I had a hot date and was running late. And it had begun to rain. Damn it! No time for an Uber; I’d have to cycle. I pulled on my leather jacket. At least it was semi-waterproof, so I could arrive without resembling a bedraggled swamp monster.
I needed to hop across town from Woodley Park to Shaw. If the lights were on my side, I’d be there in 15 minutes without having to go flat-out. Coasting down the hill on 16th Street NW alongside Meridian Hill Park, also known as Malcolm X Park, I was making good time. The lights were green on 16th Street at Florida Avenue. As I was turning left, there was no need to speed up and take the corner like a pod racer in “Star Wars.”
Then I saw it.
I was going to crash. How bad is this going to hurt?
A Nissan Altima, having tried to turn down the wrong way on Crescent Place, was attempting a U-turn. I had nowhere to go. I braked hard, but I could not stop in time. I hit the car’s rear end and went flying over the trunk. Hitting the ground on my right side, I skidded on the slick surface. After I realized I was still alive, I slammed my hand on the wet asphalt in fury.
Picking myself up, I realized I was in the middle of the road and cars heading the other way had stopped, mercifully. Blinking into their headlights, I picked up my mangled bike and walked toward the sidewalk.
“Oh my God, Oh my God!” I heard behind me. The driver was beside himself. He thought he’d killed me. I patted myself down and touched my head. I checked my helmet. Remarkably I was okay. Everything seemed fine — except my bike. The right side of my drop handlebars was bent 45 degrees inward at the point of impact. If the car had been an SUV with a high back end, I probably would have had to have been hospitalized — or far worse.
Bizarrely, the driver’s hysteria calmed me down. My initial fury had turned to compassion — well, close enough. I told him I was okay and that he was a muppet for pulling such a reckless move on a busy road on a hill at night in the rain. He agreed and kept asking me if I was all right. I said I was but was running late. He said he’d give me a lift. Having locked up my bike, taken photos of his registration and license plate and copied down his personal details, it seemed okay to continue talking on the way.
I called my date, and I knew I had a good excuse. She seemed genuinely concerned. Aside from a small scratch on my leg, I was fine. My jacket and jeans weren’t even ripped. There is nothing like a near-death experience to put one in a good mood to celebrate on a Saturday night.
I was lucky.
The driver was quick to pay for my bike repairs. He promised to check for cyclists by looking over his shoulder to scope out the blind spots before pulling out, turning or opening his door. He agreed that emergency flashers shouldn’t be used for parking because they send ambiguous signals and should be used only in an emergency.
Since moving to the District in late 2016, I have been riding my bike twice a day all over town. That’s more than 1,000 bike trips. The District is generally a great biking city — it was recently awarded Gold Bicycle Friendly Community, a status well-deserved for its efforts to add bikes lanes and ensure that every second-grader gets bicycling classes.
Yet nearly every day, I see something unnerving that easily could turn into an accident or tragedy. Cars speeding, pulling out of parking spots without looking, failing to signal to park and driving without their headlights on after dark. Drivers seem distracted by their phones and complacently assume others will adjust their behavior to accommodate whatever they want to do.
Like most drivers in the District, the guy I crashed into was a good person who made a mistake. Yet, drivers seem to forget that they are encased in a metal box with air bags. The rest of us — pedestrians, cyclists and motorcyclists — are not. While most cyclists need to do a better job of abiding by the rules, too, drivers have the greatest responsibility.
The District saw 30 traffic fatalities last year, up from 28 in 2016. Eleven were pedestrians. In 2016, one cyclist was killed and 52 were seriously injured. If the city is to achieve its goal of zero transportation-related fatalities and serious injuries by 2024, enforcing traffic laws and tackling this complacency are essential.
Drivers, first and foremost, need to obey the rules, especially as the number of cyclists grows. If there is a next time, I doubt I will be as lucky. Cyclists count on drivers to make it home again alive.
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