Savage: Cycling lessons after accident turns surgeon into patient

I am an orthopedic surgeon, and not long ago I became another cycling statistic in Austin. Since I’m usually the one who treats people with the broken bones, my recent experience and its fallout have been eye-opening. My current life is far from normal, and my compromised state gives me time to think about how motorists and cyclists may hope to better coexist here in Central Texas and beyond.

What happened to me? Late last month I went out for a training ride, as I have frequently — often multiple times each week — for the last decade. I occasionally race on my bicycle — but on this ride, I was hit by a pickup truck.

I was doing everything right. I rode on the shoulder, in a bike lane. I wore bright clothing, and I had flashing lights on the front and rear of my bike to make me more visible. But still, I was struck from behind by a moving vehicle. I flew forward, while my bike crumbled into many pieces. Statistically, however, my scary situation wasn’t so extraordinary. Fifty cyclists a year die in auto/cycle collisions in Texas and about 700 per year nationwide, according to data from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.

The immediate aftermath was stunning and terrifying to me. Several motorists stopped to offer help, including dialing 911. I was obviously bloodied, broken and unable to move. Via ambulance, I went to the hospital and underwent three hours of surgery to repair four major breaks in my left leg. There were also smaller breaks in my right ankle and knee. Now I’m recovering at home. I will spend the next six months to a year overcoming what I believe was a driver’s split-second moment of inattention.

Austin really is a great town for cycling. Its terrain and weather are the envy of many parts of the country. The city boasts dozens of friendly, regular group rides that host hundreds of riders, as well as a well-organized amateur racing scene.

But as our population and associated motor traffic increase, it’s important to remember that we — that is, every resident who traverses over pavement daily — have a lot of room for improvement. Motorists need to remember and respect that cyclists are also considered vehicles, which means that they’re often legally entitled to be on our roadways. A city of Austin ordinance passed in 2009 provides that bicycles must receive a minimum 3-foot berth by any passing vehicle.

No doubt, while great strides have been made with regard to our local bike paths and designated bike lanes, cyclists themselves also have plenty to think about in making cycling safer. Riders are bound by the same laws and regulations as drivers, and therefore should obey the rules. All of those miles and hours spent cycling on Austin’s roads have left me plenty aware that some cyclists are careless or even reckless and do not respect traffic laws.

But my current perspective comes from needing crutches and other mobility aids, being away from my patients and depending on my family and friends for things I used to take for granted.

My plea is that if you’re an Austin driver, please give cyclists adequate space and consideration. If you don’t immediately believe that there’s sufficient room to pass a cyclist safely, wait a few seconds. You’ll likely soon find a better window of opportunity. Remember that, in the end, the person behind the sports glasses and the handlebars, or for that matter the windshield and the steering wheel, is a fellow human being. Everyone out on the roads deserves mutual respect and consideration. So please drive Austin-friendly and safe — whether your vehicle has two wheels or four.

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