Saturday, October 7, 2017. Hurricane Nate is wreaking havoc in the South. Forecasters predict the reckless cyclone will make its way to western North Carolina in a few days’ time, just the impetus 57-year-old Cullowhee, N.C., resident Jack Summers needs to go for a bike ride.
He sets out late that afternoon, following Tilley Creek Road down Cullowhee Mountain Road. With gravity on his side, he gains quickly on a truck up ahead, which pulls over and waves him by.
“They were very courteous,” he says. “I go a lot faster than automobile traffic on the downhills.”
Aside from the truck, Summers passes very few cars, a rare treat in the bustling community surrounding Western Carolina University where Summers teaches chemistry. He hangs a right at the intersection onto NC-107 and eases into the bike lane. It’s a short climb out of town, but Summers cranks up it in no time. Just as he begins to crest the top of the hill, he hears it, the most dreaded sound to cyclists everywhere, that of tires squealing on pavement.
“Next thing I know, I’m on the ground. I never lost consciousness. I thought about getting up and gave it a half-hearted try, but I felt something in my back, so I just laid there and waited for the ambulance to come to me.”
In a matter of minutes, an off-duty EMT and a young medical student are at his side, applying pressure to Summers’ back, which is bleeding profusely. One ambulance ride and a helicopter lift later, Summers was posted up in a bed at Mission Hospital in Asheville, N.C., alive, but badly injured. He had a compressed vertebra, a broken fibula, and a three-inch hole and Morel-Lavallée lesion the size of a cantaloupe on his back.
“I’m doing much better,” Summers tells me six weeks later in the comfort of his home. “I’m able to walk around without any kind of support. I feel like I was very lucky. I could have easily been killed at the scene of the accident. The people that stopped and helped me very likely saved me from bleeding to death right there,” and from being another number in a grim statistic.
Between 2000 and 2012, the number of cyclists in the U.S. commuting by bike increased by more than 250 percent. Reason would lead us to believe that as more bicycles take to the road, the more motorists become accustomed to their presence and, consequently, the less often collisions occur. But the trend is going in the opposite direction. In 2015, the U.S. Department of Transportation’s National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) found that 818 cyclists were killed in motor vehicle collisions, an increase of 12.2 percent from 2014. Like Summers, another 45,000 cyclists were injured in automobile-related crashes, which was not significantly different from the previous year’s estimated 50,000 injured.
Anecdotally, one need only browse the Internet to see that altercations of all degrees are on the rise between motorists and cyclists. Just a few days before an unlicensed and uninsured 24-year-old driver struck Jack Summers, Claude Donald Watson was caught on camera punching an Asheville-area cyclist in the face at a traffic light. A few months prior in Virginia’s Rockbridge County, a 14-year-old boy died after a 73-year-old woman made a left turn into him while he was riding his bike. And these are only a few that made 2017’s headlines.
“We took in three new cases this week,” says Ann Groninger, a personal injury attorney and co-founder of Bike Law, who specializes in representing injured cyclists, including the Asheville rider who received that on-camera punch-in-the-face. “Everyone who rides a bike on the road probably has had some experience like that,” whether it’s getting buzzed, or doored, or run off the road entirely. “Most drivers are probably tolerant [of cyclists], but there is a loud segment of drivers who aren’t and they’re the ones calling their legislators saying, ‘Get these bicycles off the road.’”
The problem for cyclists and motorists, whether or not they choose to believe it, is that legislators are listening and people are dying on our roads at a rate that is unacceptable.
The Public Health Crisis No One is Talking About
There are several factors that are contributing to the clash between cyclists and motorists. The economy is finally starting to recover, which means lower unemployment rates, more discretionary income, and more drivers. The year 2016 saw 3.2 trillion miles on the nation’s roads, which was up 2.8 percent from 2015. Traffic congestion that same year increased on average between 2 and 4 percent.