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Post-crash Reflections

Posted Nov 16 2012 6:40pm
Portland morning

Last night I was riding home from work along the Waterfront path on the West side of the river. This is a shared path, as basically all non-road paths in Portland are, and it is used by a lot of people, both walking and riding bikes. It’s used for recreation, for transportation, for relaxation. Most of you who live in Portland will be very familiar with it, as it is one of Portland’s most iconic and well-used public spaces.

Anyway, I was riding home, heading North, as the person in front of me started to veer to the left, across my path. I saw him, braked, veered to the left as well, and shouted. He saw me, and all would have been fine, except the person behind me was going way too fast to stop in time, and slammed right into the back/side of me.

I kind of tumbled off my bike and landed on my arm and then rolled a little, scraped up a couple of my knuckles and bruised my elbow pretty good. My shoulders and back are also fairly sore today from hitting the ground.

The guy who hit me from behind hit the ground so hard that his stem got twisted about 45 degrees off-center from the wheel, his right brake lever was completely bent sideways (and we weren’t able to bend it back), his plastic goggles shattered into dozens of pieces, and he had a pretty good gash on the side of his face from the goggles. I’m assuming his face must have hit the ground when he went down. He was very dazed, but seemed ok overall, and we all stayed around for a few minutes to make sure he was ok. He was bleeding from the gash, but seemed coherent and no other major pains were evident.

The guy in front of me felt horrible and wasn’t sure he’d ever ride his bike again, and the guy who ran into me was also very apologetic and admitted he was going too fast to stop or veer out of the way.

So, there’s the more-or-less factual recounting of the story. Now a couple of thoughts.

Firstly, I’m really glad that guy was riding a bike and not driving a car. If he had been driving a car somewhere with the same insistence on driving faster than the surroundings warranted and ended up with an unexpected situation in front of him, he may well have killed someone (possibly himself). I both don’t want anyone to die that way, and I don’t want anyone to have to live with that kind of thing the rest of their lives.

Secondly, this just highlights to me a general cultural issue that we face, and that is that we 1) tend to feel like we need to rush everywhere, even that we have a right, or even an imperative to do so and 2) we tend not to think about the consequences of our actions until the consequences kick us in the teeth.

It seems like often when you actually hear details about someone who kills or seriously injures someone with an automobile, their response is “I didn’t mean to, I feel terrible, I just didn’t think it was dangerous, etc”. The problem here is, we are not taught that we are responsible for the welfare of other people, that we are responsible for keeping our own behavior in check so that it doesn’t harm others. Because of that, we don’t take it seriously until we really do harm another person unintentionally, and we’re suddenly faced with the direct mental and emotional consequences of that.

Instead, we’re taught that our job is to protect ourselves against whatever could happen to us. As a result, we strap ourselves in, and then feel free to drive/ride in a way we feel protected from, but others are not (and in reality, nobody is completely, it’s a false sense of security in the first place).

All it takes to remedy this is a little bit of moderation and forethought. If the guy who hit me last night would have just been riding at a reasonable speed for that path, nobody would have gone down at all, nobody would have been injured, nobody would have had their property damaged, nobody would have had to feel guilty, nobody would have any emotional trauma.

The same is the case in so many automobile collisions, whether the collision is between a car and something else, or two or more cars. If the people involved would simply have adjusted their driving to be appropriate for the conditions, in many cases the unexpected circumstances that happened wouldn’t have caused a collision, or it would have been much more minor.

From a policy and infrastructure point of view, we need to get on the ball and start hammering home that speed kills. Excessive speed is the cause of so many deaths and injuries, and all for what? So you can get to work or home a few minutes earlier? So you can stop at the next stoplight for 30 seconds longer? What does anyone really gain in the end besides a modicum of convenience?

Yet from a policy and infrastructure perspective, we design for excessive speed, we allow people to drive well over the speed limits and to feel as if that’s normal and acceptable, and we make people feel guilty, and in some places we even give them traffic citations, for going too far under the speed limit. In other areas of society as well (health care for instance) we also tend to be rather reactionary, only treating a patient once there is something wrong, and not giving them the knowledge or the tools to continue relatively healthy through their entire life. These things are beginning to change as we see that we simply can’t keep up if we’re reactionary about everything, but it is changing slowly. Even looking at citizen viewpoints, many people oppose separated bicycle infrastructure, essentially because they won’t be able to ride 25mph on it (because most of the other people on it will be going slower).

So here’s the thing. I don’t think many people are really out to hurt people. Very few. I think we’re raised in an environment that encourages us not to care until it’s too late. Then we really care, because we do indeed care about the welfare of other people, and we ended up seriously damaging it, without even “doing” anything (except for not doing anything).

Anyway, that’s about it. Living well is the best revenge, as R.E.M. put it so well. Go out and care, whatever you happen to be doing. Hopefully it will spread.

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