'Should I try commuting again?'

Once when I was about 13 years old, I rear-ended a pickup truck. I was on my bike waiting for a crosswalk signal. I made a split-second decision to occupy myself by chasing after a sparrow across a parking lot (because sitting still and waiting 30 seconds for the signal was unthinkable).

While keeping my “eye on the sparrow” (as advised by a TV theme song of the day), I smacked right into the back of a pickup truck that was backing out of a parking space. I hit my head hard, and ended up under the truck. The driver heard the loud thud of my hard head hitting his tailgate, and he stopped backing up.

And that, fortunately, is my only collision I’ve had with a car as a cyclist. Lightweight stuff. I biked home.

So it’s hard to put myself in the position of someone who has been in a serious bone-breaking accident.

Mangled Bicycle
Photo: antlered (Flickr)

A reader named Rob sent me this message, asking, ‘Should I try commuting again?’

I started cycling a few years ago to supplement my running and fell in love with the sport. I race a lot and do group rides on the weekends when not racing. Last year (2010) I decided to try commuting to work–22 miles each way–which I can do in a little over one hour. To me it was a fantastic way to get some quality miles in during the week with minimal impact on my time with my family.

I live in central North Carolina where pickup trucks, fried food, and motorized wheelchairs for the morbidly obese at Wal-Mart are the rule. I lost 100 lbs. a few years ago so I have "dropped out of the club."

Last May, coming home on a Friday at noon, a 20-year-old woman ran a stop sign (while texting) and hit me broadside; totaling my bike and putting me in the hospital with three broken ribs and some internal damage. I am fine now. The driver was ticketed. Insurance paid for a new bike, picked up my medical bills and gave me $1000 per rib for my troubles. (Not worth it!) This was a residential area with a 25mph speed limit.

I'm thinking about trying commuting again. I bought a Trek 520 that I will "dedicate" to commuting "“ with reflectors, fat tires, flashing lights, panniers, reflective tape and a rear view mirror. I ride much more defensively now even when racing and training. I would likely avoid the kind of accident I had. Now I would slow down in the intersection and prepare to stop when I didn't see her eyes.

The majority of my commute is rural two-lane roads of 45 to 55mph speed limit–this was where I had my biggest concern because of the speed limit is even higher than where I had my accident. But this road I’ve never had a problem.

I would like some advice about what kind of equipment works for people and what the best accident avoidance strategies are. How many lights on the front? How about rear view mirrors? What is the best in terms of visibility? Does somebody make an "air horn" for a bike?

Frankly, the more I ride my bike, the more I dislike cars and trucks. Reading this site, it sounds like others have similar experiences "“ most drivers are OK "“ some are just stupid (texting, etc.) and some are downright hostile to cyclists. My wife is very nervous about this and I have assured her as much as I can, but I am honestly having some misgivings. My '88 Honda CRX gets 45mpg so I am not motivated by fuel costs; this is solely for my health. Getting run over is not healthy.

I’ve heard several stories of dedicated riders who give up cycling entirely after a bad experience. I’m not sure what to make of these stories, because I don’t have their experiences.

So how was I to reply to Rob, who had serious injuries after an encounter with a car?

My gut reaction was that you rarely (or never) hear of a motorist who needs to be coaxed back into using cars again after an accident. You do, however, hear of motorists who become much safer drivers after an accident. Why should cycling be any different, except that we tend to consider car use as obligatory, and bike use as optional?

I referred Rob to How to Not Get Hit by Cars, and I offered to put his question out to our readers.

Use the comments for your words of encouragement, words of realism, words of caution, words of experience.

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