I heard the words every father wants to hear from his son who lives 700 miles away.
“First of all, I’m okay.”
“Okay. Anything else?”
“I was really stupid.”
Three years ago my son, Tony, was entering his last year at St. Mary’s College of California. True to the family genetic code, he found release from the general angst of becoming an adult by disappearing for hours on his bicycle. Steepest climb for a hundred miles around? He’s there with a smile. No matter that he would have to wrestle the traffic of Oakland or Walnut Creek. He’s a savvy rider. He should be. I screamed him through his cycling coming of age on the roads and trails of Yamhill County. That doesn’t mean I wasn’t terrified of letting him ride off on his own. I still am.
Tony was just playing that day, on his way to Mt. Diablo. Cruising along the bicycle path west of Walnut Creek at 20 miles per hour. Traffic streaming past, halting and jerking at every intersection. 65 degrees already and the scent of eucalyptus. He would torture his father with that when he called to tell him about his ride, knowing that Yamhill County was wet and, with luck, 45 degrees. He accelerated from the stop sign, keeping up with the traffic, playing a game at beating them off the mark.
That Jaguar that just passed him? A little burst of speed and he’d catch it. That would be fun. Mt. Diablo already heating up in the late morning sun to the east. Having to squint even through his sunglasses. A ribbon of sweat running off his cheek. Feeling pretty much invincible, as every 22 year old should.
The traffic kicked up to 25 miles per hour. Just as Tony pulled even with the Jaguar, the driver, without signaling, decided on another course than the one straight ahead. Right turn. Tony recognized the maneuver immediately. Not even enough time to touch his brakes. The vehicle swung toward the narrow side road. Pure instinct, Tony leaped upward, pulling his bicycle with him. The Jaguar was now broadside to him, still rolling innocently across the bike lane.
Bicycle and rider rose even with the front end of the car. The bicycle’s back wheel clipped the Jaguar’s fender, causing my son’s body to slam shoulder and hip onto the hood. Tony’s pedal dug into the waxed paint of the Jaguar, etching his signature there. He tumbled off the car, striking his shoulder and helmet on the pavement. His body skidded into the traffic lane.
Fortunately, the following vehicle had seen the entire event develop. The driver stopped, fully aware of the stunned cyclist and the even more stunned driver of the Jaguar. Tony asked himself the questions every cyclist does after a fall: Is this the ground? How did I get here? Where does it hurt?
The driver of the Jaguar rolled down her window. “Are you okay?”
“Yeah. I’m all right.” Spoken from the pavement.
Tony rolled to his feet. He checked for blood. Not even a road rash, except a little rawness he felt on his shoulder. He noted the huge scar on the hood of the Jaguar. The woman smiled at him and said, “I’m glad you’re okay.” The she quickly drove away.
Tony pulled his bike off the roadway, exchanged a “Wow!” glance with the driver who had stopped, and took a deep breath. As the son of bicycle shop owners, he knew to check his bicycle for any damage. Not a scratch. Then, as the traffic accelerated past, he thought to sit down. The first words he said to himself: “Man, that was stupid.” He wasn’t talking about the driver of the Jaguar.
My son was in the right of way. He was riding legally, properly, and had every right to be where he was. He was very lucky. His mistake was the assumption that a motorist would see him when he was on her right. His mistake was an unwillingness to give up the right of way to a heavier and much more deadly vehicle.
This past winter two cyclists were killed in Portland while exercising their right of way. One was passing on the right in a bike lane at an intersection. Both of these deaths involved trucks turning right, completely unaware of the cyclists rolling beside them. Both deaths were tragically unnecessary. The truck drivers were unaware of their surroundings, and the cyclists violated one of my personal cardinal rules: rarely pass a vehicle on the right, and never in an intersection.
As cyclists, we can be nearly invisible, especially in the early morning or late evening hours when the sun is low. We just want to get to where we’re going, maybe enjoy a conversation with a fellow cyclist along the way. But we must be ever vigilant. We must follow the same rules as motorists, but we must be ready to yield at every instance. Shouting doesn’t make us heard. Waving our arms in the air doesn’t make us seen.
More and more cyclists are taking to the road as the weather improves. More and more cyclists are being born in a simple effort to combat the rising price of gas. Not all of us have experience with traffic. While it is our duty to obey the laws of the road and to be courteous, I believe it is also our duty to yield when we may not want to: our safety demands it. I have witnessed overly aggressive cyclists as well as nearly unconscious drivers. Both are a danger, and both must make a greater effort to contribute to each other’s safety on the road.
“First of all, I’m okay.”
I can live with that.
“I was really stupid.”
Yup. I can live with that, too. The fact that he’s able to say it.