A guest post by Anna Bracewell-Worrall, News Director at 95bFM.

There’s a particular spot on Ponsonby Road that I always look at. It’s right outside Ponsonby Central: it’s the place I was knocked off my bike into oncoming traffic six months ago.

I used to bike around a lot, but most of the time now I walk or catch the bus. I miss the speed and practicality of my old bike, but there’s a tranquility to using the bus that I don’t get from cycling anymore.

The other day, I was on a bus, feeling particularly at peace as we approached the site of my crash. As the bus idled at the lights, I looked across and had one of those moments when you can almost feel your brain pulsate against your scalp.

Across two lanes of traffic, I could see, surrounded by people, a man in shock. He had a towel draped over his shoulders, and leaning against the tree next to the group was a bike, crumpled.

From the bus, it was impossible to tell what had happened, but all I could think was: that cannot have happened right there, again.

It’s still fraught and confusing to think about how it had been for me, sitting wrapped in a towel on the side of Ponsonby Road. The events were – and still are – so bizarre that the whole thing is flavoured with stilted comedy.

It had been the kind of day that biking’s made for — sunny, with a soft breeze. I’d just had my nails manicured for the second time in my life, and was biking home happy along the ridge of K Rd and Ponsonby.

It was 2pm, so traffic wasn’t too bad, but when I’d stopped at the corner of Richmond Road, cars were queued at the lights. Once we were moving again, I felt that familiar pressure to tuck to the side and let cars past. I moved through the lights, gaining speed, but in that comedy of disaster, I was somehow suddenly lying on the road.

I felt this vague surprise that I was on the ground. A vehicle — a ute or an SUV — went past so closely I thought my legs had gone straight under it. My entire brain lit up in a single realisation: I’m dying.

My brain flicked to the closest scenario it could find to explain what was happening. It didn’t have much to work with as, fortunately for me, I’d never been in a crash before. I had however gone through a phase of watching a lot of 24 Hours in A & E, a show I found painful and sweet. So, in what I thought was my final moment on earth, I thought of a young man I’d seen on the show, writhing in pain after his pelvis had been crushed between two boats. Had I died, he would never know that I thought of him in those moments. I’m glad I’ve lived to never tell him the weird shit my brain got up to.

Time stretches and bends in those moments, and your mind plays tricks on you. I hadn’t been run over, and I certainly wasn’t dying. I tried to shift myself back away from from the traffic, but struggled to move. Someone grabbed me by the arms, and I desperately wanted to tell them to let go — everywhere they held me burned to the touch, and I think I fainted as they pulled me up and off the road.

Dizzy and slow, I realised people were talking to me. I had to close my eyes to concentrate on hearing them, but even then, everything was noisy and distant. I just wanted to close my eyes in dark silence, and was annoyed that someone kept asking me questions.

Now I think the man who carried me off the road, and the woman who took my phone and methodically asked for my password before calling my dad, are utterly amazing. At the time, though, I felt crowded; and as I regained a semblance of control over my brain, I was slightly embarrassed to be the focus of their attention.

A paramedic arrived and asked how I felt. I’d become intensely intrigued by how sweaty I’d become. It was all I could think about, and I answered honestly — I’m really sweaty. It’s the adrenaline, the paramedic told me. Other than that, I couldn’t tell what was hurt. Everything felt wrong, but nothing felt acutely wrong.

Waiting in the ER. Manicure intact; leg, not so much.
Waiting in the ER. Manicure intact; foot, finger, teeth, not so much.

It took a while to figure out what my injuries were. I’d broken my foot, and a finger, although the whole hand was injured, so we X-rayed the wrong finger initially and it took a few days to realise a different one was broken. My ribs were probably fractured, my front teeth irreversibly damaged, my body covered in very geometric bruises. It’s been six months, but I still have a bruise down the length of my left thigh, where I hit something long and straight.

When you have multiple injuries, they simmer under everything you do for months. You’re slow and sore and tired, less happy, more irritable. Whenever I reached for a mug and pain shot across my ribs, I’d think I hope shes thinking about me. She’ being the woman who opened her car door into my path without looking. The sensible part of my brain accepted we’re all subject to human error and it was cruel timing that had her swing her door open just as I biked past. The wallowing part of my brain had me angry that someone could so easily break my bones and render me so deeply tired. I hope shes thinking about me became my own bitter chant.

When the crash was at its rawest, one of the most difficult things was dealing with the practicalities. I didn’t want to think about what to do with my bike, which had been run over by two cars. I didn’t want to think about pressing charges, although I did lodge the incident with police. Most of all, I didn’t want to deal with the woman who caused it all.

The woman who doored me immediately apologised and admitted she hadn’t looked before opening her door. She clearly felt awful, but was also defensive, telling me I should ride on the footpath, saying I must have been biking quickly, and that she saved my life pulling me away from the cars. She probably regrets saying those things.

As months passed since the crash, it became easier to discuss, and she had her insurance company replace my bike. The crash and its aftermath was difficult for both of us, and I’ve forgiven her.

I never did hear from the police.

I still flinch when people open car doors, even when I’m in a car myself, which is hilarious and pathetic. Sometimes I look at a car and feel a sudden expulsion of breath, like I’ve been kicked in the stomach. I know intimately the unforgiving hard of a car. When you’re inside a car, you forget the fragility of humans and the callousness of our creations.

I don’t know what it will take to prevent more crashes like mine. All I want is for our city to be safer for cyclists. I want to never again look out the bus window and see a bike, and a person, mangled.

Anna's bike: done for.
The bike.
ABWappleaday
Recovering and back at work. An apple a day…

Huge thanks to Anna for sharing her story, and best wishes for her continued recovery. These kinds of experiences are hard to read about, but they underscore our fight for streets that work for people on bikes – because nobody wants to be on either side of this encounter, ever again. 

We’ll be following up the issue of improvements along Ponsonby Rd. Meanwhile, check out our companion post on how NOT to door a cyclist – and do share! The life you save may be your own.

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19 responses to “Ponsonby, Revisited

  1. Thank you for sharing your story Anna. Phew, I cycle or walk P Road most days and your story sent a shiver up my spine. A worthwhile reminder of what happens when that happy day turns bad. I’m not sure what annoys me the most, very human to start blaming the victim but how hard is it for people to acknowledge a straightforward mistake. There is so much to cope with dealing with the physical and emotional impacts of the incident and then there is the outrage / forgiveness dichotomy. Very hard to forgive someone that doesn’t take authentic and unconditional responsibility. You haven’t heard from the Police! WHAT! I guess if there was a large financial impact you may have. That is outrageous. Understanding the dreadful consequences from not having safe streets makes me more determined.

  2. Well done Anna. It is harsh to be reminded that every day we are just something as simple as a motorist opening a door away from turning a good experience into a really bad day, week, month.
    This is an event that can be drastically reduced by good infrastructure whether it is putting the cycles between the footpath and the parked cars or separating parked cars and cyclists completely.
    Someone once pointed out to me that this accident can be further reduced by people opening the drivers side door with their left hand. It is really hard to change habits of a lifetime but just using the left hand makes the motorist turn towards their rear vision mirror and may increase their chance of seeing an approaching cyclist. Furthermore it is free and could be introduced as something that is tested when people go for their drivers licences.
    Your descriptions of what you felt after the crash was brilliant. I hope that is as close as I ever get to experiencing that but I know the statistics are against me.
    Please try cycling again, just start off slow and seek alternative routes to busy arterials.

    1. I love that suggestion of opening doors with the left hand.

      I’m sure I’ll be back on my bike for summer again 🙂

  3. Thank you Anna – that’s a powerful story which brought on an increasing sense of dread as I read it and left me with tears in my eyes. I wish you a steady recovery and I hope you’re brave enough to hop back on a bike again some time in the future.

    I really hope we can learn some lessons from your awful experience so these sorts of tragedies don’t happen again. These crashes are never “accidents” – there are always a number of causes and contributing factors. So what can we learn?

    The first is infrastructure – if you’d been pedalling along a dedicated cycle path, protected from traffic and outside a door swing zone, this wouldn’t have happened. These paths are common in Europe but sadly lacking in Auckland.

    The second is motorist behaviour, and it’s more than taking care when opening a car door. In the absence of protected cycle paths we’re forced to share the road with motorists. If we take our place in the middle of the lane outside the door swing zone we’re bullied by aggressive and impatient motorists who overtake us at speed with inches to spare.

    If we try to be courteous by keeping hard left we become victims of car doors and pedestrians unexpectedly appearing from between parked cars.

    If in frustration and a desire for safety we revert to the footpath we know we’re breaking the law, are more prone to conflict with vehicles at driveways, lose our priority at side roads, and are a potential hazard to pedestrians on narrow paths.

    So many things to consider, educate and improve, but the pace of improvement seems glacial and is beset by objections at every turn. Try suggesting we need to lose a bit of on-street parking to make a safer environment for cyclists and you’ll bring locals and motorists out in fits of rage and apoplexy.

    We really do need a step-change in our thinking.

  4. A powerful story. Hope you are well on the mend. This road layout puts people on bikes in a difficult situation: do you skim parked vehicles and risk dooring, or take the lane? The law is clear: take the lane. I understand this requires an assertive attitude. But why should we be put in this situation? People are fallible, and make mistakes. The road design needs to allow for that. Risk management theory tells us the first priority is to eliminate this risk. We could do that by building protected cycle lanes, or by moving parking spaces. Second priority would be reducing risk by speed reduction. Third is education. But just telling people to do the right thing hardly ever works. Let’s focus on what works: building roads that are fit for purpose. PS, Police don’t always understand the requirement to take the lane. There’s a fair chance you could be charged for causing the crash. Harsh but true.

  5. Thanks for sharing Anna. It makes me wonder how many other stories their are like this.
    It reminds me of the time when I had a car door suddenly trust out into my path, and those vivid memories of heading over the handle bars. Thankfully nothing other than grazes, but left me thinking how bad it could have been.

    It is a telling point that Anna never heard from the police. Do people who are in cars and subject to similar injuries that Anna was also not afforded a follow up, even a ‘victim support’ person?

  6. Glad you didn’t become just another sad statistic.

    I’ve been doored once on the way to work (in Christchurch). Thankfully I didn’t end up under a following vehicle and ‘only’ ended up with a big bruise on my sternum, and a busted front wheel.

    That was years ago, but just every day I’m aware of gauging how far out I needed to be to avoid the door opening. I err on the side of being one of those ‘asshole cyclists’ who holds up traffic – at least allowing the door width gives me somewhere to go if I’m squeezed from the other side.
    I’m particularly cautious when I see someone sitting in their car, looking down at their phone, or at papers in the passenger seat. I suspect that they may suddenly realise they had better get going and open the door without thinking, or have looked before stopping to grab that last moment item.

    I also think about what’s the best thing to do when that door opens in front of you, and there’s who-knows-what behind you. If I have that split second I plan to ride into the door opening and the driver, rather than hazard going around them. That way at least I should be out of the traffic.

  7. I started riding to work around the time just after the nurse died on Tamaki drive. Car doors terrified me, and still do, so I ride well away from parked cars and have a mentally imaged ‘death zone’.
    Until I was comfortable out in the traffic line I forced myself to remember that as much as a noisy car behind me sounds scary, I know they are looking forward and won’t hit me. I don’t quite like the term ‘taking the lane’ (but appreciate the sentiment) because it sounds to me as if it means using 100% of the lane, while I find that 50% is the furthest I usually ever need to use.
    Drivers can’t fit past you without considering you if you are at least a quarter out to the middle.
    I ride where a car would put their left tyre (you can often see it in the wet, or worn asphalt). I never get toots or aggression from other traffic and 99% of people pass with plenty of distance and respect.

    1. “I ride where a car would put their left tyre” – that’s a very useful guide. No way would motorists drive as close to parked cars as bikes are often expected to.

  8. If it makes anyone feel any better, I’m the guy who cusses at, flips birds to, rings bells at, or yells abuse to anyone who opens a door recklessly along Ponsonby Road. I think of it as conditioning. It is a discrace that the flat ridge roads of Akl don’t have better cycle infrastructure.

  9. TBH, Anna’s story affected me deeply, as it is every cyclist’s worst nightmare. I’ve had to really think about my commitment to cycling. I’ll continue to do so, but somehow, things just won’t be the same.

  10. I am sorry that you had to go through this Anna, and I wish you all the best for your continued recovery. After a family member was seriously injured when driving a scooter, I had to assertively follow up the police and ensure they had all the details so they could investigate the crash, and then lay charges. This woman will definitely be found guilty with “dangerous use of a motor vehicle.” Her sentence will be very little, but it is important motorists do not get away with breaking the law, especially when their actions have such serious consequences. I would also recommend doing a victims impact statement. All the best and thanks for telling your story.

  11. I hope that your recovery goes well and you are able to enjoy cycling again. It can take a lot longer than you expect. Two years ago I was heading to work down a hill on New North Road and a car turned right directly in front of me. I can remember hitting the front wheel area, and then landing on my back on the side of the road and a bit of the ride in the ambulance. I spent the day at Auckland Hospital having people tell me how lucky I was. Which is true. I escaped with no breaks, only some bad whiplash, which still kept me off work for two weeks. And off the bike for a few months.

    I continue to ride every day and usually it is great. But some trips I am more anxious than others. Earlier this week I was putting my bike away and noticed my hands were shaking. Nothing particularly bad had happened but it was enough to set me back a bit. And now the first thing I do every day when I arrive at work is to send my partner an email to say I have arrived safely. I do that every day.

    I am not surprised that you didn’t hear from the police. I heard first from the driver’s insurance company who offered to pay a depreciated value for my bike, which was a few years old.As it was clearly his fault, I wanted full replacement. I also starting tracking my expenses. I included everything, even using the IRD allowance the use of of the car to get to work. If I took the bus I kept the receipt and included that too. I had two bike shops give quotes. I sent all this to the insurer, who didn’t agree. So I made plans for a claim with the disputes tribunal.

    To do that, I needed a copy of the police report. The police had attended my accident so I assumed there would be a report. I tried phoning but that wasn’t helpful. I went to the local office who said I had to go downtown. I went in, twice, to the main office and left my details and was told someone would contact me. No one did. I looked online about Official Information requests and finally found that there is a special office for getting traffic accident reports. You fill out a form and include a bank cheque for $56 and 6 weeks later you get the report. I sent the
    form in and waited.

    About two weeks later, the insurance company changed their mind and paid my bill. I thought of contacting the police to ask for my money back but decided I would like to see the police report anyway. It might tell me about any tickets or charges. Some three months later I got a check in the mail for $56. No cover letter. No explanation. I called and was told that they weren’t sure what it was for as they were new but that usually returning the money meant that there was either no report or they couldn’t find it.

    So I never did get to see the police report, or even find out if there was one.

    1. Amazing and slightly dispiriting story, Quentin. Anyone else had trouble getting police to file a report on a bike accident?

      1. I went to Henderson police station to file a report after being wiped out by driver failing to give way. The police didn’t want to know didn’t even take details. If police don’t want to prosecute dangerous driving that’s one thing but they should at the very least enter the details into the crash analysis database so crash hot spots can be identified!

  12. Anna’s very well written post brings into sharp relief the need to separate cars and bikes as in Copenhagen: the only place I feel entirely safe cycling, except on the Coastal Walkway here in lovely New Plymouth. I’m sure Cycling Action favours the Danish solution, too; the secret is not million dollar bike routes, but redesign of streets. Ponsonby Road is a perfect place to start. It has become far too busy for two lane each way traffic, anyway.
    Start with Richmond to Franklin. Have a kerb on the left of car parking, a dedicated, raised cycle lane, and a step down to the footpath. Nose-in parking can only be continued if the road on each side is a single lane and if the max speed 25kph. This traffic quietening will make the precinct more pleasant anyway.
    So: from storefront to sidewalk to one metre wide cycle lane to parked car to traffic to median strip. Reverse order to shopfront on the other side of the road. Parkers can only open car door into traffic. Watch them check their mirrors now!!!
    Please, someone clever at Cycle Action: publish photos of Copenhagen streets to illustrate this post.
    Davy

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