Bike Commuter Confessions

July 20, 2014

Friday, on my bike ride home from work, I came within a centimeter or two of hitting a pedestrian. I’ve been thinking about it a lot ever since.

Here’s what happened. At about 5:30 on Friday, I was riding northbound on Eastlake approaching the intersection with Edgar. That’s a mild downhill, and I’d picked up some speed… I was going between 20 and 25 miles per hour in the right lane. For those not familiar with the intersection, it looks like this: 

Eastlake and Edgar

(Cars can’t park in the right lane in the evening commute, so picture the entire right lane as free.)

I see that the car in the left lane has slowed to a stop. As I come up behind the car I look to try to figure out why, and I see that there’s a pedestrian in the middle turn lane. My split second thoughts were: “Danger! Multiple threat. But if I keep going I’ll get through before the pedestrian.” So I decide to keep going. Actually, it’s less of a decision than instinctual reaction. Once I determine I won’t hit the pedestrian, my bike instinct says of course the right thing is to keep moving. A sudden stop would make me vulnerable to whatever unknown menace is behind me. It’s safer to swerve and dodge obstacles I can see in front of me than deal with the unknown in the back.

However, in this case, I read the situation wrong. What I didn’t anticipate: The pedestrian started running across the street once she was sure that the car in the left lane was stopping. She was trying to be courteous, unblock the road, and get to safety as quickly as possible. All things I understand. She didn’t see me coming in the right lane. Suddenly swerving and dodging isn’t an option. I hit my brakes as hard as I can and hope for the best. 

The pedestrian’s suddenly aware I’m coming. She stops, turns to face me, braces herself, and puts up her hands to protect her body. I know that’s instinct and I’m sure I’d do the same thing… but it seems so feeble. If I’d been a car, or if I hadn’t been braking hard on my bike, putting up her hands would accomplish nothing. I stop maybe 1-2 centimeters shy of a direct hit. Deep breath, and then… we all just go on our way. She continues across the road, I pedal on, nobody hurt, nobody even touched.

This whole thing took maybe two seconds, start to finish. And here I am, taking two hours to write this down, and spending even more time replaying it in my head. I’m not sure why. Part of it is I started out mad at the situation. What was this pedestrian thinking, running into my lane without looking? Could’ve gotten herself killed, grumble grumble. 

One part is trying to figure out what I should do differently on the road next time to avoid another close call. I guarantee that next time I see a pedestrian I’ll remember that they can start running and include that possibility in my is-it-safer-to-dodge-or-stop reaction. Maybe I should get a whistle to make sure people know I’m coming? I know if the pedestrian had seen me in the right lane, this would be a non-event.

My biggest lesson: I need to start slowing decisively but not unsafely when I see cars in other lanes are slowing. Maybe if I’d started stopping sooner, rather than waiting to see what was making the other driver slow down, it wouldn’t have turned into a panic stop and I could have yielded to the pedestrian’s right-of-way without fearing for my own safety.

I also keep replaying this out of regret that I didn’t stop to make sure she was OK and not shaken up. I regret I don’t know her name. She’s going to always be “the pedestrian” in my story, just like I’m “the asshole biker who almost hit me” in her story. I’m writing this and putting on the Internet in a feeble attempt to undo that regret. Maybe these words will somehow find their way to The Pedestrian. If you’re reading this, Pedestrian: “I’m sorry I almost hit you. I hope you’re OK, not shaken up too badly. I’ll try to do better next time. —Brian”