A dozen years ago, I was heading down a side street near our home with both boys in the car. A bike path crosses at the midway point, and has done so for decades. It’s well used by skateboarders, joggers, dog walkers, school kids, bikers, bladers and strollers. I automatically slow down because too many of those listed often don’t.
On this fall morning, a dog bolted from its owner’s hand, and smacked into the front quarter panel of our car. My heart plummeted as my two little boys started reacting from the back seat. Jumping out, I saw the dog’s owner was holding the dog, but apologizing profusely. I was a wreck. The dog wriggled free and seemed none the worse for wear, but that sickening thud will stay with me forever. Another neighbour at the scene came by that night to reassure me the pup was fine. My sons still refer to this as the day mom ran over a dog.
The incident forever altered my behaviour at that spot on the road, which I traverse almost daily. I run it in my head as I pass, and I hear that ungodly thump every single time. It reinforced something I’ve always believed: being in the right means little if someone or something gets hurt.
It was sleeting and cold and miserable the other night, and if I was on a bicycle at midnight, I’d no doubt have had my hood up, too.
That’s actually the only detail I can still recall of the kid who tore across the road in front of me at the dreaded bike path. A split-second difference and he would have been under the front of my car. He’d bolted from the darkened margins on to the street, never once turning that hooded head to see if anything was coming.
If you didn’t live around here, you’d never know this was a crossing. Visible in the day, it falls back into the shadows at night. Habit begins to override judgment, and people can forget that night time is a whole different beast.
The fact he didn’t see my headlights, nor hear the throaty engine of the sports car I happened to be driving makes me wonder how we’ll deal with electric cars that are essentially silent. I brought the car to an abrupt halt, while he never missed a beat, waving his arm over his head in a thank you as he continued on. I’m still not sure if he realizes how close we came to learning much more about each other.
At the last second, I’d picked up the glint of one of those small reflectors that come standard on most bikes. If he’d had even a strip of reflective tape on the frame it would have been far better. I know many teenagers will never be convinced to deck themselves out in lights and helmets and safety vests; I consider it a victory when the ubiquitous earbuds aren’t blotting out the world around them.
Drivers are also pedestrians; many cyclists are also drivers; we all care about someone who shares our roads in something other than a car. When I see blistering battles between cyclists and drivers, I wonder when both sides will finally concede that neither is going anywhere.
And once again, that ugly “who’s in the right” rears its head. A car wins against flesh, a bicycle, a stroller, a skateboard. The thought my inattention or error might harm someone is bad enough; I don’t want to stand over a fallen child and declare that I had the right of way.
I want parents to teach their children early on the importance of assuming the worst from drivers. Reinforce making eye contact before they cross a street, even if they have the right of way. If your kid is riding a bike at night, light it up, somehow. If you’re the least protected part of the equation, you must use the most caution. I wish drivers would remember that no matter how thoughtless or careless a pedestrian or cyclist might be, you never want to make contact. Ever.
Both of my sons have been hit by cars, one while racking up grocery carts at his job, the other while walking home from school by someone backing blindly out of a driveway. They were emotionally shaken but physically unhurt, but mostly they were stunned that, in both cases, the cars simply drove away.
I want my midnight cyclist to recognize that he was invisible, that I’m not magic, and that his arrival at home safe that night was fool’s luck. Please, kiddo, don’t rely on someone else to save your life. Your luck may run out, and your life won’t be the only one forever altered.