while I’m on a bike than in a car. I acknowledge not everyone is as lucky as I am, and that my luck may someday run out.