I expect to be back to work in a few weeks, and with some luck and continued progress in physical therapy, back on a bicycle – at some point. You may have heard or read about me: “local physician on bicycle struck by hit-and-run driver” – or something to that effect.
My injuries were fairly severe and I had a prolonged hospitalization, including a week in the ICU. No one need remind me that I am very lucky to be in a position to write this. I would also like to take this opportunity to express my deepest gratitude to all those from the community who demonstrated their support with flowers, food, blankets and prayers. I also owe heartfelt thanks to my friends and colleagues at Community Regional Medical Center who take such excellent care of me.
During my recovery, between visits to rehab and various follow-up appointments, I have had ample time to reflect on bicycle safety in general, and the issues specific to my collision. Please note that I have avoided the word “accident.” We who practice trauma care have long ago learned that when it comes to vehicle collisions, there are very few that can truly be considered accidental.
I have also had ample time to carefully read The Bee, noting with increasing anxiety and sadness the ongoing litany of auto vs. bicycle and auto vs. pedestrian collisions, many where it is noted “the driver left the scene.”
This continuing problem of collisions involving cyclists was most recently illustrated by the tragic death of Patrick TeNyenhuis. All the information about this collision is not currently available. I make no judgments about anyone’s culpability in the matter.
However, I do know that Mr. TeNyenhuis was a very experienced cyclist, and he was apparently traveling in the appropriate direction on a relatively rural road where there is a sufficient paved road edge, clearly separated by a white line from the flow of automobile traffic. Mr. TeNyenhuis’ horrible and untimely death has reverberated strongly through many of our local social communities, some of which – the cycling community and the health care community – I belong to.
The other observation that I have made through Bee reading concerns the nature and tone of letters to the editor regarding the interactions between cyclists and motorists. Almost always they appear to be in some sort of “us vs. them” format with little in the way of constructive ideas.
I have been a cyclist for essentially my entire life, participating in all aspects of the sport – road and track racing, fitness riding, touring, etc. For 43 years, I have been a dedicated bicycle commuter, navigating the streets of Cleveland, Denver, San Diego, Sacramento and Fresno. I have never experienced a collision of severity that was even close to my recent one.
I have also been a trauma and burn surgeon for 30 years. As a surgeon, the essence of what I do is to help my patients try to solve problems. Some problems are fairly simple; some quite complex; some in fact, insoluble. In all cases, I must try for solutions.
The issue at hand has some remarkable similarities to those with which I deal professionally. We have an epidemic on our hands, which must be contained, controlled and hopefully eradicated. My medical education and experience have taught me that the most sensible approach is a problem-oriented one, where without prejudice or bias, problems are identified, characterized and solved.
Let us begin by establishing some facts. Everyone has access to public roads as long as they follow the law. No one has the inherent right to drive. Driving is a privilege earned by obtaining a license and continuing to follow the law.
That cyclists do not require a license to operate their vehicles is a decision that has been made at a legislative level. I personally would be quite happy to participate in a bicycle licensing program, but that issue is out of my hands. Motorists do not have more of a right to use public roads because they pay fuel taxes. Most cyclists also own automobiles and pay taxes. The sources of funds for road maintenance are rather complex.
So what are some of the problems and how might we solve them?
1. Bicycles must be treated as vehicles that can use roads within the limits of traffic laws. That also means that cyclists must obey traffic laws. Every time Mr. (or Ms.) Spandex blows through a stop sign, it reflects badly on the entire cycling community.
Solution: Enforce the law. Cyclists who violate traffic laws should be cited and fined just as motorists are. Educate cyclists regarding their rights and responsibilities, beginning in elementary school and include bicycle-specific instruction in driver’s education courses.
2. If bicycles are vehicles, then motorists must treat them as such. My years of experience on the roads has shown me that this seldom happens.
Solution: Traffic law enforcement and education is important. Just as important is a cultural shift where motorists accept the fact that bicycles exist. Far too many times I have been told by an exasperated driver that, despite my bright cycling clothes, or ultra-bright lights and reflectors at night, that “I just didn’t see you.” Motorists need to look and actually respond to what they see. The difference here is that it is the motorist and not the cyclist who is operating a vehicle that may become a deadly weapon.
3. The ongoing antagonism between many motorists and cyclists.
Solution: Without a doubt there are many unsafe, rude cyclists out there, just as there are thoughtless, distracted, impaired and sometimes actively menacing motorists. We have little immediate control over either group, but perhaps we could remember that neither community is represented by the scofflaws.
4. Lack of appropriate infrastructure.
Solution: In my 24 years in Fresno, there have been significant improvements of infrastructure. These include the development of multi-use trails, increased marking of bike lanes, and (at least in some cases) the development of bike-sensitive traffic signals. But we still have a long way to go to optimize our streets for shared access; we can learn from other cities, such as Portland, Seattle and Davis.
There are several other specific problems that could be identified, but in summation we might refer to Rodney King’s clichéd but appropriate question, “Can’t we all just get along?”
There is plenty of room on the streets of this town for both motorists and cyclists if everyone follows traffic laws and shows a modicum of respect for each other. This is a simple medicine that would be potentially curative, but one that I fear too few are willing to take.
William Dominic, M.D., is an avid cyclist and the burn director at the Leon S. Peters Regional Burn Unit of Community Regional Medical Center.