When Death Overtakes Us

Background Reading



Every time I read about an accident it seems distant, excepting when you know someone. Even articles talking about the increase in deaths within my age group seem dissociated from my life. And yet all over the world people are dying. Whether it be war, famine, disease, catastrophe the certainty is that one of us will be injured or killed every few minutes.

When one of those who dies is a bicyclist we sit up and take note. This is as the writer says a bell tolling, and it could be for me. It got me to thinking that every time a collision between a bicyclist and a motorist or even a pedestrian takes place there is a very good chance that at least four people will suffer the tragedy.

There are these:

  • The cyclist who more often than not is the person who succumbs to their injuries, but when we cyclists are the ones meting out the blow to an unsuspecting pedestrian, then what transpires is quite subtle. The pedestrian may be knocked out cold and revive and then spend a period of time in the hospital only to succumb to their brain injuries.
  • The motorist who was gliding along without a care in the world and suddenly is dealing with legal and financial worries that might change their lives forever, not to mention the guilt at having killed someone.
  • The Family has to be contacted with very awful news indeed. And they spend the next few days swept up in funeral planning and trying to assess the impact of the loss of income from an earner might be.
  • The Friends who may have witnessed the collision or simply come to grieve alongside the family.

Indeed nothing that we do is done alone. I pity the police officer who has to visit a scene and assess the legal implications and such. Seldom does everyone agree with the findings.

Accidents Are Sometimes Just That, Accidents

We cyclists have a very large chip on our shoulders. We unwrap it once a year when a ride takes place that is intended to memorialize those members of the cycling community who succumbed to their injuries.

Seldom do you read a forum discussion about the death of a cyclist where the assumption is that the problem of the high mortality rates on our roads is due to some cause other than a negligent motorist. The usual quip is that ‘people die because motorists simply do not look‘.

I visited a scene where a collision took place less than 48 hours ago. It is unimportant where that scene is or whether I knew the person or not. What I want to talk about is how these things happen and essentially why.

Humans Make Mistakes

This particular intersection is between a trail and a road that is lightly traveled. You might call it a country road, but there are housing developments along the roadway that do generate some traffic.

The bicycle trail has a ‘yield sign‘ on each side of the roadway. That was the first thing that struck me. After all we cyclists are adamant that we should get to treat ‘stop signs‘ as ‘yield signs‘. And here was proof that such a strategy has its flaws.

In fact in ever instance in which we run red lights or blow stop signs we tend to do this because we are counting on car traffic being fairly predictable. Cars generally stop at stop signs. If that were not the case blowing through an intersection with a stop sign would be highly dangerous.

Urban Cyclist "Idaho Stop" Two-Step Variation

Urban Cyclist “Idaho Stop” Two-Step Variation

And using the Urban Cyclist ‘Idaho Stop‘ at traffic signals is predicated that cars will behave too unpredictably as you enter their left turn lane to execute a U-Turn of your own. In fact most of the things we do on streets which come under the category of being illegal are possible simply because for the most part cars are behaving in a fair predictable manner.

It is ignorance on our part that leaves us crushed under trucks and buses making right turns through the bike lane. What often happens there is that a cyclist is unaware of two things:

  • that the rear end of the vehicle is not making the same arc as the front and
  • once their turn is begun they cannot see us at all

There is a third thing though that is seldom understood by cyclists because as a group we resist licensing and training as if it were ‘the plague‘ we need to adjust our thinking on right turns:

SF Bicycle Coalition Right Turn Diagram

SF Bicycle Coalition Right Turn Diagram

We Wrestle With Culpability

Sometimes our reactions to collisions is to try and do the kinds of ‘verbal gymnastics‘ that makes the problem worse. We declare that the word ‘accident‘ is to be avoided because motorists ‘do not look‘ and simply ignore our presence and end up killing us. That is no accident.

But as ‘double speak‘ does not make us feel better when we are faced with the prospect that we were on a trail which had no cars and crossed a road which did, but we were the ones with the Yield sign. As a result the police are unable to find fault with the behavior of the sober driver.

Sometimes we are unable to perform flawlessly ourselves. Sometime we are the ones who ‘do not look‘.

Our Roadways Are Used By People

I know from personal experience that it is difficult enough to drive around when you are on lightly used roads on quiet days. There are still people who take advantage of the conditions to speed and do other things that make people less safe.

I rode along the Fox River Trail today. And number of riders were exceeding the 15 mph limit to which bicycles are restricted on such MUPs. But humans are often both ignorant of the law and disdainful of anything that puts a damper on their personal enjoyment of a trail.

Frankly, I have little sympathy with guys and gals who use a MUP to ride as if they were qualifying for the Tour de France. You cannot be certain that you won’t blow a rear tire and suddenly find yourself sliding into or falling atop a fellow rider going in the opposite direction.

What is worse many of the pedestrians on these trails are ‘sitting ducks‘. Cyclists are approaching silently from the rear and should something happen they have no defense. In fact the most common experience would be for a pedestrian to awake from an unconscious state having no idea of how they were knocked out and without a clue as to who might have hit them.

We Need To Act Mindfully

Cyclists need to be as mindful of each other and pedestrians as we wish for motorists to be of us. We need to stop the silliness of believing that a simple Yield sign will cure our ills. It will not!

When we ride with other cyclists we need to be mindful that in a group we are more hazardous than alone. Activities like Critical Mass Rides are not helpful if they only reinforce our already lax habits.