Politics, open government, and safe streets. And the constant incursion of cycling.

Getting Hit by a Car: Some Lessons

Yesterday, I managed something that I hadn’t done for a very long time (more than 20 years, in fact): I got hit and knocked off my bike by a car. I’m a little banged up, but generally fine (and it’s pretty much the same story for my no-longer new bike).

This happened here, on my way back from lunch-time laps at Hains Point. If you clicked that link and ride past Arlington Cemetery regularly, I bet you already know exactly what happened. I was on the southern sidewalk along Memorial Drive (heading west), trying to exit from the sidewalk onto the road at the north-bound off-ramp from Jefferson Davis Highway (cyclists are forced onto the sidewalk until this point). I stop, cab stops, I proceed into crosswalk, cab accelerates (turning right) into me while looking left. Takes me down, but at least it was slow enough that he didn’t run me or my bike over.

Through this experience, I was reminded of a couple of things.

You Won’t Always Do The Right Thing, Even When You Know What It Is

The cabbie that hit me wouldn’t even get out of his car, and was in a hurry to move on with his passenger. I got up and had to yell through the glass to even get him to drop his window. I should have, at this point, just stopped talking, dialed 911, and generally followed Bob Mionske’s advice:

Always wait for the police to respond to the accident scene so that an official report will be filed. [ . . . ]

You should not attempt to negotiate with the at-fault driver. The driver may not give you accurate information about his or her identity, insurance coverage, or vehicle ownership. Many drivers who cause accidents will initially apologize and accept blame for the accident, but later, after they have had time to consider the ramifications of their negligence, will deny that they were negligent. They may even deny that they were present at the accident scene!

If an accident report is written, make sure that it’s accurate. The accident report will include the driver’s statement as well as all other witness statements. The responding officer may decide to ticket the driver, and this can be useful when trying to settle the case with the insurance company. The accident report should also include the cyclist’s statement; unfortunately, law enforcement officers don’t always take a statement from the cyclist before completing their report. In these instances, the officer may have already decided that the cyclist is at fault, without even talking to the cyclist. If you are able following the accident, make sure you give your statement to the officer. Regardless of whether an accident report is written, make sure that you have the driver’s name and contact info, as well as the names and contact info of any witnesses. If you are physically unable to gather this information, ask a witness to do it for you.

The accident scene should be investigated for information about how the accident occurred. The investigation should include obtaining skid mark measurements, photographing the accident scene, speaking with additional witnesses, and measuring and diagramming the accident scene.

Despite the fact that that is all excellent advice that I thought I had long ago internalized, I didn’t do any of that. I was a bit dazed and a bit more angry (the first thing he said when he rolled the window down was “I stopped at the stop sign!”). I first got his name and cab number. Then I established that I wasn’t obviously hurt. Next I checked out my bike. Considering the lack of damage, I decided that there was no point in engaging in further argument or calling for the police to come.  I believed then, as I do now, that 911 responders have more important things to do.  So I gave my assent to his leaving, figuring that I could just phone in a report after I’d gotten home and calmed down.

This was a mistake for a few reasons:

  • You can never really tell whether you’re actually hurt at the time of the crash.  This was a lesson I learned in 2002, when I was on the receiving end of a t-bone in my car.  I felt fine at the time, but the next day I felt like I’d been hit by a train, not a Ford, and ended up going to the hospital.  Today I feel a lot sorer than yesterday.  I still don’t consider myself more than “banged up”, but if it had turned out to be bad enough that I’d need medical attention, dealing with the subsequent insurance issues would be a lot easier if I had a contemporaneous incident report filled out by police on the scene.
  • Worse, I’ve reinforced the idea that there are no consequences for hitting a cyclist through careless driving.  I don’t feel any personal need for retribution here, but it’s really not about me.  It’s about the importance of paying attention to the human beings around you when you’re absent-mindedly piloting 3,500lbs of steel among them.  Had the driver been ticketed (or even given reason to worry that there would be an insurance claim coming), I suspect he’d be a little more careful in the future.  To my fellow cyclists, I apologize.

Finally, we get to another reason that I shouldn’t have tried to use the non-emergency number to report this:

The Cyclist/Pedestrian v. Car Crash Stats in Arlington Are Probably Worthless

Do Arlington’s citizens, electeds, and public safety officials want useful car-cyclist crash stats in Arlington? Then Arlington County Police Department’s (ACPD) non-emergency number operator should bother taking crash reports, instead of discouraging them.

I got home about half an hour after I was hit, and called ACPD’s non-emergency number to report the crash.  According to the operator (not a police officer), unless I have been hurt so much that I am going to a hospital, there’s no point in sending an officer out (which I didn’t need – I simply wanted to create a record of this collision, for any number of practical reasons). After pressing her on this point, she admitted that she could send an officer out, but didn’t know how long it would be, they are busy, etc (I was certainly in no rush.). I told her that I was pretty appalled that I was being discouraged from reporting an accident because I hadn’t yet decided to go to a hospital. After I pressed her on whether Arlington really had no interest in knowing about people getting hit on its streets, she offered up the “Telephone Reporting Unit” number (I can call and leave a message, and someone will presumably call me back), or the online report mechanism here (which is only designed for a two-car collision, but I’ll probably use it anyway).

If my experience is at all representative of how ACPD’s operators are trained to handle these issues, then we should have zero confidence in any cyclist/pedestrian-car crash stats/info coming out of the department. I’m really quite disappointed.

[It was at this point in writing this [this section of the post was originally email to fellow Arlington cyclists, sent yesterday] that an officer from the Telephone Reporting Unit called me back.]

He was certainly more understanding of the situation, but didn’t have much more to offer than a recommendation that 1) I file a Motor Vehicle Crash Report, fitting in the information where I can, and that 2) in the event of a similar incident in the future I make the cab stay and call 911 and wait as long as it takes for an officer. I know this is what I should have done in the first place, but when you get knocked to the ground by a car with a driver who is very much in a hurry to be on his way, you don’t make the best decisions. Or I don’t, apparently. And because of that, Arlington’s official cyclist/pedestrian crash stats for this year will be wrong.

I did chat with the officer about my concern that my experience was representative of other hit cyclists/pedestrians, and that because of ACPD’s apparent inability to take crash reports, that ACPD and Arlington’s electeds don’t have critical information about a serious public safety concern. While he and I probably place differing priorities on this particular concern, he did understand my point.

I realize that what happened to me is a minor matter, individually.  I’ll be sore for a few days, spend some money to fix the bike, and then move on.  I don’t want to redirect ACPD time from violent crimes and serious crashes, but my minor matter, when taken collectively, is a major one for Arlington.  If Arlington really wants to become a more bicycling-friendly community (and I truly believe it does), it needs to improve its cyclist/pedestrian-car crash reporting mechanism.  I am certain that the intersection is poorly designed, and that similar crashes happen there regularly.  But if Arlington doesn’t collect any information about it, how will it ever be addressed?  Are there other unknown spots with high rates of cyclist/pedestrian v. car crashes?  I’d bet there are, but until Arlington has useful reporting system for these kind of crashes, we’re stuck with guessing where the trouble spots are, and which should be prioritized.  Arlington’s citizens deserve something better than guesswork.


First Annual Kennan Garvey Bike Ride on Saturday


Watching the Watchers? Not in Maryland


  1. Xerox

    Yikes! I hope you make a quick recovery, whatever injuries you may have.

  2. Mike S.

    Sorry to hear about that. Were you at least wearing your PdC kit? Hope you are back on the bike by next weekend!

  3. Always carry a camera. Always take pics of the accident. If the driver is giving you a hard time, flip it on video and start recording.

  4. Mr Blacknell, I am just glad you are OK.

    Lots pf good advice, but as mentioned above, a camera/video may be your only real defense.

    Be safe.

  5. MB

    Funny you mention that. I’m becoming more and more convinced that it’s not a completely stupid thing to just leave that camera on the helmet and running, these days.

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