At Bicycle Roots, we try to be more than just a bike shop. Any shop can sell bicycles. But we consider the business of building a community of cyclists to be our main commodity.
Recently, there have been a number of high-profile cases in which a reckless driver has harmed or killed a cyclist, pedestrian, or other user of alternative transportation. These cases are not occurring in isolation—it’s the rule, rather the exception, that a reckless driver can walk away from the scene of the crime with little more than a slap on the wrist. No fines, no jail time even when they have killed or severely maimed an individual.
This affects our whole community. We know that safety is the number one concern of local riders. Everyone has either had an incident with a driver, or knows someone who has. This fear is legitimate, and it’s a big obstacle to getting people to consider their bicycle as their main form of transportation. Join us in holding the NYPD’s Accident Investigation Squad (AIS for short) accountable for investigating these incidents properly, and setting a precedent for other municipalities in handling incidents between drivers and users of alternative transportation.
A PERSONAL MESSAGE FROM THE EDITOR
If you have been following our blog, you’re probably familiar with Cassandra, the resident head of marketing at Bicycle Roots. She’s the one behind the scenes, creating content for the blog and other media outlets. The epidemic of poorly-investigated incidents between drivers and cyclists is something she takes personally—because she has personally experienced the NYPD and AIS’s ineffectuality in these situations.
A former bicycle messenger, she quit her job following an incident in which she was rear-ended on Church Street in lower Manhattan while carrying a package for an architecture firm. This is her story.
AND SO IT BEGINS….
I’m sharing my story in an attempt to show that the AIS and the NYPD’s failures to properly investigate incidents are system-wide failures, not isolated occurrences. I hope that if you have a similar experience, you’ll share it in the comments. It’s important that we speak out about the AIS and NYPD’s failures to protect our most vulnerable road users. Accidents affect lives. Even if you walk away uninjured, your experience may affect you for months or years to come. You may find yourself unable to ride your bike in traffic, flinching every time you hear a car horn or an engine rev. If your bike is part of your identity, you may feel like you’ve lost a part of yourself. Without a proper incident report or the ability to prosecute a reckless driver for negligence, closure may be a long time coming.
In 2011, I worked for a major courier company for several months. Due to the recession, I had been unemployed for nearly a year previously, and although the hours were long and the work often harsh and unforgiving, I was happy to have the job, especially since my (now ex-) fiance had lost his job at the beginning of the summer. Between early June 2011 and October 2011, my ability to navigate the city streets quickly and accurately on my bicycle was the only source of income we had. Anytime my legs ached, or I was nearly run over by a car, or spit on by a taxi driver, I forced myself to keep pedaling. We were too close to the edge for me to stop.
Those were not easy times. I had not expected to be the primary breadwinner when my ex and I had decided to move in together—he lost his well-paying job as a teller at a Chase bank the day after we had written the checks for our first month’s rent on a sublet in Flushing. Messenger work never pays well, but I was strong and hungry (often literally) for work. I’d proven myself to my dispatcher and coworkers as fast and reliable, willing to take any job no matter the distance, just so my ex and I could have the bare minimum needed for existence. I’d earned a grudging respect as a female messenger in a male-dominated culture, and with business picking up as summer ended, the survival-driven anxiety that had been my constant companion since June had begun to ebb.
Although I had many close calls and near-misses as a messenger, my luck ran out at the end of September. I remember clearly—it was a clear, brisk, early-autumn day. The sky was blue with the occasional puffy cloud; there was a hint of autumn smoke in the air although the sun was still strong and warm. Business had picked up after the August lull, and I was confident knowing my dispatched trusted me enough to handle even the most urgent jobs. My black Cannondale 3.0 took me wherever I needed to go, and fast.
The morning of the accident, my dispatcher sent me a double-rush job, carrying blueprints from a municipal building on Trinity Street to a nonprofit on Church Street, just below Canal. Despite the short distance, it paid pretty well. The blueprints were the only thing I was carrying, on a street I traversed multiple times a day, a street on which I knew every pothole, every crack in the pavement. I started uptown at a leisurely pace, but gained speed as I pedaled, enjoying the clear weather and the relatively light load, the total synthesis of body and bike. I was no longer a girl on a bicycle, but a strange hybrid creature—girl and bike, a fusion of muscle, aluminum and steel.
Since Church has no bike lanes, I took a lane as I rode—not the rightmost lane, but the lane to the left. (Ed. note: For those of you unfamiliar with Church Street, it has four lanes. I was in the third lane, or second-right lane, in order to avoid stop-and-go buses and idling cars.) I was aware of relatively sparse traffic for a late-Friday morning in lower Manhattan. There were a few cars passing on my left, and I caught a glimpse of a white S.U.V behind me when I swerved right to avoid a pothole. I eased back into the center of the lane, letting my cadence carry me forward.
As we approached Worth Street, the light turned from green to yellow. I gently squeezed my brakes to scrub speed in case the light turned red before I reached the intersection. All of a sudden, I heard the engine of a car behind me, deafeningly loud like someone forgetting to whisper and instead shouting right into your ear. The next thing I knew, I was airborne.
This is where it all gets blurry. These events transpired so quickly, it was not until hours later that I was able to connect them all. As far as I can tell, this is what happened:
I don’t remember being hit. I remember the split-second before impact, knowing it was going to happen and knowing I could not get out of this one. Then it all goes black.
The next thing I remember is waking up in the street, having been thrown into the right turning lane. My cleats were still clipped in to my pedals, which as counter-intuitive as it seems, may have saved me from suffering any gross injuries. It turns out that bicycles are not so aerodynamic when turned sideways, and being securely clipped in may have prevented me from being thrown a great distance as the bike weighed me down.
Although I did not realize this until later, I hit my head upon impact. Thankfully, I was wearing my helmet. It did not crack, but there were clear impact marks on the right side1. I blacked out, probably for only a second or two, but it was only later when I began to piece events together that I realized I’d hit the ground hard enough to go under.
What happened next was all instinct. I remember waking up, knowing I was in traffic. I tried to stand but was stuck to my bike. Moving quickly, I undid the Velcro closures on my cycling shoes and wriggled to my feet, clad only in socks, grabbing my bicycle and messenger bag and struggling to the street2. It must have only taken seconds, but I remember it in slow motion, each excruciating movement taking a minute or more. The cars passing by considerately gave me a wide berth, but no one stopped to see how I was or tell me what had happened to me. My right side, from shoulder to shin, was scraped with small bits of gravel and dirt embedded in the broken skin. I took off my wifebeater and used my water bottle to clean the cuts; the shirt dripped pink water onto the sidewalk when I wrung it out. I felt dizzy, my whole body slow and clumsy to respond to my wishes. I tried to call my dispatch but the phone kept dropping out of my hands, my fingers unable to close tightly enough and shaking too hard to dial his extension.
Finally, I got through to dispatch. I told him what happened—there was a car, it rear-ended me. No, they hit and ran me; no, they didn’t stick around. No, I didn’t see what it looked like. No, I didn’t get a license plate. Are you hurt? I have some… road rash. I think… I’m OK. Just shooken up. Stay tight, we’re sending someone for your package. (I thought of my then-fiance, our two cats, our stomachs shrinking by the day…) No, I’m just a couple blocks away. I can finish the job. Walk, don’t ride, do you copy? Walk, don’t ride, and get back to the office when you’re done. We need to look you over, copy? It’s standard procedure every time there’s an accident. Copy. You’ll be OK, screwy squirrel. Call if you need someone to relieve you, copy? Copy. Over and out.
I could barely walk. My body ached; my right side stung. I was vaguely aware of a dull and distant headache, but compared to all the other hurts, it seemed far away. I felt confused, disoriented. I knew the building to which the package was addressed was only two or three blocks away, but I kept losing my orientation, having to look around me and reassess my direction.
When I arrived, the package was ten minutes late, although normally such a job would have been completed with plenty of time to spare. I left the package with the doorman, and headed out to the sidewalk, dazed and wondering where the nearest subway station could be found.
As I unlocked my bike, I noticed a traffic cop on the opposite corner, in his small golf-cart looking vehicle. I wheeled my bike over to where he was idling.
“I was… hit by a car. I was wondering… can you help me?” I was still bleeding, wearing only bike shorts and sports bra, the blood-stained wifebeater having been thrown into a sidewalk trash can.
I took his silence for assent. I launched into my story, but my tongue felt thick. I was grasping at flickers of memory, trying to fit the pieces together. My brain hurt, I leaned on my bike to keep myself upright as I spoke, my voice wavering.
The cop asked me when the incident occurred. Ten, maybe fifteen minutes ago. Where? The corner of Church and Worth. You said you were in the third lane? Why weren’t you in the lane all the way to the right? (I tried to explain that the second-right lane was safer to travel at high speeds, in order to avoid vehicles that stopped short or car doors, but was so out of it I was barely coherent). Did you see who hit you? No, but I think—I think it was the white S.U.V. at my rear. Did they stop? No, they hit and ran. Do you have witnesses or a license plate? No one stopped! All I could think of was to get out of the street; I didn’t have time to get a license plate… You don’t have a witness? You don’t even know what car hit you? Sorry, sweetie (my blood boiled red when he called me “sweetie”), but without a witness or a license plate, how can I file a report? How do I know (and here he leered at me) that you weren’t riding irresponsibly?
I couldn’t argue—I was too tired, I couldn’t even get mad; I was in shock. Here I was, obviously injured—bleeding and concussed, although I wouldn’t realize that until later—and the cop had the audacity to blame me without even taking a statement? He would brush me off without even attempting to investigate what had happened? Having sworn to honor and protect, he would just drive away after a taxpayer, someone who pays his salary, showed up bloodied and battered and asking for help–and he would refuse to fulfill his duty as an officer of the law?
It was too much. I dragged my body and my bicycle to the curb. I sank down onto the sidewalk, held my face in my hands, and cried. Cried because I was broken, my bicycle was broken, and I had just been told by a cop that my life didn’t matter, that as long as I was on the road drivers were free to intimidate and hurt me without consequence and there was nothing he would do to stop it, that I was considered guilty by default because the act of riding a bicycle on a street with no bike lane is inherently irresponsible.
I am not the first. I am not the only one to have been told by the NYPD that there is no criminality suspected–or worse, that I am the criminal–in a situation where my life could have been on the line. As New York City cyclists, we regularly share the road with 4,000 pound vehicles being driven at 30 miles or more per hour. A bicycle and rider are just 1/20th the weight and half as fast as a car. Yet we cyclists are considered at fault just for being on the road, no matter how carefully and conscientiously we may ride. When an incident occurs, this prejudice on the part of the NYPD and AIS all too often assumes that we are guilty. Representatives of these organizations decline to follow proper procedure, such as filing a report or conducting a thorough investigation at the scene.
Many damages, physical and otherwise, are not immediately apparent at the scene of the crime. When you’ve been confronted by the trauma of an accident, you already feel hopeless. When your trauma is dismissed by those whose job it is to protect and defend citizens, the feelings of hopelessness and powerlessness increases exponentially, and can make it exponentially more difficult to recover.
1. Bicycle helmets are designed to take ONE large impact. Although they may not show signs of impact or cracks in the shell or the foam, the structural integrity of the helmet may be compromised. It’s vitally important to replace your helmet if you’ve been involved in an incident where you hit your head; a visual inspection of the helmet may not reveal any damage. The last thing you want to do is be involved in another accident and find out that your helmet cannot adequately protect you.
2. Many cyclists who ride with clipless pedals and cleats will choose to remove their shoes after an incident or a fall. Depending on how you hit the ground, it may be difficult or painful to quickly clip your shoes out of your pedals. Especially if you land in an area where you may be vulnerable to traffic, it is imperative that you get out of the street as quickly as possible.
Accidents affect road users of all kinds—and often the effects linger on for months or years. It would take me several months to recover from this incident. Riding a bike was out of the question. Even my personality and behavior would change as a result of this incident. Stay tuned next week for part two of my story, for all the grisly details.