A traffic accident occurred on my way to work recently involving a car and a bicycle. We happen to have an active cycling community here in Kansas City with over 150 miles of paved trails connecting throughout the metro. If you’ve ever visited our office for training you may have noticed we’re situated on one of those trails and some folks like me even use them to commute to work when we can. Suffice it to say this particular morning I was driving to work and a few minutes after leaving home I found myself pulling over to render aid to a downed cyclist. Another innocent victim of motorist inattention I figured.
In my last blog I suggested the "language" of risk could be the most universal language we inherently understand. Most of the time we employ an operational risk discipline in our daily lives without even thinking about it. In fact humans would have probably been long extinct had our initial survival depended on higher order brain functions (thinking) without the fight-or-flight response baked into our subliminal psyche. As our understanding of the world around us increased through the millennia we developed common sense to further enhance our survival and quality of life. Let’s explore an everyday example of what happens in the absence of that common sense.
Picture a 4-lane undivided suburban artery street that feeds residential neighborhoods on both sides through a network of cross streets governed mostly by stop signs. The cyclist, an older retired gentleman was riding northbound on the southbound sidewalk (which we’ll call "strike 1"). The driver failed to notice the bicycle as he began a right turn from a cross street to head south on the main road and subsequently hit the cyclist passing in front of him. As I pulled over to help I saw the guy lying on the ground trying to sit up. He had blood streaking down the left side of his face and his bicycle was also a mess having gotten hung up under the front bumper of the car.
In the brief moments required for me to park and walk back to the corner the cyclist had mustered enough strength to stand up and start delivering a piece of his mind to the driver at top volume. The driver, a small European guy in his 50s was flustered and very apologetic. Turned out he was simply trying to return a rental car for his wife and was baffled at how he could have hit a bicycle considering how careful he was otherwise being not to damage the rental car. Another motorist (a woman 8 months pregnant) who swerved to avoid hitting them both had also pulled over to help. Between the two of us we got 911 called, the mangled bicycle disconnected from the car and both moved out of the way, and the cyclist convinced it would be better to stop yelling and just sit down on the curb for a bit.
While I’m neither a trained medical professional nor a lawyer I actually do have some practical experience with this kind of thing since I was hit by a car myself once under similar circumstances. Overall the cyclist seemed okay. A little banged up but no broken bones or major loss of mobility and he was coherent enough to multitask between typing notes into his phone and ignoring our plea to stop cursing the driver. I looked closer at the blood on his head, saw it was coming from his ear & then noticed a cracked, bloody headphone dangling from under his helmet ("strike 2"). The impact caused him to smack the side of his head on something which cracked his earbud and the resulting shrapnel cut the inside of his ear which bled a bunch but was otherwise a minor injury.
Considering my own history you might have expected me to join in with the cyclist & start berating the driver further. It’s perfectly natural under the circumstances: We hear "car hits bicycle" and we’re pre-programmed to favor the cyclist just like we tend to fight for the little guy or cheer for the underdog. It’s precisely because of my own experience that I didn’t do that. Instead I asked the cyclist where he was headed even though I already had a hunch. His answer confirmed he was just tooling around for some exercise and enjoying the beautiful weather…during rush hour on a crowded main no less ("strike 3!")
Could the driver have been more careful? Of course he could have. But was he guilty of gross inattention or merely conditioned complacency rooted in symmetric experience versus the asymmetric risk that had just landed square on his front bumper? A victim wooed by the perceived probability of success from past outcomes rather than anchored in future potential threats. Although we may have been told back in the day to "look both ways before crossing the street," in reality we get lazy sometimes. Like the night watchman who struggles to maintain "alert readiness" month after month at a building nobody ever breaks into. When we’re not actually crossing the street or even taking a left turn then we often defer to just checking to the left (or the right depending on where you are) since that’s the most likely direction of danger.
Forgetting that simple fact can be harmful for your health as Winston Churchill once learned on a visit to NYC which could be thought of as an asymmetrical outcome, an outlier in other words. Except that Mr. Churchill like the cyclist in my story amplified greatly the potential likelihood of that otherwise very unlikely event unfolding. People tend to forget the difference between odds and probability which leads them to disregard the power of asymmetric risk impacts. Though we’re not really used to thinking asymmetrically it’s nevertheless how the more impactful risks often manifest. So we must force ourselves to consciously apply this thinking and regard each scenario as a coin flip until a historical context or some other reference can prove otherwise.
Since the driver was turning right instead of left or crossing the street he deferred his attention to traffic approaching from the left only. Seeing none he proceeded to turn and BAM! This exact scenario happens to be one of the main reasons why bicycles are required to follow most of the same laws as cars including riding in the street with the flow of traffic, not on the sidewalk and certainly not on the sidewalk against traffic. This also happens to be the opposite of what we’re taught when we’re on foot where walking against traffic gives us the best chance of jumping out of the way of a driver who fails to notice us which was why the cyclist was so upset. He thought he was doing the right thing by applying the same pedestrian logic when in fact all he was really doing was amplifying the likelihood of a disaster.
So what the difference? In a word…velocity. Bicycles move faster than people on foot. Since reaction time is shorter for both parties the same controls don’t work as well. Or put another way, the velocity of the risk requires a different approach to controls in order to adequately manage the risk to an acceptable level, the control in this case being riding with traffic on the street rather than against it on the sidewalk.
If the driver had simply been more vigilant & looked both ways could the accident have been avoided? Probably but that’s not really the point. It’s a bit like saying if a hacker had just stolen somebody else’s credit card database instead of ours then we wouldn’t be in this mess in the first place. We can’t control what other people are going to do so next best thing is turn our efforts inward and focus on what we can control which is our actions and our security posture. In other words minimize our exposure by reducing our attack surface.
What about the responsibility of the cyclist and the strikes against him? Although it wasn’t probably illegal to wear headphones while riding his bicycle (like it is for drivers in cars) it certainly wasn’t the smartest idea in traffic either since it distracts the senses. It was also rather selfish to blunder around during rush hour in the first place with several beautiful trails available nearby. Even if he were riding on the street like he was supposed to, it’s not very enjoyable. At best heavy traffic is forced to move around him upping the chances of a multi-car collision plus raising stress levels of people just trying to get to work on time & instead getting stuck behind some guy who clearly has no pressing time commitments.
And what about his loved ones? Had he been more seriously injured or worse how would that have impacted them? Would they have agreed at his funeral that his little joy ride as worth it or would they have simply shaken their heads at the high cost of fair weathered foolishness? What about the driver who now had a bunch of explaining to do and insurance to deal with? Not to mention both of their wives. How would either of them explain all this without looking foolish? (something the cyclist hadn’t pondered until then but now seemed a little apprehensive about) What about the pregnant woman who nearly hit them both in the aftermath? What if she and her baby had been hurt? Or what if the panicked excitement sent her into premature labor? Then what?
Most people don’t usually think that way but most people haven’t been stupidly hit by a car either. So I thought it fair to ask the guy these questions which he didn’t really appreciate at first. But after a few moments it started to sink in. You could actually see the revelation wash over him. His entire face & demeanor changed and he smiled and shook his head when he realized how dumb he’d been and how lucky he was. Just like I realized how dumb I’d been and how lucky I am everyday now many years later.
It’s amazing the number of lives we touch with even the smallest of actions. The driver who hit me was a young mother with two children in the car and all three were terrified they’d killed me. This was before cell phones and both her husband and my parents started fearing the worst when we didn’t arrive home on time. Fortunately my bike took the brunt of it and other than being a little banged up I was fine. Her car wasn’t damaged either. At the time I also thought I was absolutely right and she was absolutely wrong. Until I learned differently from the police and that same wash of guilt spilled over me for having put all four of us in that silly situation. I swore I’d never make that mistake again which is why for his own good I decided I couldn’t just coddle this cyclist and let him slide either. And you know what? Rather than calling me a jerk and telling me to buzz off the guy thanked me beyond words for putting things in perspective for him. He even apologized back to the driver which put the apology ratio at about 1:1000 at that point and they both shook hands and tried their best to laugh it off amidst still shaky nerves and post-adrenaline rundown. Emergency services arrived and patched up the cyclist and we bystanders proceeded on with our busy day.
See, tough love really does have a happy ending. And I promise neither that driver nor that cyclist will ever forget that experience or make those same mistakes again. The real question is will they regard this as just a bicycle accident? Or will they embrace the bigger meaning that they’ve actually improved their risk posture by updating their operational risk management models based on a historical trended view of impacts and near misses? Ehh…probably not the second thing. But at least they made it home for dinner with a good story to tell.