Saturday, March 10, 2007

Lessons From A Bike Crash

First off, don't panic folks. This is an old picture from an old crash, years ago. But some lessons bear repeating and I was thinking about this today because of this exchange I had over on the Touring List:

From: "Kent Peterson"
Date: Sat, 10 Mar 2007 12:18:43 -0800
Subject: re: helmets and recumbents

"Douglas Coulter" wrote:

> I've almost given up using a helmet on my recumbent trike
> because the type of impacts aren't the same as a bicycle.

I'm not going to get sucked into a helmet debate and I know there are folks that will say "that's just anecdotal evidence" but this anecdote happened to me and I'm pretty sure that the fact I was wearing my helmet on a recumbent on March 13th 1998 is one of the reasons I'm here today and able to type this note. The story is here:

I don't have a picture of it, but the side of my helmet was planed away by the road surface. Without the helmet, the side of my head would have been planed away.

Note, I do not favor mandatory helmet laws but I do wear a helmet. So do the other members of my family. Helmets are not magical foam hats but there certainly are circumstances where having something that crumples to absorb some impact is very useful.

Kent Peterson
Issaquah WA USA

If we are lucky, we get to live and learn. I was lucky and I'd like to expand a bit on some of the lessons I took away from this particular crash. Let me add a little more detail to paint the scene.

I was headed east on Newport Way, on the northern edge of Cougar Mountain. This section of road is a long, gentle downslope with a decent shoulder and not many cross streets. It was shortly after 5:00 PM and the sun was low and behind me. I was riding as far to the right as conditions would allow.

A tradesman's van was parked on the right shoulder of the road. I saw it ahead of me. I checked my rear-view mirror, saw things were clear behind me and begin to move further to the left in the traffic lane.

What I didn't know was that the owner of the van was in the driver's seat of the van as I approached. He'd been finishing some paper-work or something. He glanced in his rear view mirror, checking the traffic lane, not the shoulder behind him, looked ahead and then pulled into the lane to do a u-turn.

As I was coming around, I saw the van pulling out. I pulled further to left but since he was pulling a full u-turn, I had nowhere to go. I slammed into the side of the van and bounced off to the left.

In this case, the van driver was pretty clearly at fault, pulling a u-turn when there was an oncoming vehicle, but stuff happens. I'm interested in what I can do to prevent such things happening in the future. So, onto the lesson's I've learned and things that I do since this incident.

This crash taught me a few valuable lessons about visibility. The number one lesson is that it doesn't matter how brightly dressed you are or how conspicuous you make your bike, if you aren't in a person's line of sight, they won't see you. I was going at traffic speeds, yet I was too far to the right on the shoulder. This is a clear example of why it is safer to "take the lane". Cyclists tend to fear being hit from behind, but collisions from the rear are actually quite rare. And a good percentage of those crashes from the rear, occur when the cyclist swerves into traffic to avoid something on their right. Taking the lane puts you where other road users are looking. Since my crash, I've become much more aware of the importance of proper lane position.

Here are a couple of good pages on "taking the lane":

I think the low sun also may have contributed to my crash. I was coming out of the direction of the setting sun. The driver would have been squinting against the glare. While I do all I can to make myself visible, visibility is a matter of contrast. It's hard to stand out against a backdrop of bright, low sunshine. While I can't entirely avoid riding at sunrise or sunset, I do as much as I can to avoid riding in the times of low sun. I may stay a bit late or leave a bit early to avoid such conditions. I really believe that with lights and reflective gear, it can be safer to ride in darkness than in the times of low sun.

Another lesson I've learned is to look and think further down the road and to slow down. My commute is not a race. On the roads and the paths, it's not worth sprinting for a light to save a few seconds. Like everyone, I still have to work on being patient, but rushing often doesn't save any time and trips to the ER are really time consuming!

I really try to follow the zen precept of "be here now." I don't ride with an iPod. I don't chat on the phone while I'm riding. I try to stay focused on what I'm doing.

I do dress like a dork. I wear a bright colored jacket or vest and I tend to have silly looking reflective bands on my ankles. I've got lots of lights on my bikes and I use them a lot. I've got a big reflective triangle on my bag. And I still ride as if folks don't see me because there will always be some time that someone doesn't see me. But I do everything I can think of to increase my odds of survival.

I've mentioned this before but one of the best bicycle saftey sites I've found is this one:

Enjoy your ride and ride safely.
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