Damn, I think that was my fault

That was close. Closer than I care for. And I’m pretty sure it was my fault. I can’t blame the guy in the car, even though that’s what I wanted to do, especially the way he was laying on the horn like that. I could try to blame the long-haired guy on the mountain bike in front of me. But that would be scapegoating, too.

It was one of those brief mental lapses we all have — probably many times a day. A loss of concentration for second. A bad decision, lazily made. We do these things often, I think. But usually nothing serious is at stake. The moment passes. Nothing happens. You go on. But every now and then you have a lapse at an inopportune time.

Like the other day. I was rolling along Coburg Road at a decent clip. I was in the bike lane. The long-haired cyclist ahead of me was riding on the sidewalk. He was one of those guys who rides a mountain bike with a really low saddle and so he’s always out of the saddle, standing up while pedaling. I think this is to keep his hair from getting tangled in his derailleur.

He did one of those really exaggerated, dramatic bunny hops off the curb into the bike lane. So when he lands after dropping that 6 inches, it looks like he’s just made an amazing landing on the ground after riding his bike off the roof of a house.

But I shouldn’t make fun of him, because it turns out he was smarter than me.

He was far enough ahead of me that his power hop into the bike lane wasn’t a problem, maybe 20 yards ahead. Once he was in the bike lane, he wasn’t exactly riding a straight line, though. He was weaving side-to-side. I saw him look over his left shoulder once as he swerved over toward the white line delineating the separation between the bike lane and the car lane. It looked like he wanted to shoot across the street. There are four lanes of traffic here. Plus a turn lane in the center. But he veered back toward the curb. Then back out toward the white line. Then back the other way. It was a little erratic. Not to mention distracting.

I was coming up on him, now, and I knew there were some cars behind us. It should have given me a clue, too, that he apparently wanted to bolt across the street, but opted not to just yet. But I thought the first car was still a little ways back. I gave a quick, cursory look over my shoulder, the kind of thing a baseball pitcher does to check the runner on first base.

I didn’t take a good look.

This is taking a good look. Remember this?

I didn’t do that, but, hey, I thought, it’s just going to take a split second for me to go past the guy on the mountain bike. He was close to the curb at this point. So I started to pass. I was probably right on the white line. I thought I had plenty of room. I thought the car wouldn’t catch up to me until I had gone by the other cyclist.

But I wasn’t past him when I heard the horn blare. Not a beep-beep, certainly. A long, angry blast. And I wasn’t past him when the car whizzed past my left arm at 40 mph. It was the kind of close you can feel. The air pushes you a little. Which may not be especially close when you’re talking about a big square bus with the aerodynamics of a shipping container. But it is close when it’s a wind-tunnel-tested Toyota sedan. The passenger-side rearview mirror passed within a few inches of my arm.

Maybe this was the fixie gods getting back at me for making fun of the guy with the short-short bars, because, see, they really would have given me a little more breathing room on this occasion.

Honestly, though, I think it was gratuitous for the guy in the car to lean on the horn. There was nothing the horn was going to do to change the situation at that point. It wasn’t a warning to look or get out of the way. It was just his way of saying, “WTF?!!”

Which is what I’ve been saying to myself, too.

I’m sure he cursed all cyclists in general as he headed down the street. So keep an eye out for the nasty letter to the editor. My bad.

It’s so easy to generalize a specific incident. I sometimes think so much road rage is probably about someone’s momentary lapse. That person who just cut you off probably wasn’t a total idiot, but was — for a split second — distracted. Or lazy. Or, you know, sending a text.

Not that there’s any excuse for those things. And there wasn’t an excuse for my lapse. I usually try to be careful.

It’s had me feeling a little freaked out for a couple of days. And I think the reason for that is that it was my lapse. If it had been the driver’s fault, I would have gotten over it quicker. When you’re confronted with your own fallibility, it’s harder on your psyche.

I’m wondering, too, why I didn’t hear the car. I’m a real opponent of riding your bike in traffic while listening to an iPod. I think it’s important to be able to hear what’s going on around you. It’s not a substitute for taking a look, but it’s another sensory window on the world. But this, time, for some reason, I misjudged. And I don’t remember hearing a thing until I heard the horn.

Huh, you say, that’s all kinda serious sounding. Well, yeah, it was a bummer.

Speaking of bummers, bummer …

They even took the nuts and washers. Man, that’s low. You could leave a guy his nuts and washers.

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7 thoughts on “Damn, I think that was my fault

  1. The biggest difference (and the difference drivers don’t and won’t understand) is that your lapse ends up with you living with a traumatic brain injury and their lapse ends up with you living with a traumatic brain injury.

    Fault is a major component of liability (both legal and karmic), but the risk to others due to a lapse is generally greater when you are driving 1500 lbs of metal, plastic, and Corinthian leather.

    1. True. It’s not a level playing field out there, “sharing the road.” Cycling advocates surely have done a lot to raise awareness, educate, all that. But on any given day out there, there’s nothing I can do to control what any specific motorist thinks or does.
      I’m never going to assume anyone in a car is looking out for the guy on the bike. All I can do it watch my butt, stay focused and try not to get lazy. I just got a rude reminder of that.
      Thanks for reading, Russell.

    1. Might well have been. Though I usually feel like I can hear the tires on the pavement even more than the engine when a car is going Coburg Road speed. But, yeah, hybrids are sketchy that way — for pedestrians, too.

  2. I wear headphones to listen to audiobooks or podcasts, which makes the sound fairly non-continuous.. I think I hear cars about as well with or without them..which is to say, not well enough to depend on hearing… and often the wind noise is loud enough that I just turn the iphone off and they kind of become “vestigial headphones”.

    I used to use fancy ear-canal headphones, but they have like 20 dB of noise blocking ability, so they’re totally unsafe. The iphone headphones don’t seem to block noise at all.

    (sometimes I forget to take them off when I get off the bike and haven’t been listening to anything, and I feel like a total moron when I realized I ordered food from somebody with my headphones in)

    1. Perhaps you can hear OK if it’s a podcast and you’re not just cranking loud music. But I think I’d be distracted by trying to concentrate on something like that. That’s just me. It’s funny, though, because I used to listen to audio books a few years ago when I had to drive to Portland a lot. But the level of concentration I seem to operate at while driving on I-5 is much different than the level of concentration I would prefer to maintain when I’m cycling in traffic. That must say something about cars and bikes. I’m not sure what. Maybe it shouldn’t be that way. And maybe it’s just because — as Russell points out — the stakes are higher, although 70 mph on I-5 isn’t a great place to be drifting off either.

  3. I’ve just discovered your blog. Love it! I don’t live in Eugene, but have cycled for many years in and around Cambridge, MA. (Not nearly as bicycle-friendly as Eugene.)

    I always ride with a mirror. Sometimes two. (Always one on my helmet, and often one on my handlebars.) More importantly, I use that mirror all the time. When riding, I look in the mirror to see what’s behind me at least every fifteen seconds–more frequently if there’s a car or cyclist approaching from behind. Danger will not suddenly appear straight ahead…but it can come suddenly from behind–so I pay at least as much attention to what’s behind me as I do to what’s ahead.

    It’s comforting to see every car or truck as it approaches from behind. And I have learned that 99.9% of motorists are extremely courteous, bearing left and slowing down when necessary so they can pass safely. You wouldn’t even realize how courteous they are if you didn’t have a mirror, so you could see them slow down and bear left. (And of course I can see the rare motorist who seems intent on grazing me, and I can pull over a bit to give him room.)

    Very few cyclists use a mirror. I don’t know why. But if you make it a habit, I think you’ll be glad you did.

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