Seeing the immediate after effects of an accident is a sobering reminder of how careful we all need to be on the roads. And it got me thinking about how we can make things safer…
– A blog by Rob Arnold
It was one of those rides: the kind you do, largely out of habit. Sunshine turned to drizzle, and before long it was pouring rain, wet roads, puddles, strange light and a generally confused mood. Adding to the oddity was that it’s a Monday morning during a pandemic. At times like this, there’s little about the traffic conditions that is predictable. One day it might be frantic on the roads, the next it could be relatively quiet.
Sometimes the mood can seem friendly, other times motorists can be aggressive and impatient. Today, there was a mix of both which made it even more difficult to know if it was going to be a relaxing ride or one I wished I never started.
To those who are new to cycling, this may (or may not) make sense, but it won’t be long before you’ll be able to explain the differences in road conditions on a Monday versus, for example, a Friday. (Yep, even workdays in non-pandemic times can have a considerable contrast, because moods – and many other variables – influence our behaviour in traffic.)
I now sit in the office a few hours after my morning ride thinking about a conversation I had with myself following an abrupt decision to head home earlier than planned. It didn’t take a lot of prompting. The sight of shattered glass and a bike rider lying on his back bleeding near an intersection with Anzac Parade was enough of a hint: get home now! Go for another ride some other time.
The fallen cyclist was talking but those who were first on the scene only moments after the accident (about a minute before my arrival) established that his injuries could have been such that it wasn’t worth the risk of trying to move him.
An ambulance had been called and the only sign of blood was on his right arm, and it didn’t look too severe. It wasn’t gushing, rather it looked more like a superficial wound, but it was his bones the people on the scene were worried about.
“I’m really starting to feel faint now,” he said, rolling his head slightly from left to right, helmet still strapped on but sounding coherent, even with a thick French accent. It didn’t seem like he had concussion and there was enough movement to suggest that he’d luckily escaped any spinal injuries.
Still, precaution was the order of the day while we waited for the ambulance.
The driver of the car that struck the cyclist was managing as much as he could; still in shock he was considerably collected given what had just happened. He had called the ambulance. He had stopped and attended to the injured rider so quickly that his car’s engine was still running even though it was now parked near the left hand gutter, missing a passenger side front window, and the front windscreen was shattered from the impact.
Considering all that had happened in a fraction of a second only moments earlier, it was calm at the scene of the accident. A nearby resident came to front of her house.
“Did you see it happen?” I asked.
“No, but I sure did hear it – the crash, and the screams.”
The driver took some time to explain his perspective while we stood over the injured rider, making sure he was as comfortable as possible.
“I was there,” he said, pointing to the other side of the road on which the cyclist had been travelling, “and a car had just come past. The sun was shining but I really thought it was clear.” The driver lowered his head, dejected and ashamed of what had happened. “I just didn’t see him.”
At times like this it’s hard to know what to do. Others were talking to the cyclist and making calls to his family to let them know what had happened. And the driver was clearly upset. In the briefest of moments, only a few minutes earlier, his morning had taken a sudden change in direction. This wasn’t how he wanted to start the week. It was, quite simply, an accident.
It wasn’t malicious. It wasn’t related to speeding or hooliganism. The driver knew it was wrong of him and he was doing all he could to tend to the rider who he’d taken out by accident.
After the driver told his story I asked if he was okay. “Yeah,” he uttered, “but it’s not okay, is it? This sort of thing shouldn’t happen.”
Of course he was right. It shouldn’t happen but it did. It wasn’t the first time and, alas, it won’t be the last time an incident such as that occurs.
Working together to share safety tips
What happened this morning got me thinking about how we as a community of cyclists can help each other in the quest to minimise the risk that exists in traffic. If there was a simple solution, it would have been enacted already but it’s an ongoing lesson about prudence over haste, surety over hope, and about explaining our respective views so that others understand our circumstances.
There’s little sense in me writing this, on a cycling blog read by cyclists, in the hope that motorists are going to read it and reconsider how they behave in traffic. But there is value in everyone who does read this telling their friends – those who also drive – about how cyclists see things in traffic.
Here’s an example (noted only moments before I saw the ramifications of the accident): while passing through Maroubra junction a delivery van was parked in a clearway. It was a 50km/h zone and I was riding at ±40km/h. I had two options: stop behind the van and wait for traffic to pass, and start my ride again; or signal to the driver behind me that I was going to take the centre lane, merge carefully, pass the van, then slot back into the left-hand lane.
I took option two and kept rolling, no time lost. The driver behind me, was generous enough to allow a space for me to ride… and all was okay. But the driver also accelerated right up to my rear tyre, leaving only about a metre between the front of her car and my bike.
I can cope with that setting. Many who ride bikes in our cities understand that setting. It’s not ideal, but it’s better than having the car accelerate into our bikes.
If that driver happens to be a friend of someone who rides, and that cyclist explains their perspective (eg: ‘Hey, please just leave a little more room next time…’) then that tiny sentence might have an impact.
I continued riding, around the van and with the motorist close to my rear wheel but I wanted to keep my eyes on the road ahead and concentrate on where I was going and what hazards could be up ahead. Instead, because of the close proximity of the car behind me, I was compelled to take precautionary glances behind while I rode… to make sure they’d seen me, to signal ‘Thanks’, and to check that the driver wasn’t about to plough into me.
I’ve ridden bikes for a very long time. I can easily turn my head to look behind and see what’s happening while I ride. But, in 2022, there are a lot of new cyclists in our cities, some may not yet have the confidence to do the same.
The pandemic has prompted many to consider cycling – for exercise, for transport, for pleasure, for tourism, etc – and bike sales suggest that the uptake is significant.
If there was a new rider in the situation I found myself in with the van and the blocked clearway, it might have prompted a moment’s panic, or just some hesitation. It could have been the equivalent of the sunshine that temporarily blinded the driver who smashed into the cyclist a little further down the road.
There is a broad mix of road users: some experienced, others novices. And there’s a reason why new drivers wear ‘L’ plates, it’s a yellow sign that suggests: ‘Hey, please give a little space and a bit of understanding if things go wrong…’ Most people understand the concept. It elicits a little respect or, at least, less aggro. Before long, the L-plater will better understand traffic and cars and the things others do on our roads. In time, they will become a P-plater, a ‘provisional’ driver… and then, all going well, a bona fine drivers licence holder.
Let’s all help less experienced cyclists
There aren’t ‘L’ or ‘P’ plates for bike riders. We often start our cycling lives at a young age and the unsteady early moments as cyclists spell out the lack of experience. For those of us who have ridden most of our lives, there are plenty of other cues that suggest the level of competence a cyclist has.
Perhaps it’s as superficial as the level of components on the bike, or maybe it’s simply the way they are sitting on the saddle, or even a cryptic cross-chained gear selection. (Ever notice how new riders often really like to push a huge gear?)
Maybe you’ve found out that the rider is new because you’ve engaged in conversation and they explain something like, “I’ve been off the bike for years but I’m keen to start riding again…”
Traffic now might be considerably different to when some in the COVID-era last rode a bike. If nothing else, there are certainly more bike paths now (in Sydney at least). And even these devices that are meant to make riding safer can be confusing… and suddenly a novice cyclist could find themselves in a precarious situation.
Even frequently travelled roads can provide a surprise or two: a pothole here, a puddle there, some gravel or glass, etc. You need to be prepared for anything and everything. And that’s why asking your friends (who may drive but not ride) to give a little more space could stop an accident from happening.
It’s a social (media) world: let’s use it for good
If you’re reading this article on this site, chances are you’re a cyclist. But I’m guessing you would know people who don’t ride, and those people probably know a few more people… and so on. With this in mind, my hope is that we can get enough people talking to each other so that some of the unknown elements of respective road users are shared and considered. Furthermore, wouldn’t it be great if some of the lessons from motorists and riders alike are passed on and various perspectives highlighted so that there are generally safer conditions on the roads for everyone?
There are myriad examples of things cyclists could tell motorists about their view from the bike that would help drivers understand some of the things that can seem dangerous. It’s not possible to offer examples for every scenario but if this column ignites a broader discussion – or even just one conversation between friends – that’s a good start.
We all make mistakes…
I’ll conclude this column with a paraphrased telling of an incident I remember from late last year, as this reminds me to think of the perspective of others.
Towards the end of a Saturday ride I was at the front of a row of traffic not far from my office, waiting for a red light to turn green. To my right was a huge semi-trailer. Another cyclist weaved his way to the front of the queue and nestled into position just to my right… but also slightly ahead of the bumper bar of the enormous truck.
Before the light turned green, the truck rolled ever-so-slightly forward and touched the rear wheel of the cyclist’s bike. I fumed. “Hey! Watch out,” I was yelling at the truckie, “there’s a bike rider just there!”
I pulled out my camera and filmed just in case things went from bad to seriously nasty. I got the truck company’s name and collected enough information to be able to report the incident. Instead of going to the police, however, I wrote to the trucking company. Within minutes of the next working day, my phone rang and I was able to discuss the incident with the trucking company’s transport coordinator who also happened to be a cyclist.
There was courtesy in his call and we had a long and detailed conversation about the incident, about how I thought the cyclist didn’t exactly do the right thing by positioning himself where he did, and how the truck driver absolutely didn’t have to roll forward in a threatening manner.
A few days passed and footage from four cameras on the truck (yes, four) was examined. My explanation of the incident, I was subsequently told, was correct. The driver admitted his error but he also explained his perspective: “I just couldn’t see him there.”
A few weeks later, I saw the rider out on the bike again. I explained it was me who yelled at the truckie and he replied, “Oh man, thanks for being there. I was actually really shaken by that whole ordeal and I didn’t know what to do. It could have turned out a lot worse.”
There was no sun. There was no speed. There were mistakes made (by the rider and the driver). No one was harmed. But, thankfully, conversations were started because of the incident. The truck driver and bike rider alike now both know that they should consider the perspective of the other, they should behave better in traffic, they should never stop concentrating on what could go wrong.
It’s a very long article to say what’s on my mind. It could all be summarised with, ‘Let’s be careful out there.’ But my hope is that a few perspectives are shared and that we end up with safer roads, fewer accidents, and more understanding between all who go places using public spaces.
– By Rob Arnold