Bike defensively in Anchorage, for your life depends on it

The day I got hit by a car I had a pleasant chat with a motorist as we waited for a stoplight. It was warm and sunny; she had her window down. I rolled up on my bicycle and we passed a few seconds enjoying the day together. "Be careful," she said as the light turned green. "I always am," I answered, and pedaled off. Seven minutes later I was flat on my back in the middle of Northern Lights Boulevard.

I used to ride that route a lot. I thought I knew how not to get killed. I was on the sidewalk, riding toward traffic, so I could see the right turners in time to stop for them. Going with the flow, you'll get squashed by the right turners if you're not careful.

Not that going against traffic on the sidewalk is without peril. Drivers emerging from side streets, driveways and parking lots aren't looking to the right. They are watching to the left, waiting to jump into a gap between cars. When openings appear, they go. They usually don't pay a lot of attention to the right. I know this. I've done it myself.

As a careful cyclist, I have waited for lots of drivers to see me before I dared cross their paths. It doesn't bother me to come to a full stop and wait until we all see each other and figure out how to proceed. Well, it does bother me. Stop-and-start cycling is tiresome. But it's better than getting squashed.

I work hard to be visible. Blinking lights front and rear, reflective fluorescent vest, reflectors on wheels and pedals, reflectorized pant cuff ties. I wear clear-lensed protective glasses so drivers can see my eyes. Drivers wearing sunglasses or behind tinted windows? I'll wait, thanks.

I was almost at a full stop that afternoon, waiting to see the driver see me. I had my foot out of the stirrup and was stepping down to the pavement when she turned my way and looked me full in the face. It sure felt like eye contact. A driver wanting to turn in where she was exiting waited patiently. He looked at me -- eye contact -- and motioned me forward. I pushed off. Driver One pulled forward and shoved me out into the street. I've since learned cyclists call Driver Two's maneuver "the wave of death." I'll never obey anyone directing traffic from behind the wheel again.

I am lucky. If I were a pedestrian, I'd be dead. The grinding sound of my bike beneath her car alerted the driver to stop. If I had been on foot, she probably would have felt the ker-thump of rolling over a human speed bump before realizing anything was wrong.

The first responders arrived quickly and did good work. Bless 'em. The police charged the driver with "failure to avoid a collision," or whatever the legalese is for "not paying attention." The municipality later dismissed those charges. Finding out why will fall onto the pile of tasks associated with grappling with the insurance companies fighting against paying for any of this. That ongoing hassle is not the only way my life has changed since the collision.

Whether on my bike or on foot, I am now supremely distrustful of every vehicle I encounter. When one driver gets safely past, I automatically assume the next will do something stupid and put my life at risk. It's a crummy way to interact with the world every day, but this hypercautious attitude might just keep me alive.

I'll probably continue slamming my fist against cars that cut me off. If you present yourself within arm's reach, I'll let you know I'm there. A solid thump resonates impressively on a car's fender. Usually, mortified drivers are hugely apologetic to realize what they've done. A couple have actually dropped their phones in surprise.

This is terrifically satisfying.

Surprise is instructive. I once pedaled up alongside a slow-moving van, materializing right next to the driver in her open window. "Ma'am, did you even see me as you rolled through that stop sign back there?" I think she might have pooped in her pants a little. Maybe she's watching more closely now. You're welcome.

Think of it as a public service.

To the drivers who wave me ahead, now you know why I'm waiting for you. Thanks -- no, really, thank you. The motorists who are aware of we cyclists and let us know they see us are golden. But they're vastly outnumbered by the oblivious.

You -- yes, you. Hang up and drive. Please.

My two-wheeled brothers and sisters? Be careful. Make yourselves visible. Follow the rules. We don't need motorists holding us all in low regard because a couple of us ride like idiots. No, of course we don't deserve the death penalty for coasting through stop signs, but our four-wheeled friends hold all the cards. There's no margin in annoying them.

They aren't watching for you. Don't take eye contact for granted. Sometimes they'll look right through you, as I found out the hard way. Wait until they clearly and positively acknowledge you. There are plenty of drivers who will treat you with respect -- bless their hearts, every one of them. But that one -- and it only takes one -- that one who is distracted, drunk, or just plain ditzy, that one will kill you. Every single vehicle is a threat to your life. Don't ever forget it.

I am lucky.

I am lucky I'm alive to feel that new twinge in my knee every day, each time I take a step just so -- and that sharp stab triggers the mental video of the collision. Some days, I get to watch it hundreds of times.

But I am lucky.

I am alive to fight with the insurance companies. I am alive to pedal past the ghost bikes and the balloons and the flowers poked into the guard rails. I am alive to wonder which of us will be next.

Biologist, broadcaster, falconer, legislative aide and media consultant Ron Clarke was cycling to his monthly board meeting of the Blood Bank of Alaska when struck by a vehicle in the incident described above. He and wife Kristine Kennedy live in the Turnagain neighborhood of Anchorage, where they operate "A Comfortable Stay" bed and breakfast.

The views expressed here are the writer's own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary(at)alaskadispatch.com.

Ronald Clarke

Biologist, broadcaster, falconer, legislative aide, and media consultant Ron Clarke was cycling to his monthly board meeting of the Blood Bank of Alaska when struck by a vehicle.  He and wife Kristine Kennedy live in the Turnagain neighborhood of Anchorage, where they operate "A Comfortable Stay" bed and breakfast.