As I walked home from work last night, I saw a crowd gathered at the corner of 17th and L Streets, NW. On closer inspection, a woman was lying in the road. A bicyclist had been hit. Have you thought about what you would do in such a situation?
A few people were hunched over, talking to her, trying to keep her still and calm. The rest of the crowd watched, concerned but unsure of what to do. Since I’d learned about the bystander effect, which renders people immobile rather than helpful in a crowd, I’d mentally rehearsed how to deal with a crash.
I sized up the situation to see if I was needed. A man kneeling next to the victim was on the phone, so 911 had been called; she was talking and I didn’t see any blood, so things probably weren’t dire (though only trained medical personnel can decide for sure as some injuries aren’t immediately visible).
It looked like the scene was under control, but the crowd was looking inward, away from traffic, so I jumped in to direct drivers and cyclists around the site. I also tried to flag down the police, but the 3 patrol cars that passed by ignored our waving and yelling.
The injured cyclist had been riding as far to the right as possible when she was struck. Ron Knox confirmed that she was so far to the right that she was lying with one of her legs in the storm drain.
While it’s always safer to take the whole lane, which is a bicyclist’s right, I can’t say I blame her. The traffic on L was heavy and chaotic, with bicyclists and cars both weaving through or between lanes. The cycle track isn’t complete on that block, and the incomplete portion still looks more like a hazard than a feature.
Two other people joined me to form a phalanx against traffic. I asked one of them how long they’d been waiting for an ambulance. About 6 minutes, he said, and it was at least another 2 until an FEMS SUV pulled up and an EMT took over.
With the FEMS vehicle blocking the right lane and an ambulance within earshot, my work was finished and I started home. I tweeted the incident with the #bikedc hashtag, which alerted advocates and traffic watchers in the press that something had happened, and wondered what lessons to take from the mess.
Tips to avoid a crash, or react to one once it happens
If you’re bicycling, take the lane. If you’re riding with traffic on downtown streets, ride a little bit left of the center of the lane to ensure drivers have to pass you like they would another vehicle. They might get upset, but you’re safer there than in the gutter.
Drivers need to give bicyclists clearance when they don’t take the lane. DC requires drivers to pass with at least 3 feet, to cut down on the odds of a side-swipe. Given how far over the crashed bicyclist was riding, it seems likely she wasn’t afforded those 3 feet.
For anyone who might be a bystander, rehearse what to do in a crash. Just being mentally prepared for the situation can help keep you calm and in control. There’s no need to command a situation if people are already acting, but just standing by to help as needed can be enough.
Lastly, tweet it, if you can, ideally with a picture. Mention @struckdc, a Twitter account that tracks crashes, and #bikedc if it’s bicycle-related. Spreading the word lets other travelers know to avoid the area and lets advocates know to follow up. It’s embarrassing to lie injured on the road with strangers standing around and tweeting, but crashes shouldn’t happen to begin with. Advocates keep the narrative of those struck and injured alive, and people need to know when the street design and traffic patterns make them too dangerous.
I’d also like to know more about why the police didn’t stop or respond to the crash. When the 911 call goes out for an ambulance, police ought to respond to the scene as well to take witness accounts, interview the driver, and take over the crowd while waiting for medical personnel. Police also typically stop when bystanders try to wave them down, so hopefully these particular cars were responding to another, even more urgent call, or had another reason not to stop.
Cyclists and advocates, motivated by crashes like this, have pushed for safer bike infrastructure like the L Street cycletrack. It, and its twin on M Street, can’t come online soon enough.