6:15AM, October 22, 2016. I glanced at the bike clothing strewn across my bed and thought, “You could just drive to work.” My sleepy brain was protesting the thought of riding 14 miles to work in a suburb of Nashville, for a staff meeting at 8:30AM on a Saturday. I brushed my teeth, pulled on my bike shorts, murmured to myself, “The answer is: always ride your bike.”
After checking to make sure I had all my lights on and my helmet secure and my backpack adjusted, I wheeled out into the morning light to begin my journey. I was immediately greeted by a stretch in my legs, and a broad smile spread across my face. It was definitely a good day to ride.
About four and a half miles later, my ride took a completely unanticipated – though not unexpected – turn.
My journey from that day hasn’t ended, and I have no idea what the final conclusion will be. That’s a difficult path to be on, for me – a project manager with a penchant for planning. I have deadlines and timeframes for most everything else in my life – but this particular path is meandering in its own, sweet, frustrating way.
Want to hear my full story? Let’s go for a ride sometime. In the meanwhile, these are the difficult lessons I learned – and I hope they will help you if you ever experience the trauma of being hit by a car driver whilst riding a bike or walking.
Don’t talk with the driver, if they stop
Don’t talk with the driver at all. Make no statement or conversation or sound towards them. Don’t talk about how you are feeling. Don’t respond to their questions. You do not owe them an explanation of your injuries, nor do you have to make them feel better about their “accident”.
Call the police
911, immediately. If you cannot operate your phone, or do not have one on you, find a bystander to call on your behalf. Do not leave the crash scene. Scream if you have to.
Go to the emergency room
You may think you are fine. In fact, you may only have sustained minor injuries. But once the adrenaline has worn off, you may hurt in places you never even knew you had. Don’t think about litigation at this point – or “building a case” or “proving” anything – you need to have a medical professional sign off on your condition. The police report will include an injury report; it should not be considered accurate, unless the police officer diagnosing you is also a medical professional.
Don’t expect the police report to get it right
The police report on my crash switches the first and last name of the driver, omits his birthdate, and doesn’t contain witness information. In my crash report, the officer incorrectly entered the code for “failure to yield” as “excessive engine noise”. One police officer kept referring to it as an “accident”. Follow up for accuracy, preferably within 48 hours – and insist they get it right. The operator of a motor vehicle is required to operate their vehicle with “due care” (TN Code 55-8-136) and that should be included in the list of citations.
Crash, not accident
A vehicle driver in Tennessee is subject to the Due Care Law which stipulates that as an operator of a motor vehicle you are responsible for watching out for other more vulnerable road users. (See the citation here.) There’s no “accident” involved in causing harm to more vulnerable road users.
You are not “OK”
“OK” is easily used shorthand for “I’m alive, I’m breathing, I’m surviving”. In the days and weeks (and even months) after a crash, your mental and physical state will fluctuate. You’re not “OK”, you’re alive.
Get witness names and phone numbers if you can – but don’t stress if you can’t
The job of the responding officer is to collect as much factual information at the scene as they can. If you can’t or don’t remember to get witness information, the responding officer should – but often does not. Key thing to remember here is that your job in the moments immediately following a crash is making sure you are still alive and functioning.
Where will your bike go? Get police to send to impound for you or a friend to pick up later
Make sure you can arrange for your bike to be transported somewhere safe, to be later assessed for damages, and to be able to submit a claim for property damage. Do not allow the officer to leave the bicycle on the side of the road. Make sure you have received a receipt for the property impound.
Call an attorney for potential civil recovery
You can attempt to work directly with an insurance company if the driver is insured, but remember the insurance company exists only to benefit the insurance company – not to express sympathy for bills or damages you have incurred. They don’t care about you, and don’t forget that. An attorney who is experienced in civil litigation, personal injury claims, and bike law will be your best ally.
Start documenting your thoughts, emotions, and physical recovery
If you are going to pursue any kind of civil recovery, you will need to have a detailed timeline of everything that affects you. Your thoughts, your feelings, your physical recovery – daily (or even hourly) updates are critical to establishing your case. This will also be mentally therapeutic, as you look back on your journey to recovery.
The driver will likely not be charged
Did you walk away from the crash? The driver may be cited on the report, but will likely not face criminal prosecution. In Davidson County, the district attorney’s office has only prosecuted a handful of cases involving vehicle-pedestrian or vehicle-bike crashes in the past 5 years. Metro Nashville police will frequently just close a case without forwarding it along to the district attorney’s office for consideration. And, communication between the two departments can be poor. You will have only slightly better luck with a prosecution if you die as a result of the crash. The Nashville District Attorney’s office has stated that they have never had a family member request prosecution post mortem; this may be something you speak with family and friends about when you are doing any kind of estate planning.
Expect the bills to come in; pay what you can
Bills will come in and in some cases can be put in pending status by asserting a third party claim on the bills – this will require either a letter from your attorney or you providing information about the other drivers’ car insurance. At the time of this writing (October 2017), medical bills are treated slightly differently than other outstanding debts and will not affect your credit report as harshly as in years prior to the Affordable Care Act.
Do you have car insurance? You may be partially covered for your bills
Your car insurance may pay for medical bills incurred as a result of a crash with another vehicle, regardless of whether or not you were in a car at the time. Called medical payments, or “med pay”, this will usually permit you to submit bills for medical expenses and have a check cut to you for payment of outstanding medical debts. Med pay is generally inexpensive to add on to your car insurance policy; for regular bicycle riders – especially those who share the road with cars – it is suggested to start with about $5000 in coverage.
Prepare for a settlement only when you have been discharged by your primary care physician or other healthcare provider
You cannot know how you will recover until you have been assessed by a medical professional. Period. If you have a primary care provider, visit them regularly to assess your progress and recovery. If you need a referral for outpatient therapeutic care, get one. When you are pursuing outpatient therapeutic care – for example, with physical therapy or massage therapy – don’t settle for the referral option if the referred provider does not make you feel heard or comfortable. You can advocate for yourself by finding a provider that supports you and your recovery journey.
Ask for help
Do you have a dog that needs walking, appointments to get to, or daily chores that are now painful and difficult to accomplish? Call on your friends, neighbours, relatives. Don’t try to overwhelm yourself with getting everything done. Focus on your recovery and health – both physical and mental.
Be prepared to be affected for years to come
At the time of this writing, it’s been 11 months and 2 weeks since I was hit by a car driver. This particular car driver is a commercial driver – a cab driver – and still retains his commercial license.
In my attempt to pursue criminal charges against this driver, I discovered that the Nashville District Attorney’s office does not care to pursue “lower level” misdemeanors (“failure to yield” is a class C misdemeanor, carrying a $50 fine and not more than 30 days in jail – the car driver in this instance took a class at traffic school and, presumably, was able to reduce points on his insurance or waive the fine). I was told, “It was an accident. Accidents happen.” A flippant comment by someone who is supposedly an advocate for victims doesn’t give me much faith, and yet I persist: by writing, by speaking, by talking with people, by being a bike rider still.
I know that the answer is, always, still – ride your bike. I got on a bike as soon as I was told I was able to do so – gradually building back up to my ride strength after 2 months of being unable to ride. Ride your bike wherever you can, however you prefer. Watch for bike riders, pedestrians, and SLOW DOWN – it’s a speed limit, not a goal.
Bikes are fun. Being alive is fun, too. Be visible, be predictable, be proud to be on two wheels.