I was hit by a car while riding my bike last week, and I don't really understand why I'm not maimed or worse. Maybe I am dead, like the guy in The Sixth Sense, and I just don't realize it. Or I am dying in the E.R., and I'm about to wake up and realize that, kind of like the guy in Jacob's Ladder. In some parallel universe, one in which things happened just a little differently, I most certainly am dead or dying. But as I write this, in this universe, I seem to be alive, albeit weirded out.
My apparent physical state after this accident is pretty nominal. I cut my tongue and I have a puncture wound in my leg. And yet, when I play it back in my mind, I recall thinking, a moment before it happened, "This isn't going to be good," and the car hit me pretty hard. A witness said I flew into the air before landing on the concrete. I sat there dazed for a minute or two, my mouth numb and my leg aching, then got up and walked to the curb.
This chain of events began a couple of weeks ago when I had coffee with a friend. We were talking about getting motivated to exercise — she does triathlons, and I decidedly do not — and I mentioned how I liked riding a bicycle, at least it takes you somewhere, and needed to get back into that. This friend lives in the next neighborhood over, and we're both just a few blocks from the Burke-Gilman Trail, an old interurban railroad grade which is the Interstate 5 of bicycles in Seattle. My friend rides once or twice a week for now, before the triath season heats up, and she suggested I join her. We set a date, which got delayed once and was rescheduled for last Friday, May 8.
The day before, Thursday, May 7 (I now refer to this as 5-7-9), I thought uh-oh, I better get the bike out and be sure it's running OK and, more importantly, ride somewhere to get warmed up so I don't completely embarrass myself the next day. So I brought the bike up from the basement and set off.
I ride a red Bridgestone mountain bike, the MB-4, which I think I bought in 1991 at Elliott Bay Bicycles for something like $500 or so. It's a steel-framed mountain bike that has been all over Seattle and on single-track trails in Alaska. Last year I replaced the original tires with new, skinnier hybrid ones more appropriate to the city.
The weather was fairly decent when I left our house in northeast Seattle in the early afternoon, though it had clouded up. I picked up the Burke-Gilman Trail and headed east past the University Village shopping center, through the University of Washington campus, under the University and Interstate 5 bridges, around the north shore of Lake Union, and to the Fremont neighborhood, where I stopped for lunch — maybe three or four miles. As I ate a chickenburger at Blue Moon Burgers, it started to rain very hard. After eating, using my iPhone, I Twittered this fact. It was 3:19 p.m.
It looked like the rain wasn't going to let up — kind of unusual this time of year in Seattle — so I decided to pedal on home through the downpour. I stopped beneath bridges and other protected places a couple of times to escape the rain briefly, but not for long. Had I not stopped, or had I stopped for longer or shorter periods, this particular accident would not have happened, of course. Like I said, weird.
I was a little soaked by the time I got back to the UW campus area, but the rain had let up some, or so it seemed. There still were a lot of people on the trail. The Burke-Gilman is asphalt and in most places is a completely separate grade from streets and sidewalks, but through the lower UW campus it crosses numerous roads as it shadows Northeast Pacific Street. There are stop signs for bicyclists where the trail crosses a couple of streets, but at busy intersections the trail enjoins sidewalks, and cyclists and pedestrians alike abide the lighted walk-don't-walk signs that accompany traffic signals. One such intersection is at Northeast Pacific Street and University Way Northeast ("The Ave").
As I approached University Way, I could see the white pedestrian sign was illuminated, so I continued pedaling, down the ramped curb cut and into the street, which was concrete and adorned with broad white crosswalk stripes. A compact silver car was at that moment westbound on Pacific — essentially coming toward me — and had slowed, apparently to turn right onto University, into my crosswalk. But it seemed to be hesitating, so I continued on, assuming the driver saw me. I couldn't be certain that the driver saw me, because the overcast sky was reflected by the windshield and I couldn't see a face, but I would have been hard to miss. I was wearing a bright-purple fleece pullover and riding a red bike, and I was the only person crossing at that moment, as best as I can recall.
About halfway across, I realized the car had not stopped and was rolling around the corner, so I started to brake. But my wheel rims were wet, so my brakes weren't terribly effective. I don't know how fast I was going, but I think the car may have been doing about 10 mph, coming toward me at about a 45-degree angle on my right side. At the last moment, I recall seeing a woman behind the wheel looking to her left. She didn't see me, and it was obvious she was going to hit me. The last thing I thought before the impact, in addition to "this isn't going to be good," was that I needed to roll onto the hood like they do in the movies to lessen the impact. I don't know if I actually did this. The impact seemed hard, a thud, and something happened in my mouth. The next thing I knew, I was on the pavement, and the driver had jumped out of the car and was on her knees beside me. "Are you alright?! Are you alright?!" Two other women came over and asked me something. I said I needed to sit there for a minute. Did I want them to call the medics? I said yes. One of them used the driver's phone to call 911. According to the Seattle Fire Department dispatch log, it was 3:53 p.m. I looked up at the crosswalk signal, wondering if I had crossed against the light. The white pedestrian symbol was still illuminated.
My mouth was numb. I put my hand in, and there was a little blood. Shit, I thought, I lost teeth. But a little probing revealed that they were all there. I had apparently bitten my tongue. My left leg was achy, too. Something on the bike had punctured the skin in a pattern, penetrating fleece tights and the sock but not hurting the fabric. I had been wearing full bicycle gloves, so my hands weren't scraped or anything. I was wearing clear safety glasses and a helmet, and it didn't seem that I had hit my head. (Later, I found the outer plastic shell had been cracked but the foam inside was intact. Maybe I did bang my head a little.) I was going to be fine. "I'm think I'm OK," I said. After a moment, one woman helped me up and I walked back to "my" side of the street. They brought my crippled bike over, and a minute or so later, while I was calling my wife on my phone, Engine 16 of the Seattle Fire Department arrived.
The medics checked me out, filled out a report, and left. Two Seattle cops arrived. Everyone concluded that I was one lucky dude. I'm still trying to get my head around that.
The driver was a 20-year-old UW student, and she was distraught. "I'm so sorry! I'm so sorry!" The front-left of her 2009 Toyota Corolla was scratched up a bit, and I had ripped off the driver's side mirror on my way to the pavement. But she was unhurt physically. I tried to assure her. "I'm fine. Lesson learned." She was cited for failure to regard a pedestrian with the right of way. For her, the lesson was obvious. For me, not quite as obvious. I'm a pretty careful rider. I don't insist on asserting myself in traffic the way some cyclists do — that annoys me when I'm in a car. One of the cops rode bicycles a lot. "You just have to ride like everyone out there wants to kill you," he said.
The next day, I got checked out by a doc who concurred with everyone else that I was lucky as hell. I need to see a dentist because a tooth is out of alignment. For a few days after the accident, in the car, I drove like a scaredy-cat. I haven't been losing sleep or anything, but 5-7-9 has been on my mind a lot. Did it really happen? Why can't I remember what happened upon impact? Why wasn't I seriously hurt? What does this mean?
Like everything, it is subject to change, but until further notice, I am alive.