Helmets Encouraged

I came to my consciousness sitting on the ground, looking at the black pavement and my legs, which were bent so I could sit upright, but I didn’t know how I got there; last I saw was the hood of the car from the air. My right ankle throbbed and swelled as I watched it – it had been smashed between the car and the gears on my bicycle when we collided, but I couldn’t think about anything now except that I wouldn’t be performing in the fall production we’d just begun rehearsing for. There was a police woman or someone barking in my ear. She wasn’t really barking, but the throb in my head made it seem like that. I tried to gather my thoughts and make a coherent decision. She repeatedly asked me if I wanted to be taken to the hospital. I glanced around me to see where my bike was. It lay about a hundred yards to my left, where the impact had thrown it over to the grassy knoll on the other side of the four-way. I could see the front tire was bent in half. Then I glanced up past the bumper of the car to my right at the shattered windshield.  “Um, no, no, I don’t need to go,” I said. I imagined the massive hospital bills I would be receiving in a few months and that know I had no way to pay for it. I would already have to buy a new bike.  “I think we’re going to call the ambulance…” she said. She wasn’t listening to me. I didn’t want to go! But at the same time, I couldn’t exactly stand up either, let alone think straight. They transported me to the hospital in the ambulance, a ride I don’t remember much about, nor do I wish to recall. I hadn’t been wearing a helmet.

My accident happened in fall 2008, my first semester at USC. I had broken my other foot the year before, but that was dancing, and the dance company paid for it. As a bicycle commuter, I was on my own, and the law was against me, it seemed, because I got a ticket for getting hit by a car.  At that point I was unaware of the laws concerning bicyclists and rights of cyclists. I felt like I should have received some special empathy from since I was on a bike and was more vulnerable than the other guy who sat unharmed in his metal bubble. I learned that just because you’re outside, atop two wheels, and exposed to the elements doesn’t give you any special exception from the law when the policeman comes to the accident scene and finds you guilty.

The police man came to give me my ticket before I had even been seen by a doctor.  The witnesses testified I had run the stop sign. I thought it was a four-way stop, but apparently I was wrong.  I passed that street every day and this had been a Saturday, an away game, and no one was on the roads. I had spaced out thinking about other things, like many drivers do in their cars, and, like many drivers, I ruled the road, or so I thought. I also thought the car would stop for me, but we cyclists have the same rights as cars, it turns out, and that means they must stop at four stop signs too.  In fact, cyclists must practice defensive driving and be even more alert than when driving a car because of the increased risk we are exposed to.

That Saturday afternoon the ER was so slow. I was probably on the bottom of their priority list; I had only been hit by a car on a bicycle and had a messed-up ankle and possible head injury. No biggie. They took MRIs of my head to be sure there was no brain damage, “but some symptoms can show up later,” I was told. Wonderful. All that money was for nothing, I thought.  They decided I had experienced a concussion from the impact of my skull against the windshield and hood of the car because I had blacked out for a short period, and that I was very, very lucky I didn’t have worse damage. Years after the accidentI still like to use the excuse that I had some brain damage when I hit the car, and that’s why I sometimes have difficulty remembering things. I wish I could have gotten extra time on my logic exam last semester for it!

In twenty-nine states there are no laws requiring bicycle helmets; South Carolina is one of those states. Of the twenty-one states that do have bicycle helmet laws, most of these only require helmets for those under the age of 16 or 17, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. Some states only require riders under the age of 15 to wear a helmet; West Virginia has made up its own age limit of 14, and Pennsylvania and Louisiana require a helmet for riders under 11 years of age.  Let me tell you that I wear a helmet now and am an advocate of always wearing a helmet, because, as they say, most accidents happen close to home. Just because you or your kids are only riding around the neighborhood doesn’t mean a car won’t unexpectedly round the corner and not see you in time.

I have worked part time at Cycle Center for a year, and the owner, John Green, is a stickler for safety. If he sees us riding to work without a helmet, he’ll chide us, and the same goes for customers. He willingly offers his employees and customers substantial discounts on safety merchandise. Before I let a customer leave with a newly purchased bicycle, I ask if they have a helmet, proper lights for night riding on the back of their bicycle, and if they are familiar the bicycle laws and cyclists’ rights in South Carolina.

The Palmetto Cycling Coalition has put together a handout of Bicycle Laws from Article 27 that is short and easy to digest. I often hand it to new cyclists. The university campus can be a great place to commute and can be very bicycle-friendly compared to other parts of the city,  but most commuters to the university live off campus and must battle traffic at some point in their commute. There are only a few stretches of street in downtown Columbia and on USC campus that have bicycle lanes. Bicycle lanes are not sidewalks. Sidewalks are for pedestrians.  I have had friends who have gotten ticketed for riding their bicycle on a sidewalk in downtown Columbia.

According to Section 53-5-3425, “a ‘bicycle lane’ means a portion of the roadway or paved lane separated from the roadway that has been designated by striping, pavement markings, and signage for the exclusive use of bicyclists.” Did you know that where there are bicycle lanes, cyclists are required to ride in them except when necessary for passing or avoiding an obstruction? Motorists by law must not block bicycle lanes and must yield to cyclists in the bicycle lane. Where there are no bicycle lanes, however, “bicyclists may ride on the roadway when there is only an adjacent recreational bicycle path available instead of a bicycle lane.” It would follow that, if there are no paths or bicycle lanes, whatsoever, a cyclist must ride in the roadway. So all those people who yell out their SUV windows at you or try to swipe you off the road when you’re cycling are breaking the law.

As a bicyclist, you do not rule the road. The same laws apply as if you were in a car. Article 56-5-3420 states that “a person riding a bicycle upon the roadway must be granted all of the rights and is subject to all of the duties applicable to the driver of a vehicle […] except to those provisions of this chapter which by their nature can have no application.” That is why I rightfully got ticketed for running a stop sign. All my pleas of “I didn’t know there was a stop sign there” did not help my case, as they would not have had I been driving a car. However, I did get out of both the ticket and the damage costs to the car at traffic court because the guy left and I was no longer legally obligated to pay his expenses. Note, riding like a car on the road does include riding in the same direction as traffic, and staying to the right if you are slow moving traffic. In case you missed that in driver’s ed, you can read about it in section 56-5-3430.

If you have ever been “hamburger-ed” (yes, it is an urban term now. just look it up in the Urban Dictionary online or on Youtube) by frat boys, as in my case, they are breaking the law. Section 56-5-3445 says that is unlawful to harass, taunt, or maliciously throw an object at or in the direction of a person riding a bicycle. This can result in a measly fine of $20. Cyclists also “shall not ride more than two abreast except in paths or parts of roadways set apart for the exclusive use of bicycles.” The fourth to last  section in Article 27 concerning bicyclists ensures nighttime safety for cyclists and motorists who need to see them: “A bicycle when in use at nighttime must be equipped with a lamp on the front which must emit a white light visible from a distance of at least 500 feet to the front and with a red reflector on the rear that must be visible from all distances from 50 feet to 300 feet to the rear when directly in front of the lawful upper beams of head lamps on a motor vehicle.” After that, state law requires a working brake on a bicycle and use of arm signals.

With all these detailed laws on bicycle visibility and arms signals, I wonder why state government does not require wearing a helmet?  It seems as though the American mentality of “I can do whatever I want as long as I’m not hurting someone else” pervades our traffic laws as well. A Cyclist must have lights on his bicycle and use arms signals to warn drivers behind him, but he can decide if he wants to protect his own head or not. Can drivers choose to drive reckless if they wish to put themselves in harm’s way? When is it necessary for laws to limit people’s freedom to put themselves in danger? We are required to pay for the consequences of our actions; wouldn’t it be right to have laws to help avoid some of these consequences too?  I think a law requiring bicyclists to wear helmets to protect themselves from the dangers of the road is more beneficial to the individual than a law requiring cyclists to wear red flashing lights on their backend.

A week or so after the accident, a friend drove me to pick up my bicycle from the police impounds station. I also had to go to traffic court, where I got out of paying the man who hit me because he left before we were called, then Facebook stalked me and asked me to pay for his windshield, but that’s another story…

Bicyclists in South Carolina have rights on the road, and advocates like the Palmetto Cycling Coalition are trying to bring more awareness to bicycle safety.  Violations to these laws can result in fines of up to $1,000 for a motorist who puts a cyclist in danger. Be aware of your rights, and wear a helmet. Excuse me; wear lights on your bike at night – that’s the law. But helmets are always a good idea if you want to avoid brain injuries.

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