The road warriors

Just how safe is bicycle-friendly Seattle?

THE FIRST THING I remember about my bike accident this March wasn’t waking up on the pavement. It was the impact: the sickening thwack of the SUV as it slammed into my body; the forced negotiation between my torso and 3,700 pounds of steel; the odd, sudden feeling of being suspended, seemingly forever, in midair. Then I remember waking up on the pavement.

The SUV—a taupe Cherokee with the obligatory American flag plastered on the back window—was going maybe 25 mph around a curve parallel to me when it drifted into the painted bike lane. Afterward, the driver was casually sipping a latte as I pulled myself up off the Magnolia street. Was he tired? Distracted? Talking on his cell phone? Or, like so many people, just driving carelessly in familiar territory?

I can’t say my experience was typical. The Cascade Bicycle Club’s Mark Keller calls me “one of the unfortunate few” among bike riders in Seattle. Peter Lagerwey of the city’s Transportation Department agrees: “For the number of people bicycling, the city of Seattle ranks as one of the safest cities in the country.”

To those who’ve ridden outside our bike-friendly enclave, it may feel that way; but, oddly, almost no current statistics exist to support this popular assumption. The Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) tallies bicycling accidents by county, with King County’s congestion and density unsurprisingly placing it on the high end of the car-bike-collisions-per-capita scale. Otherwise, the data are largely anecdotal. Seattle used to track bike-related traffic accidents reported to the police but hasn’t done so since 1996 (318 wrecks), thanks to a faulty computer record-keeping system.

Although I did spend three hours in Harborview’s emergency room, Keller says my accident wasn’t really that dangerous, because the speed differential between my bike and Mr. Patriotism’s SUV was only 10 mph or so. More dangerous—and far more common—are collisions where a car hits a bicyclist head-on when one or the other turns left in an intersection. “The largest threats to your personal safety in a collision are in front of you, not behind you,” Keller concludes.

MORE BIKE FACTS from the WSDOT and Lagerwey: Statistically, most car-bike collisions occur on city streets in broad daylight on weekdays. (Duh—that’s when we’re commuting.) The most common cause of bicycle accidents? Falling off, which causes 45 percent to 55 percent of all bike-related ER visits. (“Running into a fixed object” was second, at 14 percent.)

Not that cars—or, more accurately, road-raging drivers—aren’t a significant problem. Back in my hometown of Austin, Texas, riding a bike was like painting a target on your back. Three girls in a pickup truck once followed menacingly close behind me, then rolled down the window and spat in my face. An SUV sideswiped me with its mirror and drove away, leaving me stunned and bruised on the side of the road. (Incredibly, riding on the sidewalk isn’t an option; it’s a misdemeanor punishable by fines of up to $500.)

But don’t be so smug, Seattle. Recall how Eastside teenage hooligans reached from a speeding car this March to knock 51-year-old pastor David Tinney from his bike, causing a punctured lung and a broken shoulder.

My own injuries were comparatively minor. Three hours after my accident, I was back at work, dazed, arm in a sling, but basically fine. I had twisted a knee, sprained an ankle, and gashed the hell out of my hip and elbow, but I counted myself lucky. And for the record, I’m still riding my shiny red Giant from Ballard to the Seattle Weekly office downtown.

So is Seattle really a safer and more bike-friendly town than most? Even after being hit by a vehicle during my first nine months here, I would still have to answer yes.