The only thing we have to fear

In words of my husband: "Look! It's gimpy on her death machine."

In words of my husband: “Look! It’s gimpy on her death machine.”

I get a lot of questions about how I’m getting around after being hit by a car. The answer is that I mostly ride my bike. It’s a lot easier than walking, I can always park right in front of where I’m going which means less walking than if we drove, and we still don’t have a car anyway. This often surprises people. They assume that I’ve taken up driving. “You’re so brave!” they say, which sometimes sounds a bit like “You’re crazy!”

I would be lying if I said there aren’t moments when I am afraid. It comes up particularly at intersections when I want to turn left, because, duh, I was run over from behind at a stop sign while trying to turn left. I make a lot of Copenhagen left turns now. Cars coming up behind me make me really nervous still. But it’s getting better. My personal experience notwithstanding, getting run down from behind is statistically speaking the least likely way to get injured while riding a bicycle. I just have put the time in so that my emotions can catch up with what I know.

We still haven't really missed the minivan.

We still haven’t really missed the minivan.

I’d also be lying if I said we didn’t consider buying a car. There was a lot of driving to appointments when I was incapacitated, and we didn’t know when I’d be mobile again. However our flirtation with the idea of getting a car was pretty brief. With my right leg broken, I couldn’t drive any more than I could walk, and if someone else was going to drive me, I might as well take a shuttle or call for a ride. Moreover, I learned from my surgeon and other patients that the most common cause of my particular injury—a shattered leg—was getting T-boned in a car. I talked to people who’d been trapped in their cars for hours while being sawed out and were understandably phobic about ever getting into one again (at least the EMTs could scrape me off the street and set up a morphine drip right away). A lot of people have had this experience, and they didn’t exactly sell me on the safety of driving in lieu of biking. On top of that, cars are really expensive, and we had plenty of other things to spend money on at the time. And I wasn’t really feeling very car-friendly after being smashed by one either.

For the first month after my surgeries, I was supposed to stay in bed for 23 hours a day. For entertainment, I could use the continuous passive motion machine, which slowly bent my leg for me to improve my range of motion, up to eight hours a day. It was very boring. I was surprised to learn how serious my surgeon was about not just staying in bed, but staying at home. Even though the steel plate he put in my leg supported the bones, they were still in pieces, and he would have preferred that I never went outside at all. Even being bumped by someone passing me on the street could knock the bones out of alignment and require them to be reset, which would also restart the clock on how long I had to stay off my leg. Every time I fell down while using crutches, he wanted to take another x-ray to see if the bones had shifted. During that time I left the house at most once a week, to go grocery shopping. Matt drove a rental car over so I could shop while riding an electric cart.  As pathetic as that was, it was still a total thrill compared to anything else I had going on at the time.

I think a lot about this when people ask me now about the risks of getting hit again while on a bicycle, which people often do although it is the last thing I want to contemplate. If we were really concerned about injury above all else, we should never leave our couches. Even walking around our neighborhood risks injury, and I could avoid that by never leaving the house. But no one would suggest that it was a good idea to sit on the couch all day to avoid the risk of getting hurt by tripping on the sidewalk or bumping into someone. Even my surgeon wants me to walk around now, so my bones will regrow faster. Staying inside is risky in a different way—bodies were meant to move, and sitting around all day makes people unhealthy. Instead of sitting “safely” on the couch, we’re all advised to get out of the house and rack up at least 10,000 steps per day, broken sidewalks or no.

It’s this that I think about when I think about driving instead of riding a bike. On a per mile basis, yes, bicycling has higher injury rates than driving, but of course people go much further distances when driving. On a per hour basis the risk of injury is very similar. But driving a car is the physical equivalent of sitting on a couch, and our bodies were meant to move. When the risks of chronic disease are included, riding a bike is several times safer than driving, despite the higher risk of injury. Those injuries are the statistical equivalent of tripping on the sidewalk, and most of them are about as dangerous—most injuries sustained on a bicycle involve only the rider and are preventable. What happened to me was terrifying and dramatic and depressing (especially the part where I learned yesterday that my leg probably won’t be fully healed until early 2015, so I am basically all about assisted bikes from this point forward) but it was also anomalous.

Ride on.

Ride on.

By the time I was allowed to actually bear weight on my leg, I was so stir-crazy that I would have tried almost any activity, but walking was hard (it’s still hard). Luckily for me, our bicycles were waiting in the basement. I can’t walk at normal speeds yet, and I get tired quickly, but I can ride like anyone else. And although some days I have more trouble believing it than I should, I know there’s really nothing to fear. In the long term, riding a bicycle is still the safest way to get around.

4 Comments

Filed under car-free, commuting, injury, San Francisco

4 responses to “The only thing we have to fear

  1. Anne

    Thank you for sharing your story, Dorie. You are a great example to your kids. they are learning from you every day to keep going, no matter the pain.

    And I second the benefit of the Copenhagen left — a safe, legal efficient way to make a left turn!

  2. j4

    As someone who just broke her leg taking a big step down in transit home after biking 400 miles on a solo self-supported bike tour, I second the notion that living is dangerous, and that it is important to make sure that you are spending your time as you want, rather than second guessing what might hurt you.

    I also congratulate you on working through the fear, because regardless of logic, putting yourself back in the situation in which you were injured is hard.

  3. 40 years ago, I was hit by a car while riding a bicycle I survived with a broken ankle and a slightly separated shoulder. I still ride a bike, and as of August 2012, our family has been car free. Thank you for sharing your story, and thanks to Tiny Helmets for linking this to her blog,

  4. jim

    No doubt you’ve seen today’s news…not assigning blame.

    A bit of fear informs smart riding. It’s healthy.

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