Hit-and-Run on a Bicycle

A terrifying tale of being hit by a truck while riding a bicycle

Broken bicycle

A broken bicycle chained to a street sign.

Creative Commons: http://www.flickr.com/photos/abbynormy/434027770/

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Editor's note: In the July/August 2012 issue of Utne Reader, Jonny Waldman shared the harrowing story of surviving a run-in with a tornado in Topeka, Kansas, while riding his bicycle from Washington, DC to Colorado. That experience isn't Waldman's only close encounter with the darker side of bicycle riding, as you'll read in the following essay about Waldman surviving a hit-and-run by a truck while riding his bicycle on May 1, 2009.    

I was hit by a car at 8:20 this evening on the 3300 block of Powell St., in Emeryville, California. I'm OK. No, I'm not OK. I'm not hurt—just scrapes and bruises—but I feel like I want to simultaneously cry and scream and vomit and shit myself. 

It was a white truck with a camper top, off-white, pearly perhaps, and boxier than any new model. Maybe a Toyota. We were both on Powell street, heading west. It was drizzling, and almost dark. He hit me from behind, and didn't stop, even when I screamed. I never saw the driver. 

For a split second, flying through the air, I wondered how it was going to turn out. 

My glasses flew off my face. My water bottle launched into the road. My bike lay sideways, the chain all jangled up in the wheel. By the time I looked up, which was pretty damn fast, the truck was 100 feet away, and I couldn't make out a license plate. I was angry before I was in pain. 

Because Powell st. is a dead-end road, I knew I had a chance of catching the hit-and-runner. 

I yelled HELP, hoping that I'd find a witness. Nothing. I limped to my feet, and stood in the middle of the road, and flagged down the first car to come by. The driver didn't speak English. No help. 

I called 911, mildly astonished that I was able to move my arms, hands, fingers, and wrists with such fluidity. A broken wrist is the injury I dread most. Broken wrists would mean no biking, no climbing, no writing, no banjo playing, and no jerking off. I'd probably figure out a way to jerk off, but still, it terrifies me that someone could take such a simple, basic pleasure away from me. Life is that delicate. 

A few minutes later, when the police officer arrived and asked if I needed an ambulance, I wasn't sure, because you still can't really assess how it turned out, even though that instant of flying through the air is long since gone. You're up on your feet, sure, but you're shivering, frantic, hyped-up, and all rubbery. You don't trust your faculties. 

The officer asked me to move my bike off the road, then asked me questions and took notes. He asked for my ID and my phone number. I paced back and forth, wincing in pain. My left knee was stiff, and swelling up. My left hip bone and left elbow seared. "Any other injuries?" he asked. "My elbow. I can tell because it's wet. I can feel the blood in my sleeve." He asked me to roll up my sleeve, which I did, slowly. After that, he asked about my bike, and whether it was damaged. It seemed such an unusual question, like things were proceeding too fast. I put the chain back on, and flipped it over, to see if the wheels still spun. I felt drugged, sluggish. I was in no condition to focus on logic, mechanics, or machinery. But the bike seemed OK. I had to spell out P-I-N-A-R-E-L-L-O for the officer. "A ten speed?" he asked. "Twelve speeds, actually," I said. Why'd I correct him? 

Two more officers showed up, and drove to the parking lots at the end of Powell street, looking for a white truck with a camper top. I locked up my bike on the nearest pole, then got in the officer's car, to go ID the truck that had hit me. 

It was hopeless, and frustrating, and confusing. Short term memory is a bitch. There were two suspect trucks; one far too curvy and shiny and bright white, and one with a big silver and red stripe across the back. It's a toss up, I said. "It's gotta be one hundred percent," the officer said. 

I wanted to press pause. I wanted to consult a lawyer and cry and rest and breathe and drink something and come back to the scene more focused. I had the officer write down both license plates because I didn't know what else to do. 

I asked for advice. He told me he'd seen cases like this where the driver had gotten off. "If he plays his cards right," the officer began. I couldn't believe it. 

I jumped out of the car, and touched the hood of the second truck, hoping it'd be warm, so that I could make up my mind. Detective Waldman was frantically searching for clues. 

The hood was cold, and slick with raindrops. There were no marks on the font fender. No smashed light, or bent side mirror. I gave up, deflated. 

The officer reminded me that I was pretty lucky. He'd seen bikers sent to the emergency room after collisions involving windshields. He was right. I couldn't really complain. I hadn't been wearing a helmet, and I'd gotten away with cuts, scrapes, and bruises. My bike was fine. My jacket was ripped at the elbow, my sweatshirt a little bloody, and my cell phone a little scratched, but that's all. Even the groceries I'd been carrying in my bag were OK. Not one of the two dozen eggs was broken, and the loaf of bread was not squished, and the jars of tomato sauce were not broken, and the quart of milk was not punctured. Only three cans of soup were dented, which makes me wonder if they somehow saved me further injury. What if the side mirror collided with my giant grocery-laden bag, and the cans absorbed the sudden impact, so that I was launched, somewhat more softly, ass over teakettle? Is that possible? 

Years ago, a good friend sustained a terrible climbing fall that would have killed him if not for the helmet he had been wearing. Another friend, taking a stroll on a dirt road, nearly died when a truck slipped out of gear, rolled down a slight incline, and trapped him beneath it. I just don't understand risk. 

I know I ought to wear a helmet, and I almost always do. Sometimes, though, like when it's just a short ride on one mellow road to the grocery store, I don't bother, as if I'm relieving myself of some sort of burden. I didn't feel like it. I got complacent. So much for that privilege. 

The officer dropped me off at my bike, gave me his card, told me I'd have a report in seven to ten days, and drove off. I sat down, called a friend, and tried to calm myself. It didn't work. The officer hadn't let me down, or neglected his duties in any way, but I didn't feel like I'd been helped. I felt like I'd been served, and no more. Like a transaction had taken place, something robotic, inhuman. 

I unlocked my bike and walked through the parking lots. I wrote down the license plate numbers for myself. I also discovered a third truck—a white Toyota with a camper top—that I hadn't seen before. I wrote that license plate number down, too, and called the officer to tell him. I felt a surge of determination and hope, and also of fruitlessness and despair. How had the cops missed that car—the very thing I had described— in their search? What must the officer think of that biker now? Awfully meddling, no? 

I spent an hour sitting in the shower. The hot water stung my wounds at first, but that didn't bother me as much as my bruised knee, which refused to bend beyond 90 degrees. Afterwards, I had a hard time putting my socks back on. 

I thought about sticking a note on the three trucks: "A bicyclist was hit at 8:20pm on Friday, May 1 while riding westbound on the 3300 block of Powell street by a white truck like this one. Please contact the Emeryville Police Department." 

Would that help? Is that legal? And what do I want? I want to find the driver, and...I don't know. 

I wouldn't mind a new jacket. But that's not it. I'm not eager to capitalize on my position. 

I wouldn't mind pressing charges, but what for? I'm sure the hassle isn't worth it. 

I think I just want him to see me. I want him to see me cry, and scream, and vomit, and shit myself at the same time, and for him to know that's what he did to me. That's what he's done to me. And I won't be the same out there for a while.

Visit Jonny's website to read more of his bicycle-riding adventures.