Editor's Note: Jenna LeGault works at Brown University and participated in our Jane's Walk (Bike). Jenna sent a New York Times piece about a pedestrian who had been hit by a car and the aftermath of that incident, and mentioned that many people she knew in Providence had been hit by cars. I asked her to write some of her experiences, which are below.
There's a raging battle (or maybe more of a tempest in a teapot, I'm not sure) between different cycling advocates as to how much the danger of bicycling (or walking, for that matter) should be emphasized in a culture which still regards biking as unusual. Some biking advocates feel that to talk about the dangers of biking is to place an unpleasant idea in the minds of non-bikers, and thus seal their fate as never joining the cause. I disagree. You can try to swim against the current, but you won't get many people to bike by sweet-talking them on biking. What will really make a difference is biking infrastructure, and any diversion from that is energy wasted not doing what's effective.
I make it a point to note that biking is more safe than not biking--you are twenty times more likely to extend your life due to the exercise, mental health benefits, and other positives of biking than you are to be killed by a car. I think it is important to be balanced in talking about the dangers. But although deaths due to cars have decreased in the past several decades, bicyclists and pedestrians still fare the worst, and U.S. deaths even for motorists themselves have declined much less than in countries that have reformed their road designs, like Scandinavian countries.
Deaths really aren't the standard of excellence anyway. No one has died in Providence for two years on a bike--I get this statistic pushed in my face when I call for good infrastructure--but many people have been injured. And many more have just decided not to participate in biking and walking, because they see the risks and think that it's not worth it. People are emotional creatures, not robots, and though the avid cyclist often approaches the closest thing to a robot that people are capable of being, we shouldn't assume that others are willing to do the same just because we do. I really thank Jenna for sharing this.
Jenna's account follows.
Last April, I was butt-dialed by a bag thrown on the ground. The thirteen minute voicemail documented a muffled conversation between a cyclist who had been struck by a car and the EMT who was trying to administer a roadside morphine drip. Even through distorted audio, it was easy to glean that some 'part' was obviously and gruesomely broken through the cyclist's hyperventilating and screaming.
The fallen bike commuter was one of my students, who was heading downtown from College Hill. She was crossing Memorial Boulevard at College/Westminster on green, wearing flashing personal safety lights (in other words: doing everything right to be safe). The driver who hit her was trying to beat oncoming traffic and rushing a left-hand turn. He broke her leg with his car. She had two surgeries to implant a steel rod in her femur and pins that attached to an external brace, blood transfusions, and later an infection.
In the hospital, a 14 inch scab came loose in the doctor's hand and she felt nothing.
Then more surgeries.
She was in a wheelchair, then a walker, and had to find first floor accommodations with a shower stool and somehow managed to graduate that semester. In photos from commencement, she's the only one seated, her fiercely hairy and mottled leg in an internal/external brace and pin cast structure.
This was the second one of my students to be hit by a car that year. The first had not butt-dialed me, but I still understood her situation first-hand. She was knocked off her bike by a driver passing too close to her on Benefit Street. The driver didn't stop. She told me she felt the heat of the car's engine at her back and then along her right side and then she felt nothing.
Her arm was bent in a way arms don't bend. The car crash sprained her ankle and gave her facial road rash and bruises. It was very easy to image what she described about the heat of an engine barreling down. I've been uncomfortably close to a hot car, myself and I imagine many people riding bikes have.
In pedestrian vs. auto accidents, the auto always wins. It's never not serious if a car hits your body, even if death doesn't result. My search for injury data yielded more personal injury lawyers in RI than facts about the scale and scope of pedestrian vs car injuries. I am surprised at how difficult it is to find good public data, not just on fatalities, but on the impact of pedestrian vs. auto injuries. The CDC reports "In 2010, 4,280 pedestrians were killed in traffic crashes in the United States, and another 70,000 pedestrians were injured". 70,000! The closest thing to Rhode Island specific statistics was also from 2010, from the US Department of Transportation, reporting that there were 8 pedestrian fatalities in Rhode Island that year.
The DOT reports fatality rates optimistically--"only" 8--but I'd venture that there are many, many more than those eight fatalities who've been seriously hurt, who've most certainly lost in the auto vs. pedestrian battle and whose experiences aren't captured. Still being able to speak, we owe it to other pedestrians to tell our harrowing stories, develop public awareness, push for better police reporting, and accountability from lawmakers and city planners. I just read an article in the NY Times "struck on the street: four survivors" featuring first hand accounts: "that 'bump' was me." And just like my students, these four pedestrians were doing everything right. "In a 2010 report on traffic accidents, the city found that among the 6,784 pedestrians who were seriously injured by motor vehicles from 2002 to 2006, about three-quarters, or about 5,000, were in accidents at intersections, and over half of them, or more than 3,500 of the total, were crossing legally. In this, my colleagues and I were typical."
I was hit by a car last December. I was in a busy crosswalk on the Brown campus, more than halfway across the street, and a woman with children in her car turned fast into the intersection ("that 'bump' was me"). I was lucky, according to many (a frustrating thing to hear. "Lucky" is crossing a street without incident.), but brightly (!) the only thing this woman's car did was mess up my spine.
The bone tunnel around the spinal cord is now tightening so I can only move in certain directions without pain. The acceptable planes my tight spinal column prefers do not include sitting or standing. Two lumbar discs ruptured and relieved themselves slowly of their spinal fluids. Five painful months later, I'm writing this while foggy-minded from anesthesia because I just had a second epidural steroid procedure. Graciously, my husband has to both put on and pull off my pants, like I'm a baby or in assisted living. But I'm neither. I am an ashamed and angry adult who is now markedley less independent. But I can walk, more or less, and I'm not disfigured or outwardly corporeally harmed. Is this one of the milder pedestrian vs auto outcomes? How would I begin to know?
After reading that article in the Times and looking for data, I did review the police report from my own pedestrian vs. auto accident. I think that report is part of the problem. Let me paraphrase:
Vehicle 1: Head on collision.
Vehicle 2: Errr... Ok, pardon, let me find option ...option 18...
Vehicle 1 Damage: Fingerprints on hood and roof check or 'none'.
Vehicle 2 Damage: Oh, that's right. You're not a vehicle. Well, we can put here that you were transported by an ambulance with suspected injury and we note you don't wear a helmet to walk.
Again, paraphrasing, but not exaggerating too much.
Reports like this can't capture what it means to be struck by a car. They don't include categories like arms, legs, and spines.
Much like going up against a car, I feel like I will always lose if I suggest alternatives to policing, but there are grassroots possibilities here. If you have been hurt by a car and lived to tell the tale, I incite you to tell it in gory or boring medical detail. Personal accounts may be the only state data we can produce and, anecdotally, I fear that Rhode Island pedestrians could produce these stories in great volume. Stories of being really hurt are humanizing, if gross and disturbing and the collected memories of "the struck" can easily make their way to the forefront of planning and policy discussion, of public discourse.