22:53 Sun 30 Sep 2007
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I came out of it almost without injury and am fine, but yesterday I had my first collision with a car while riding my bike in San Francisco—a span of more than seven years of near-daily cycling.

I was cycling downhill on Gough Street, goin quite fast. Gough is fairly steep, certainly steep enough for me to be going at or greater than the speed of the cars on it. It has timed lights, so traffic is usually set to about 30 miles per hour, perhaps slightly less with heavy traffic. I’m an aggressive cyclist, and when going at traffic speed will take up entire lanes, and not just the rightmost lane. When going at the same speed as traffic, I see nor reason why I shouldn’t take lanes essentially as a motorcyclist would, since I’m not going to be obstructing traffic.

Despite that lead-in, the collision had little to do with that approach. Going down Gough and nearing the intersection at Turk, I was in the center of the rightmost lane. I have created some badly-Photoshopped diagrams to illustrate the scenario, starting with this one:

Diagram of pre-collision traffic flow 1

The traffic in the rightmost lane was going slower than I was. The light at the intersection was green, and had been for a little while. At this point I have three choices: slow down to the speed of the car in front of me (thus losing almost all of the momentum I had); move left to lane-split between the center and rightmost lanes; move right to enter the “traditional” bike position between the rightmost lanes and the parked cars (the cars on the far right of the street in the diagram were all parked and stationary). If you’re not a cyclist, you might think that the choice of slowing down is the one I should have taken. It’s not. My experience has shown me that being around the speed of traffic is safer than being slower, and once I lose that momentum, I’m not fast enough to regain traffic speed on the flat (I’m fairly close to the bottom of the hill at this point). In addition, just as cars do, I have the right to efficient movement and to maneuver around slower traffic in front of me.

My preference is to take the green line in the diagram. If I take the red line, I risk having one of the parked cars open a door in front of me. At that speed, that’s not a pleasant thought. However, I didn’t like the look of the way the cars in the center and right lanes were bunching up—there wasn’t much space between them, and I thought it would be too dangerous to lane-split there. So I decided to risk possible dooring, which seemed unlikely right then with just three vehicles there, none of which appeared to have moved as I was approaching. So I took that course, into the traditional cyclist area:

Diagram of pre-collision traffic flow 2

Overtaking the last car on the right, and alongside the middle car, I start applying my brakes gently. I don’t want to risk full speed here because I don’t know what the red car is going to do. The black car will be aware of me by the time it’s in the turn zone, because I’ll be at or ahead of its front wheels and clearly visible to the driver. That’s not true of the red car, so I’m watching it and slowing slightly. It would be foolish of me to expect actual use of turn signals, which absolutely cannot be relied upon, but cars taking turns do exhibit patterns of movement and behavior (slowing down, adjusting their angle, etc.) that I look out for. No sign of these at all from the red car, which enters the intersection clearly not intending a right turn. That brings us to this position:

Diagram of pre-collision traffic flow 3

The red car is going slightly slower than I am, and I’m going to overtake it on the right in the intersection. The light is still green, and everything looks fine to me.

However, the driver of the red car, about halfway through the intersection, suddenly decides they do want to take that right turn after all, and so turn sharply right onto Turk:

Diagram of pre-collision traffic flow 4

I know that this diagram makes it look as if I have plenty of space to my right, but that wasn’t really available to me at the time. With such a sudden turn, the car’s body was in front of me as soon as I could really react. I jammed my brakes and turned/leaned right, managing to run into the right side of the car around the trunk, and with my front wheel pointing about the same direction as the car, rather than straight forward. I came off my bike to my left and must have rolled over, on my side, managing somehow not to hit my head.

I was able to stand, and screamed something abusive at the driver, who stopped and was very apologetic and contrite. Another driver stopped to check on me, which was rather nice of him, that was very much appreciated. I checked myself for injury but didn’t seem to have any, and knew I hadn’t hit my head. I also had the concerned driver look me over in case I was unable to see something wrong (I’ve heard plenty of stories of people in accidents who initially think they’re fine but have bones sticking out, etc.). I calmed down fairly quickly when I realized that I wasn’t really hurt and that the driver was apologetic. I was quite relieved to realize that I wasn’t injured, and that relief washed away some of the adrenaline rush. So I checked on my bike, which also seemed to be fine (much to my surprise, actually), and decided that there wasn’t much point in trying to call the police, or pursue matters with the driver. I told them a few times that they must check for cyclists and that they can’t be so reckless as to take sudden turns like that one, and they were clearly regretting their carelessness. I probably should have taken their details, which they offered, but at the time the idea of either police involvement or legal action seemed like too much. I told her we’d call it a lucky escape, and be done with it.

I don’t regret that decision, a day later. (I know what her license plate is, so if I had changed my mind, I would probably be able to get somewhere.) I would like it if there were some way to inflict a minor punishment as a kind of reminder, but I don’t know of any of those. I know the SFPD tend to be pretty useless when it comes to bike accidents, and could only assume that here, where there was no serious harm done, would have been no different. Apart from which, where would I go with that? Someone suggested that I should have said something along the lines of “well, give me what’s in your wallet and we’ll call it even”—that felt wrong at first, but the more I think about it, the more sense it makes. I don’t know that I’d actually do that if I were in such a position again, but somehow the concept has some merit (although it would be a really dumb thing to do if you turned out to be more injured later, because they could claim it was a legal settlement). Practically speaking, it’s problematic, but some other reminder or penalty for their carelessness, which clearly endangered and (minorly) harmed another, seems appropriate. I just don’t know what that is, short of legal action, which somehow seems really unappealing here (not for any moral reason—I have no moral problem with strongly pursuing legal action).

Anyway, that’s it. I was quite lucky indeed, in that I was able to get back on my bike, cycle to my destination, and then play squash with no real ill effects. Some minor scratches, that’s about all.

My mental state was clearly altered, though. Also in a minor way—I doubt I could have been considered to have been in shock. But altered. My adrenaline rush was still around, and I was definitely more irritable, and generally more hyper, for the next thirty minutes or so. It’s interesting to me what I remember: I remember very clearly the moment I realized that they really were going to take a right turn, and my disbelief at this mixed with my immediate hitting the brakes and trying to figure out how to not hit them. I remember the initial moment of impact, my wheel hitting them at an angle. I don’t really remember falling or rolling, though. My memory goes from that initial impact to sitting up and shouting at them, and then some fractured bits of getting up, realizing that I seemed to be okay, and so on. There’s a weird contrast in senses of “unreality”, too. The chunk of time just before the impact felt very “real” at the time, and still does in memory. No time for much consideration or reflection, just the immediate need to make decisions about how to avoid injury. Post-impact, however, that sense was gone, and I know it felt very unreal somehow, almost dreamlike. There was no sense of urgency, and I suppose that the transition from a very significant sense of urgency to none at all is disorienting in itself.

I wore shorts for that ride yesterday, for the first time in many years, and as I set out uphill I was thinking “shorts, I bet this’ll be the day I have some accident, and end up sliding across the street on my knees”. But that didn’t happen, and despite bare knees (and bare arms), I emerged almost entirely unscathed. As the title says: lucky.

2 Responses to “Lucky”

  1. Radegund Says:

    Oh. Very glad you’re OK. Gingerly hugs (in case of bruises).

    (Also, fwiw, you haven’t quite expurgated the text of indications of the driver’s sex!)

  2. Tadhg Says:

    Radegund: I too was (and am) glad I’m okay! As for expurgating the gender, I was mainly trying to keep it gender-neutral while describing what was going on before I knew their gender, and then decided their gender really wasn’t that relevant. But I don’t think I’ll go back and edit the remaining indication(s?) out…

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