Accidents Happen

I’ve hesitated to post thus far about this unfortunate side effect of bike commuting.  Bike commuting has so many great things going for it, and I fear that even mentioning accident or injury might dissuade someone on the fence from ever trying it out.  But for whatever reason, the past month or so has been unlucky for me on the injury front, so I’ve decided to write about it.

The biggest accident risk while riding a bike, it turns out, is not what all the bike advocates spend 95% of their time talking about.  In over a year of daily riding, I’ve had only one injury due to misbehavior by a car driver, and I escaped with little more than a small bruise that healed relatively quickly.  The major risk factors in the majority of my unfortunate incidents have been weather and bike component failure.

A typical driveway crossing the Hudson River Greenway.

First, let’s get back to that traffic near-collision.  There are a number of driveways crossing the Hudson River Greenway south of 59th street.  Some of these are for official use only, such as for tow trucks and garbage trucks, or for parks vehicles, and most drivers of official vehicles are well aware that they are crossing a path meant to be separated from car traffic and they drive accordingly.

However, a number of these driveways, such as the one in the picture above as well as the one where I was injured, on 40th Street entering the ferry terminal, are open to all cars, particularly to taxis.  Contrary to whatever Dorothy Rabinowitz may claim, I can confirm from personal experience that taxis remain the biggest safety threat on NYC streets.  On this particular morning, the weather was a bit damp, and consequently the numbers of people cycling and jogging on the Greenway were much reduced.  And so, in apparent obliviousness to the presence of a bike path, a yellow taxi turned from the adjacent West Side Highway into the driveway without even a second of hesitation, just as I was about to cross.  For anyone not familiar, this is a typical “right hook” scenario, where both the cyclist and the motorist have a green light, but the motorist fails to yield the right of way when turning to those proceeding straight through the intersection on his right.  In any case, I made a very abrupt turn to evade the taxi, which I narrowly avoided but only at the cost of running into a nearby curb and falling off the bike.  Luckily all I got was a few scrapes, and after screaming a few choice words at the driver (now stopped to unload his passenger), I went on.

So that’s traffic risk.  It may be that since I take the Greenway, which has relatively little contact with motorized traffic, I’ve had a lower-than-average rate of run-ins with NYC drivers, but I can only report on what I’ve experienced.

My overall injury rate while bike commuting has been about one incident per month.  It may be that this rate was higher than normal when I first started using clipless pedals, but the rate has remained stubbornly high even many months later.  The most common mechanical problem is the chain slipping off the smallest front chain ring.  This tends to happen when I shift into the small ring just as I’m about to start climbing a hill.  When the chain slips, all I’m left with is whatever momentum I had before the shift, and when approaching a hill, that momentum can be depleted rather fast.  On quite a number of occasions, I’ve failed to unclip from my pedals in time, and I experience a slow crash as my bike gradually tips over after coming to a stop.  These have all been very embarrassing, but they very rarely result in anything more than a scrape and occasionally some blood.

The other type of mechanical failure is catastrophic chain skipping upon startup, which can happen if the bike has somehow shifted gears since the last time it was used.  This happened to me most recently on August 5, and the twisted ankle I got from the unexpected lack of resistance still hurts a bit.


The street where I fell most recently. The metal strip in the roadway in not pictured here, and neither are the gray skies on the day I fell.

The second most common contributing element to a bike accident is weather, and particularly weather and speed.  This is a huge problem in the winter.  I can attest that, although falling into fluffy fresh snow is actually rather painless, falling hard onto a patch of ice is not.  Even in the summer, rain tends to make certain surfaces very slippery.  My most recent injury, sustained yesterday (August 12) morning, happened as the bike simply slid out from under me as I was crossing a metal strip in the pavement.  Although I must have been going only about 10 MPH at the time, the skid along the ground following that fall gave me a rather extensive road rash extending from my knee along my thighs and arms up to my shoulder.  By the way, it turns out helmets really do protect you in ordinary bike accidents, as I discovered at the end of the ride that the EPS shell had a rather large crack.  The injury, along with the continued wet weather and the prospect of nothing but clear skies later in the week, convinced me to take a day off from bike commuting.  Given how often weather has gotten me into trouble, I suspect either refraining from riding or only taking safe, slow routes on bad weather days would cut my accident rate in half.  Nevertheless, as I’ve indicated before, I actually kinda enjoy these rides, so my accidents will probably continue.

Battery Park City esplanade: A great place for a stroll or a slow ride, not ideal for fast riding.

My one absolute worst injury was completely avoidable and was sustained while riding in a way I knew was reckless at the time.  On the morning of July 10, after just missing a ferry at WFC and with about 5 minutes to spare until the next one, I decided I’d race down the narrow walkway at the southern end of Battery Park City.  On my way back, this path was made even narrower by some guys setting up some sort of event and unloading A/V gear.  I tried to make up the time by going even faster down a twisty section of path, and wound up unexpectedly jumping down a few stairs.  I went completely over the handlebars and landed hard squarely on my shoulder.  The bike’s derailleur was also wrecked, and the damage plus injury kept me off the bike for over a week.  This shoulder was finally almost healed over a month later when I injured it again yesterday.


6 thoughts on “Accidents Happen

  1. One injury per month seems awfully high to me. The last time I fell off my bike was fifteen years ago, and I’ve done a few thousand miles of commuting since then. Admittedly, I don’t use clipless pedals, and based on what I’ve heard (including what you just wrote) I don’t think I would ever use them for commuting.

    It’s also been a long time since the last time my chain came off. Some adjustments to the screws helped. I assume you have tried that?

    • Hi Ivan,

      Thanks for commenting. It seems awfully high to me, too. Perhaps I’m a bit more accident prone than average, but keep in mind I’m counting some very minor falls. Even so, a co-worker who does a similar route said his rate of injury is closer to 1-2 per year, but he skips bad weather days more often. Not having an accident in the past 15 years is pretty good, but I do a few thousand miles of bike commuting every few months, so it sounds like I ride a lot more. I ride about 110-150 miles/week.

      Clipless pedals are awesome 99% of the time. I especially appreciate them on hills, when I can just focus on transferring energy through my legs to the wheels, and don’t have to think about whether my feet are about to slip off the pedals. Wet-weather riding can also be tricky without clipless pedals, as your feet will constantly be slipping and that can also lead to a disaster if you lose the ability to power the bike forward at the wrong moment. Still, for relatively slow, flat, stop-and-go city traffic, I can understand not having them.

      As for the chain coming off, I would think it’s a common problem, especially since chains should actually be replaced every 2000 miles, and cleaned probably at least once a week. Since I and probably the majority of commuters don’t do that, I’d think chain problems would be common. The chain problem I had (and am still having, actually) came after replacing the chain and rear cassette, so probably some adjustments are needed, but I haven’t figured them out yet.

      • I admit it: I also skip bad weather days very often. My commute must be way shorter than yours, and I work from home part of the time. 🙂 So the difference in crash rate per mile wouldn’t be nearly as dramatic.

        Glad to hear that most of those falls were very minor!

  2. On the failing to unclip in time when chain slips, what happens if you fall in the path of a car coming behind and has little time to react, its most probably curtains. I had a close incident today and will switch to platform pedals for the road for sure.

      • Absolutely, some drivers have no sense of sharing the road, they pass so close to the bike and there are times when the handle bars wiggle a bit and they give you no play room. As a driver of a car myself, I always anticipate the worst when I see a cyclist ahead of me and pass only when there are no oncoming vehicles to give enough clearance.

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