Wednesday, August 28, 2019

How To Report Your Bicycle Accident


This post describes best practices for reporting your bicycle crash to your family. (This is not an emergency response protocol; that’s another matter entirely.)

Before we begin

In no way do I seek to mock, trivialize, or brush off the potential seriousness of bicycle accidents. Of course they can be pretty bad, as I know from painful experience. This guide concerns those crashes (the majority) where serious injury does not result.

(Levity aside, don’t mess around with head impacts. If your helmet touches the ground, somebody else needs to evaluate you, period. I have seen a concussed cyclist in complete denial, which isn’t a surprise given the fuzziness that can accompany head injury.)

One more thing. This post will make it seem like I crash my bike a lot. I don’t. I’ve been at this sport for almost 40 years, and have logged over 200,000 cycling miles, including more than 200 races. Of course I’ve had my share of accidents but in the words of the venerable Marshall Mathers, I’m “still alive and bitching.”

Okay, all that being out of the way, let’s continue.

Do you really need medical intervention?

First of all, if the medical establishment gets involved in your crash, you will have a lot harder time “controlling the narrative” (to quote a legendary cyclist/doper). So the issue of medical attention becomes something to manage as part of your notification protocol.

Sometimes a bike crash is frightening to an onlooker who naturally fears the worst, and summons more help than is necessary. I wiped out in a criterium back in 1983 and got some nasty road rash, but nothing more. Alas, it was raining, I was soaked, my body fat was minimal, and post-crash I was lying on a wet lawn, so I was shivering. Somebody took this for me going into shock. The race medic flew into action, cutting up my cycling shorts with those razor-like shears they carry. My johnson dangled out, and—looking up at all these spectators, two of my brothers included—I reached down and discreetly covered up. (My brothers teased me about this for years. Had I not made that adjustment, of course, I’d have been teased for being an exhibitionist.) I was carted away in an ambulance, which caused quite a sensation. At the awards banquet that evening (this having been the final day of a stage race), everyone seemed surprised to see me back on my feet already. The race director said, “I thought you’d broken your hip!”

Other than the johnson part, I confess I wasn’t much bothered by all the attention. That’s because I was only 14 and didn’t understand the emotional duress this episode caused my mom. (When my brother crashed in a race later that season and broke his wrist, she resolved never to attend a bike race again—and she never did.) My dad, of course, seemed to take my crash in stride. He was the one who accompanied me to the hospital, which I didn’t wonder at back then, but now realize is probably because my mom was too freaked to take part. My dad had to fill out this form explaining how the crash happened, and to the question, “List any object the bicyclist came into contact with,” he drolly wrote, “Pavement.”

Of course my brothers gave me no end of flack about the outrageous drama queen behavior I had employed just so I could ride in the ambulance. They chided me for the unnecessary financial burden I had inflicted upon the family just to gratify my narcissistic thirst for attention. They way they went on, you’d think I had Munchausen Syndrome. But they did have a point: if it’s possible, you should decide for yourself whether medical intervention is truly necessary. Any one of my brothers would have loved to clean out that road rash with a toothbrush at home, which would have been only slightly less efficient than the nylon brush used in the ER. One rule of thumb: without a head impact, and in the absence of any obvious sign that you need an X-ray, maybe you should just limp on home.

How to get home

Even if you do need medical attention, this does not always warrant an ambulance. Back in the late ’90s, I had a fairly dramatic crash on the Golden Gate Bridge. I was sprinting around one of the towers when my fork broke, right at the crown. I piled face-first into the concrete and bloodied up my chin pretty badly. I carried my unrideable bike to the San Francisco end of the bridge so I could call for a ride home. I encountered a group of little girls, Asian tourists who apparently spoke no English. They were alarmed but sympathetic and one of them dabbed at my bleeding chin with some Kleenex from her travel-size packet. I found a pay phone but, alas, I couldn’t reach any of my friends. Finally I called my employer’s Network Operations Center and had them page the engineer on-call, who came and picked me up. Unfortunately, in the meantime somebody had called an ambulance. Not knowing that you’re allowed to refuse an ambulance, I simply hid.

Note that in the above example, I didn’t call my wife. This is by design. If you can possibly manage it, avoid phoning your spouse/other to ask for a ride home. Doing this causes several problems. First, this non-trivial inconvenience doesn’t put you on the best footing for the other inconveniences your crash may cause later (e.g., extra laundry, excessive groaning or whining). Also, if your spouse/other comes to get you, he or she will have the entire drive to fear the worst, even if you’ve assured him or her that everything is fine. (As I’ll get to, that assurance is not always 100% accurate.) And, if your spouse/other has to leave work to fetch you, his or her colleagues will wonder and worry. It’s all so inefficient! By contrast, the colleague who picked me up got a good laugh out of it because my well-being had no bearing on his. (Our boss got another laugh out of it at the end of our next staff meeting: “Okay, who’s taking the on-call next … because Dana’s riding this weekend!”)

The idea here is to forestall your spouse/other’s knowledge of your crash as long as possible, so that she can see for herself that you’re fine before even knowing you crashed. After the Golden Gate Bridge incident, I need stitches, but I waited for my wife to get home so we could go to the ER (on foot) together. I hid the gauze on my (seriously bleeding) chin by assuming a pensive pose, like I was stroking a goatee, while we had a 5-minute conversation. Only after this did I say, as if suddenly remembering, “Oh, hey—I took a little spill on my bike this evening and need to get a few stitches. You wanna come with me to the ER?”

After another crash, when my bike suffered a broken crankarm, I got a ride in a Samaritan’s pickup truck to the nearest train station. While riding home one-footed from the station near my house, I stopped at a bakery for pastries, so that by the time my wife realized I’d crashed, she’d already know I was well enough to run a gratuitous errand. In fact, I wasn’t totally fine—I’d cracked some ribs, though I didn’t learn this until later. Though it was a pretty high-speed crash, it left very few marks on me.

In another case, I crashed on a descent near Oakland and hitched a ride home in a a friendly motorist’s van, my bike being again unrideable. I came into the house through the garage, announced to my wife that I was home, and then on the way to the bathroom whispered to my young daughter, “Bring me the first-aid kit from the kitchen cabinet.” I managed not to howl in the shower while scrubbing out my road rash, but it was all for naught because my daughter, halfway down the stairs, yelled out, “Hey Dad, why do you need the first-aid kit?” I should have explained the tactic better.

In general I don’t mind hitching a ride with a motorist, as their willingness to help is generally a good indicator of trustworthiness. That said, if somebody hits you with his or her car and then offers you a ride, you might think twice. After all, if he or she could be drunk, stoned, crazy, or some combination of these.

Now, the rules are a bit different if you’re not yet an adult. The best case here is that you have a friend with a car who can drive you to the hospital and/or home. In 1986 I crashed in a criterium in Denver, and the race medic directed me to the nearest ER for a few chin stitches. (Actually, since I wasn’t yet 18, he recommended the local children’s hospital, which had a much shorter wait. Good call, that!) My friend Bill drove me in his Volvo wagon. Unfortunately, he was in such a hurry to get going, he started to drive before I was all the way in the car, and managed to run over my foot. D’oh!

If you’re not yet an adult and don’t have a friend with a car, your parents are pretty much the only option (unless you have a local aunt or uncle). In this case you’re bound to scare the crap out of your parent(s) if you don’t play it just right. So do not have somebody else call if you can possibly avoid it; that implies that you’re out cold or otherwise can’t talk. Make the call yourself but do not say, “Oh my God! I’ve  just been in a terrible bike wreck!” (I have heard this said, by a young rider who was plenty frightened but wasn’t actually injured.) If you’re conscious and able to talk, chances are you can manage some composure for the duration of a phone call. An ideal explanation, given in as calm a voice as possible, would be, “Hi [Mom/Dad]. How’s it going? [Wait for answer.] Cool. Well, hey, um, I’ve got a bit of a problem with my bike. Could you possibly give me a ride home? [Wait for inevitable questions.] Well, yeah, I took a bit of a spill on it. I’m totally fine … it’s just that my [wheel/whatever] is all out of whack. [Wait for more questions.] Oh, yeah, I’m perfectly fine. Maybe a bit of road rash. Nothing to worry about.”

My own daughter called me last Sunday and said, “Hi Dad. Is there any way you can come get me? I had a crash on the bike path and I can’t get my handlebars straightened out.” On the way to fetching her I was only mildly worried. (Her bars, I’d like to point out, were perfectly straight, at least by the time I got there.) I give my daughter a B+ for this performance. She’d have earned an A, except there was a bit of a quaver to her voice. (Don’t worry, she’s fine.)

If you do need an ambulance…

The hardest call you’d ever have to make would be, of course, the notification that you’re about to be hauled off in an ambulance and need your spouse/other to meet you at the hospital. All I can recommend here is to accentuate the positive. Try to sound as chipper as possible, and lead off with whatever good news you can. For example: “I’m pretty sure nothing is broken but somebody called an ambulance, so I guess I’ll go get checked out.” If something is broken, you might say something like, “I’ve taken a spill on my bike but you don’t need to worry—my head is totally fine. It looks like I might have a fracture of some kind, though, so they’re taking me in an ambulance for some X-rays.” Do whatever you can to insinuate that the medical industrial complex is overreacting (“as usual”). Of course this will still be alarming but it’s a fair bit better than, “Oh my God! I’ve just been in a terrible bike wreck!”

Reporting your kid’s accident

Reporting your kid’s accident to your spouse/other is, needless to say, especially delicate, particularly if (like me) you’re the reason your kid rides bikes so much. If you take your kid to a bike race, ensure in advance that the folks in the medical tent have your cell phone number on file as primary, not your spouse/other’s. This isn’t just more practical, but it avoids undue stress in the case of an accident. It’s a lot easier not to worry when you’re onsite and can evaluate your kid for yourself.

After my daughter’s recent bike path crash, I wasn’t sure what to say to my wife, and in the end I said nothing. My daughter and I just waited until my wife noticed the Tegaderm dressings on her daughter’s forearms. By this point, we’d all been home together for at least half an hour so our daughter was obviously fine. “What happened?” my wife asked. “Oh, I crashed on the Ohlone Greenway,” our daughter shrugged. “That’s too bad,” replied her mom.

That’s about your best case scenario right there … other than not crashing at all, of course.

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