For all of those planning to saddle up for National Bike to Work Day on Friday, battered cyclist Joe Orr of Anchorage has some advice: Be careful; Be very, very careful. It was one year ago on a Friday afternoon that Orr went pedaling home from his job as a historian at Joint Base Elmendorf Richardson but ended up with a long stay in the intensive care unit of a local hospital.
Orr, the Anchorage Daily News reported at the time, "was riding on the sidewalk on the east side of Muldoon Road around 3 p.m., Lt. Dave Parker, a police spokesman, said. Orr slid under the vehicle, became trapped and had to be extricated, Parker said."
The physics of how someone on a bicycle could come to slide under a vehicle with such force that they could become trapped there and need to be extricated was never explained. That could be because, Orr says now, that isn't exactly what happened at the intersection of Muldoon Road and Peck Street.
Muldoon, a busy Anchorage thoroughfare, was thick with cars that Friday afternoon, Orr remembers, which was largely the reason he was riding on the sidewalk.
"Traffic was backed up," he said. "Traffic was very heavy. I got to the intersection. There was a car sitting there turning right onto Muldoon. I stopped at the crosswalk. No traffic was moving, and I went."
About the same time, the driver sitting at the intersection saw an opening in that Muldoon traffic and hit the gas.
The driver "never looked right and ran over me," Orr said. At the wheel of a Chevy sport utility vehicle, 42-year-old Vasiliska Snegirev, in fact, ran over Orr with such force that he was knocked down, pushed under the vehicle and trapped there. His leg was broke, his chest crushed. He was lucky to live.
He had to be put on a respirator in the intensive care unit at Alaska Regional Hospital because with a seven broken ribs and a crushed chest he couldn't breath on his own.
"I was in the ICU for 10 days,'' he said. "I was basically in a medically induced coma. And then I was in rehab for two weeks'' before being discharged. His recovery continued long after that. He still isn't fully recovered.
"My leg is still stiff," he said. "I still have a little bit of limp. But I actually ran a month ago."
The now-56-year-old Orr only made 100 yards on that run until he had to stop and walk. So he'd walk 100 and run 100. He's still trying to work his way back to full fitness. He remembers what it was like. "I was riding a lot and exercising a lot so I was in fairly good shape when I was hit,'' he said.
He credits the fast work of Anchorage paramedics and firemen, who pulled him out from under the SUV, and the master care at Alaska Regional with allowing him to pull through. No charges were ever filed in connection with the accident. There wasn't even a real investigation. Orr said he got a call from the Anchorage Police Department while he was in the hospital and medicated against pain. He told an officer to call back when his mind was clear. The officer did.
"He just wanted to get my statement," Orr said. "He called, but he never actually came by. Nothing ever came of it."
Law enforcement policy toward automobile-bicycle accidents in Alaska seems to be that if there is no death there is no foul. Sometimes even when there is a death, law enforcement decides there is no foul.
Police in North Pole, a community near Fairbanks, investigated when 13-year-old cyclist James Johnallen Walters was run over and killed by a commercial truck turning into a gas station on Aug. 21 of last year. Walters, like Orr, was riding a bicycle on a sidewalk when he was hit, forced under a large vehicle and killed.
North Pole police eventually announced in a news release that no charges would be filed in connection with the accident. They later explained they had concluded the accident was the fault of the 13-year-old for riding in front of the truck as it was turning into the gas station.
This is among the reasons League of American Bicyclists ranks Alaska 45th -- just five states above rock bottom -- in its list of "Bicycle Friendly States." Alaska gets good marks for "policies & programs" and "education & encouragement,'' but falls down on "legislation & enforcement.''
The prevailing attitude toward cyclists was well reflected by now-retired APD spokesman Parker who said of Orr's accident that "bicyclists need to be wary. Even if he had been in the right ... you still don't want to be dead right."
As for the need to be wary, Orr couldn't agree more.
"Put your head on a swivel,'' he said. "If you have to get on the sidewalk (or a bike path), ride with the flow of traffic because that's the way the traffic flows.''
Motor vehicle drivers turning right into traffic seldom -- sometimes never -- look to their right for cyclists or pedestrians. They are looking upstream into the flow of traffic, concentrating on where to find that opening between cars so they can jump in. If you have to ride a bike path or sidewalk going upstream against the flow, Orr said, never cross in front of a car unless you are absolutely positive the driver sees you.
"Make eye contact,'' he said. "Get a stick or something and bang on their hood if you have to, but make eye contact,'' and make sure that the driver registers you are there. Orr is confident he was run over and nearly killed because Snegirev simply never saw anything. Orr was the invisible cyclist.
National studies have shown motorists have a hard time spotting motorcyclists on the roads. Bicyclists are less obvious, and often use bike paths or sidewalks along the roads to which motorists pay little or no attention. Some of those bike paths are also horribly designed with their intersections crossing roads feet back from the intersection for motor vehicles.
Orr, who drives a motor vehicle as well, said those intersections now scare him.
"I look right and left when I'm turning,'' he said, "but if there a bicycle with a kid on it screaming up the sidewalk,'' they're easy to miss.
"The thing that gets me,'' he added, "is that particular intersection (at Muldoon and Peck) is rather infamous for bike riders. Someone was hit there a year before I was hit there. They almost ended up within inches of where I ended up. This is a high incidence area.
"The community has tried a couple times to have that particular intersection blocked off'' to force motorists to use an intersection with a traffic light only a block away. But the majority of motorists are more interested in convenience than safety. It is one more reason for cyclists to be very, very careful so they don't end up like Orr, who still isn't back to riding.
"All I want is a new bicycle, and I can't afford to get a new bicycle now,'' he said. "I'm kind of fighting with insurance companies.''
His health insurer doesn't want to pay hospital bills that it thinks are the responsibility of Snegirev's auto insurance company. Orr finds himself caught in the middle.
"They're not going to slide $1,000 to me to buy a new bike.... when the medical people all have first claim'' on any money, he said.
Contact Craig Medred at craig(at)alaskadispatch.com