As the victim of a hit-and-run, I have some strong views about what should be done to improve traffic safety in the Washington area.
So does the Washington Area Bicyclist Association (WABA), whose recent call to action urged the District to crack down on motorists and raise the cost of driving in the city. WABA’s safety plan made a powerful impression on me — but not for the reasons you might expect. That’s because the vehicle that crashed into me was a bicycle.
I ride a bike myself, so when I walk the bike trails, I’m careful to the point of paranoia about hugging the right side of the path so bicycles and joggers can pass. I’ve come to understand that the timely “On your left!” has become as obsolete as “What tidings, sirrah?” Everyone seems to be plugged into a device with AirPods or otherwise distracted, so you can feel like you’re at risk sharing a path with bicycles.
But on this early October morning, I wasn’t on a bike trail. I was walking in a park within sight of the Washington Monument, using a footpath that didn’t seem likely to have many bicycles on it.
I heard a bell behind me and stepped to the right. But instead of slowing down, the biker had already decided to pass me — also on the right. I heard tires skidding and then 200-odd pounds crashed into me, knocking me face first into the concrete.
I was lucky. I didn’t break any bones, I didn’t break my glasses, and I didn’t hit my head. I landed on my knees and elbows, converting them into a hot mess of street pizza. I didn’t realize until later that the front bicycle tire had run over my calf.
The biker went down too, but with less energy perhaps, having used me as his shock absorber. He was polite enough. He assisted me to a park bench. He asked whether he should call an ambulance, which I declined. Then he went on his way, without offering any contact information. I was shaken up and didn’t think to ask for his information before he left.
If he had been driving a car, that would have been a hit-and-run under Virginia law. The truth is, I really wasn’t in any shape to determine whether I needed more help or not — that’s why the law is there. However, both law and culture seem to treat bikes differently.
The damage from the bicycle crash appeared only later. I had been booked to fly out of Reagan National Airport later that day on a business trip but had to cancel. I was forced to take off additional time for work, too, because of my injuries, including an infection from the tire track on my leg that required antibiotics and an ultrasound to make sure I didn’t have blood clots. I was lucky I had good medical insurance and an understanding boss.
I haven’t walked the Mount Vernon Trail since the crash. It had always been a bit nerve-racking sharing that trail with bicycles before the accident. Now I feel that if I got hit there again, it would be my fault.
Then I read WABA’s action plan for traffic safety: congestion-tolling to reduce vehicular traffic in the city, stricter speed limits, requiring drivers to take their driving test again every time they renew their licenses and so on.
Fine, I thought — I might go along with some of that. But what about bicycle safety? Shouldn’t we require bicyclists to carry insurance to cover them and potential injuries to pedestrians, or to take a riding test to prove they know how to ride? What about extending hit-and-run laws to cover bicyclists? Or annual bicycle inspections and equipment checks? How about stricter penalties for riding a bicycle on the sidewalk when there are bike lanes nearby? Fourscore strokes from a cat o’ nine tails seems about right.
I would at least like to see bicycles have turn signals in addition to other basic safety equipment. I bet that wouldn’t cost any more than the navigation computer, sensors and other gewgaws that people now have in their motor vehicles.
But bicycles are treated differently. We don’t even have good data on how many bike accidents happen because they are often below the radar of law enforcement and insurance. Stricter laws for bicyclists should include better reporting.
I’m all for making our roads safer, as WABA suggests. But as a matter of public policy, I think we need to make sure bicyclists are part of that campaign, too.
— Bill Sweetman, 62, lives in Crystal City. He spent more than four decades as a journalist, now works as a corporate strategist and occasionally rides a bicycle. He has also been reading a lot of Patrick O’Brien lately.
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