I am constantly picturing the collision that will kill me. riding in cars, I watch for the driver who will run the red light and plow into my passenger-side door. on my bike, I look down every street that I cross and even when there is nothing coming, I see the speeding car that smashes me sideways into the path of oncoming traffic. I see it as if I’m watching myself from behind: the impact, the noise, the spray of shattered plastic, the parabola of my body’s flight through the air. I never quite see anything hit the ground.
so it’s legitimately ironic, I think, that when an SUV ran me down on my bicycle last week, it drove into me from behind. I saw nothing until it was on top of me. I was riding home from work, perfectly in the middle of the bike lane on franklin avenue, approaching but not yet at the point where the street curves just slightly to the right. then my handlebars were yanked out from under me as they caught on the side of the SUV for a split second before there was no space at all between my body and the warm metal frame of the car. I know I screamed, but not with words — I often yell at drivers when I need them to notice me, but this time there was nothing left to be avoided. the car had hit me and I was about to hit the ground as I fell I was watching the space between the undercarriage and the pavement, hoping that my head would slip beneath the car after the rear wheel and not before it. there’s only so much a helmet can do.
I landed just behind the tail of the SUV with my bicycle still between my knees. I got up and assessed the damage: blood all over my legs, asphalt imprinted on my wrists, but nothing broken. chain dangling, derailleur a little bent, brake pulls stripped of paint, but nothing broken. by this point another cyclist had pulled to a stop behind me and the driver had emerged from her SUV, and suddenly things started to get weird. I knew I wasn’t thinking straight, with my heart still racing and my veins more full of adrenaline than hemoglobin, but it was clear that something was not right about the person who had just driven her car into my side. her belt was threaded through only one side of her pants, and the buckle flopped against her calf as she walked towards me. she looked dazed; glazed. it was 2:30 in the afternoon.
“I don’t know what happened,” she said.
“what happened is you hit me!” I could hear the edge of panic in my voice and swallowed it down, realizing with some terror that I had to be the person in control of the situation. “I was riding in the bike lane and you drove into me and hit me. that is what happened.”
“I guess I came a little too far over,” she said. “I didn’t even see you. I didn’t even know you were there.”
what happened, I thought, is this two-ton machine of steel and glass and horsepower was being operated by someone who couldn’t even understand the spatial relationship between it and the road.
I had no idea what to do. never having owned a drivers license or car insurance, I wasn’t sure what was supposed to happen after an accident. but I was the only one in control. I told her what had happened; I told her what would happen next. exchange contact information. names. write down your license plate number. she kept trying to pick up my bicycle instead. mercifully, someone who’d heard my screaming had called 911 and when the cops showed up, they took over.
the EMTs tended to me while the police questioned people. one of them popped into the ambulance to take my statement and let me know how to get a copy of the report. by then I just wanted to get home — my dog was waiting, alone — but I found out later that the driver of the SUV was charged with a DUI. alcohol and prescription drugs. I felt oddly as if the world was working properly for once, with all these strangers looking out for me: the woman who stopped her bike ride to make sure I was okay, then stayed and held my bike for me while my wounds were being cleaned and bandaged; the guys who ran out of their building to make sure the driver didn’t get away; all the people who gave me their names and phone numbers in case I needed witnesses later on. brooklyn taking care of me.
when I signed the medical paperwork, I asked the EMT if there was anything in particular I should be aware of that might mean my injuries were more serious than they looked:
“is there anything I should watch out for?”
“watch out for cars!” he said.
“the cars should be watching out for ME!”
the cars don’t watch out for me, most of the time. I know that. I dodge a potential crash every day, probably, and it doesn’t bother me because I can see them coming. I’ve been a bicycle commuter on and off since 1995, when I started high school, and in fifteen years and literally thousands of rides I’ve been hit twice and doored twice. I thrive on the assertive, decisive style of riding that city traffic demands; while I hate cars, I understand what my father loved about driving a cab in new york.
on tuesday I biked along that same stretch of road for the first time since the accident, and was surprised to see that in the spot where I was hit, the bike lane and the car lane are separated by a four-foot buffer. I suppose it’s lucky in a way, because I landed in that no-man’s-land part of the street instead of directly in the path of oncoming cars. but it also means that the driver who hit me was in the wrong place by nearly 100% of the width of her SUV.
I was shocked to find a pair of long white scratches in the asphalt that must have somehow come from my brakes being scraped across the street. did my back wheel come off the ground? it must have, but I don’t remember.
closer to home, I was riding in the bike lane when a sedan cut directly across my path to swoop into an empty parking spot. I stopped, hard, but could still reach out to bang on the side of the car. and I yelled, but with words.
“hey! watch out! I’m on a bike right here!”
the driver leaned out his window and met my glare with an ignominious grin. “sorry, sorry, sorry!”
I hopped my front wheel sideways to ride around his car. “you could have killed me!”
“sorry, sorry, sorry.”
watch out, everyone. just watch out. for bikes, for cars, for people. for each other.