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Motorists’ collisions with cyclists result in lasting injuries and anxiety

by Eric Ginsburg

 eric@yesweekly.com

It’s not difficult to find a cyclist in Greensboro who’s been hit by a car — just find someone who relies on their bike for transportation. Despite the city’s efforts to make the city more bicycle friendly, many cyclists know that they are risking serious bodily injury by biking and call for a societal shift in Greensboro.

It’s been several weeks since Jake Taylor was hit by a car near the corner of Fulton and Spring Garden Streets while biking home, and some of his injuries have started to heal. After surgery and stitches on his face, he’s still in a sling to protect his broken clavicle and lacks energy as he recovers from a concussion. Taylor, the bar manager at Crafted, will be out of work for a few more weeks and still needs help with some basic tasks like putting a shirt on and tying his shoes.

The motorist who hit Taylor fled the scene, and police are still following up on leads, he said. Taylor was hit in the Spring Garden Street bike lane that several frequent cyclists say is particularly dangerous. His bike was properly lit, but he wasn’t wearing a helmet.

“I was only about three blocks away from home,” Taylor said. “From now on I will [wear a helmet]. I should have.”

Taylor, like other cyclists who have been hit by cars, consider himself lucky that he wasn’t more badly injured.

Carrie Hart, who was hit on North Elm Street near Bessemer Avenue, always wears a helmet since a friend’s girlfriend was struck by a driver in another city and was put in a coma.

“I don’t remember the fall,” said Hart, who is pursuing her doctorate in education and cultural studies at UNCG.

Hart believes she hit her head when a car knocked her from her bike as it pulled out of a driveway without looking. She felt weird and jittery afterwards, sitting down briefly while the driver apologized profusely and helped fix her bike. A minor concussion made it difficult to focus on her schoolwork for about a week, but Hart thinks about how it could’ve been worse. She was hit on Feb. 13 this year. She was bundled up to stay warm and said if it happened in the summer she would have been more scraped up by the pavement.

The Greensboro Transportation Department’s data on bicycle accidents from 2006 to 2011 shows an interesting pattern.

The biggest cause of collisions is cyclists failing to yield the right of way, followed by motorists failing to yield the right of way, Transportation Planning Division Manager Tyler Meyer said.

The department doesn’t parse the data based on the type of accident, meaning that cyclist collisions with pedestrians or a rider wiping out from debris in the road are included in the numbers too. About half of the incidents since 2006 involving cyclists attribute fault to the bike rider, Meyer said.

“Within the city of Greensboro limits there actually hasn’t been a bicycle fatality [in this time frame],” Meyer said. He noted that there had been in the county but added that it was unusual for a city this size especially with cycling on an upswing.

“People often think that being hit from behind the biggest threat, [but that’s a] misconception,” he said.

Cyclists are at greater risk for an accident if they are riding on the sidewalk, Meyer said, not just because of pedestrians or other obstacles but also cars pulling out. From 2006 to 2011, 10 percent of accidents involving cyclists occurred when a biker was on the sidewalk.

When Tommy Patterson was about 7 years old in Greensboro he was hit by a driver while he rode from a sidewalk into a crosswalk with the right of way. Since then he’s been hit twice more, but he hasn’t been hurt in any of the collisions.

“I know by pure statistics alone I am going to get hit some day,” said Patterson, who bikes at least eight miles a day and works at Revolution Cycles.

Not all cyclists who are struck by cars escape with as little damage as Hart and Patterson. Avid cyclist Ross Hiller was seriously injured in December 2011 when a distracted driver hit him near Lake Brandt.

“The police report said he was hit from behind going almost 70 [and] knocked 100 feet,” his wife Tanya, an assistant principal at Northwest High School, said.

The driver claimed she was blinded by the sun and simultaneously went into a sneezing fit that Saturday morning, Tanya Hiller said. Her husband was wearing toe clips and didn’t come out of them, contributing to his injuries that included a broken back, ankle and brain sheering.

He said a lot of things that didn’t make sense, Tanya said, like about getting his men out of Korea.

“He would think that the kids were in jail in Las Vegas,” she said. “It was kind of like shaken baby. He was completely out of it.”

Ross Hiller doesn’t remember much from his time in the hospital. He woke up after being out for the better part of two days after the crash.

“I was living out Pink Floyd’s ‘The Wall,’” Hiller said. “It was just that sort of surreal trippy-type atmosphere all the time.”

Time rolled together and reality blurred, Hiller said. Nurses knew he had the ability to turn into what he called “Mr. Hyde.” When he came home his two kids had another name for his alter-ego: Bob.

“As time goes by they’ve made comments that, ‘We don’t see Bob as much as we used to,’” Tanya said. “Now there’s not quite as much tension. It is a lot [to deal with] but it’s better than the alternative.”

Tanya took a paid leave from work until the following May. Ross wasn’t released from the hospital for several months but he and his wife both said the recovery has gone very well. It’s harder for Ross to multi-task or focus, Tanya said, but his erratic behavior in the hospital subsided once he was in the familiarity of his home.

Now Hiller is mostly back to normal, walking with a slight limp and working full-time again at his job providing cryogenics-related tech support.

“He’s ridden with a group several times but I won’t let him go out by himself,” Tanya Hiller said.

The Hillers’ kids, like Taylor, will never put up a fight about wearing a helmet after the accident, Ross said. If he hadn’t been wearing one, things would have been much worse, and now the Hiller kids point out “dummies” biking without one.

“If you’re not wearing a helmet it’s sort of like playing professional football without a helmet,” Patterson said.

While there is a misconception about how frequently collisions are caused by a car hitting a cyclist from behind, as Meyer said, Hiller is not alone in his experience. UNCG associate professor and Bicycling In Greensboro’s board president Mark Schulz was struck five years ago from behind on Aycock Street by a woman who was texting.

After several weeks in the hospital and after five years have gone by, Schulz still has five compressed discs in his back that will never recover, preventing him from running more than a few blocks.

There are several things the city can do to decrease the likelihood or seriousness of motorist-cyclist collisions, Meyer said, and the city is working to update its bicycle safety master plan. Meyer’s department will look at high crash risk and rate location information to prioritize improvements.

Greensboro has already taken significant steps, as indicated by the city’s bronze “Bicycle Friendly Community” award from the League of American Bicyclists, Meyer said. The league has also recognized significant improvements at UNCG, Meyer said, where promoting bicycling has been a priority.

“Generally speaking I think that Greensboro has made a lot of improvements,” Meyer said. “It definitely takes longer than people may like but that’s just the nature of things.

Education and enforcement are crucial aspects of improved safety, but both are challenging, he said, especially with a student population that turns over so regularly.

“Even with the best outreach program you can only reach a certain number of people,” Meyer said. “Definitely we have to be opportunistic and resurfacing provides a good opportunity for that.”

Given limited resources, street resurfacing projects are a primary opportunity to increase safe routes for cyclists, he said. Planned bike lanes on Horse Pen Creek Road and Church Street are good examples of improvements accompanying a street-widening project, Meyer added.

Another such resurfacing project that’s already been completed: the bike lanes on Spring Garden Street. The lane is infamous among cyclists in the city, however, for being unsafe, as Taylor’s collision indicates.

“We joke at the bike shop that they painted a bike on the passing lane,” said Patterson, who works at Revolution Cycles. “People use the bike lane as a passing lane. It’s the most dangerous street that I bike on.”

Bike lanes themselves are not the problem, Patterson said, but with a relatively high speed limit, cars turning frequently, a single lane in each direction and a lack of enforcement, he isn’t a fan of the one on Spring Garden Street.

“Bike lanes are great because all of the sudden I think it allows people to bike on the road,” he said. “In the way it brings the horse to the water. At the same time it is sort of a false sense of security.”

Patterson, Taylor, Hart, the Hillers and Schulz have a variety of ideas for ways to decrease the frequency or severity of collisions: well-lit neighborhood roads with less traffic, a barrier separating bike lanes, stricter laws or enforcement and updating the city’s master plan. Several readily acknowledged that they’ve seen cyclists doing other things they shouldn’t too, but most. focused on societal rather than individual shifts.

After his accident, Taylor said he came to believe cyclists should be legally required to wear helmets. Schulz said the city has fallen way behind on repaving projects, which disproportionately impact cyclists. He added that multiple city staff positions for engineers focused on bicycle safety, like leading cities around the country, would be a significant improvement.

Ross Hiller favors changing laws to be stricter with motorists who cause collisions.

“Cars don’t try to hit people but I think putting a little more onus on the thing that weighs several tons instead of two hundred pounds makes a lot of sense,” Hiller said.

Despite a plethora of ideas, everyone agreed that one of the most important changes is a cultural shift so that motorists understand the rights of cyclists, their need to bike in the road and to stop looking at cyclists as an impediment.

“There’s just a culture of entitlement with being in a car,” said Hart, who uses her bike as transportation. “Creating cultural change is hard but in this case I think it’s really critical.”

The Hillers, kids included, will participate in Greensboro’s annual Ride of Silence this month to commemorate cyclists who have been killed in collisions and contribute to a cultural shift. Ross will be reading a poem as part of the event, which is sponsored by Bicycling In Greensboro.

Cyclists such as Hiller who have been in serious crashes may not seem lucky to an outsider until their injuries are compared to the alternative. Gina Jacobs, a High Point cyclist and community volunteer, was killed in a collision last year.

“She was a phenomenal lady,” said Rodney Simpson, the High Point Regional Health Center coordinator who helped train Jacobs as a cyclist. “[She was] just one of those people who never seemed to have a bad day. She raised three kids. [Gina] went after everything with gusto.”

A spin-off of the national Ride of Silence events — a Ride to Remember — is scheduled in High Point for May 15. It’s the second annual ride, started initially in her honor but will now focus on other cyclists who were killed too and call for changes to prevent future deadly collisions.

“There has to be a paradigm shift with how someone looks at and views a bicycle,” Simpson said. “It’s a show of solidarity. A bicycle is a viable mode of transportation.”

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