“One of the most dangerous things you’ll do today is drive to the trailhead,” my colleague often reminds clients when we guide them to the summit of Mount Rainier, Washington. People commonly respond to this with laughs, but it’s no joke. While we climb through high-consequence zones, where rockfall, icefall, cold, or a crevasse could result in injury or death, the risk of getting hurt from a human-caused mistake on the road is often far greater.
This idea was once an abstraction to me. I bike, run, rock climb, and ski, migrating seasonally in search of ideal conditions for each activity. Much of the year, I travel and live out of my car, since my work keeps me in the field long enough that renting a home isn’t cost-effective. I care about cyclist safety and have been a proponent for adding bike lanes in towns where I’ve lived. I’m angered by how many cyclists are injured and killed each year, and frustrated by the fact that people on bikes are often blamed for crashes in news stories. I used to assume that drivers in bike crashes lacked remorse and were likely people who might have made jokes about “scoring points” for hitting someone on a bike.
And then, a few years ago, I crashed into a road biker during a near fatal lapse of attention. I’m here to tell you that you could be that driver, too.
It was a warm summer afternoon, and I was driving over a mountain pass in Colorado to meet the students and staff I’d be guiding on a weeklong backpacking trip. The road twisted and turned below a cliff that constantly shed rocks. Some sections dropped off steeply into the valley hundreds of feet below. The shoulder was narrow to nonexistent. Orange cones and metal signs indicated stretches of roadwork.
The heat of the day was making me sleepy, so I opened my windows and turned up my music, intending to stop at the next pullout to take a nap and revive myself before continuing. Ahead I saw a cyclist and gave him a wide berth. After safely passing him in the opposite lane, I steered back to the right side of the pavement, not realizing there was another cyclist ahead of the first. My eyelids drooped, and I willed them open as I navigated up the familiar, twisty road.
Suddenly, a loud bang reverberated through my car, and my eyes shot wide open. My windshield was shattered, but I was still in my lane and had just enough visibility to safely roll to the next pullout. My mind raced: Did I hit a deer? Did a rock smash onto my car? I’m so grateful I didn’t drive off the edge. What the heck happened?
I parked and inspected the damage, still trying to ascertain the cause. Tan hairs stuck to the broken glass, so I thought: Deer. I had no cell service, so I couldn’t call 911 or a tow truck. Then another car stopped in the pullout. The driver frantically asked if I knew where he could get service. A biker had been hit, and he needed to call an ambulance. His words split apart the story in my head, and I instantly realized what had happened.
I crumpled on the gravel and wailed. How could I have possibly hurt someone? Were they alive? Adrenaline rushed through my veins, and I sprinted back to the site of the crash, tears streaming down my face. Heaving sobs prevented me from breathing normally. Pulling myself together, I thought maybe I could lend a hand; I’d been trained as a wilderness first responder.
Around the corner, a cyclist lay by the side of the road. Heat vapor rose from the ground while the other cyclist shaded him from the sun. I told them I could help, but once they identified me as the driver who was involved in the crash, they had no kind words and wanted me to stay away. To respect their wishes, I sat in the parched grass and waited, feeling helpless.
After the ambulance took him away, I was advised not to reach out to the cyclist or his family. The insurance company and my lawyer suggested that any contact with them—even just to ask how they were doing or send them flowers—could be construed as an apology and thus an admission of legal responsibility and would not be in my best interest, although my insurance was responsible for paying his medical expenses and I was already deemed at fault for the crash. Not being able to show the cyclist that I cared about whether he was OK ran against every instinct in my being.
I can still remember the sight of his mangled bike on the road and the dents in my car where his body bounced over it. I remember the feeling of relief when I came around the corner to see he was alive and lucid, followed by my dread when I realized he was in immense pain. I never found out what his specific injuries were, because of the legal advice not to contact him, but I understand that he spent time in the ICU. Knowing that scared me. I can’t imagine what it was like for him and his family as he recovered from the physical injuries and trauma of the crash. Anguish pounds in my chest every time I recall the incident or envision how they coped. The guilt will likely haunt me for the rest of my life.
Now I constantly question whether I’m a bad person. Sometimes I wonder if I deserve to feel happiness. I fear that I may never be able to stop chastising myself for even minor mistakes, a tendency that has grown immensely since the crash.
PTSD from the crash also made me avoid doing things I used to love and has turned me into an anxious driver. Riding across the U.S. used to be one of my life goals, but it’s since been crossed off the list. I love mountain biking, but now even the thought of riding a short section of road on the way to the trails makes my body tense and tears well up in my eyes. My bike commute to work used to bring me joy, but now I’m relieved it’s no longer an option with my new job. When I do have to ride short stints on the road during casual outings, I freeze up, panic, and imagine the worst outcome. As a driver, passing a cyclist often causes me to get gripped and replay those same scenarios. I’ve even had to pull over to compose myself before continuing.
You could believe that you’re an extremely attentive and responsible driver, like I did, but still succumb to distraction.
It was isolating to go through this experience; I felt uneasy sharing what had happened, because I worried others would think I was an irresponsible person or too dangerous to be hired for jobs. Seeing misrepresentations of my character on social media posts from the cyclist’s family made me even more scared.
Eventually, I decided to look for help and found resources, like the site Accidental Impacts, which compiles stories and coping resources for people who have accidentally caused harm to others, to show them that they’re not alone. I shared my internal struggles with close friends and family and discovered that I know multiple people who have been hit by distracted or reckless drivers. It’s far too common.
I spent hours reading about drowsy driving. I learned that lack of sleep can have similar effects on your reaction time as drinking alcohol and that, according to the National Sleep Foundation, 37 percent of U.S. drivers have fallen asleep at the wheel in the past year. Considering the fact that self reporting—the only way we have to determine these statistics—is unreliable, that number is probably far higher. While many drowsy-driving crashes happen in the early morning or wee hours of the night, another peak crash period occurs between 2 and 4 P.M.
The reality is: no one is infallible. Even if you’re a cyclist like me, one lapse of attention behind the wheel could mean the two-ton vehicle you are steering collides with a human body. You could believe that you’re an extremely attentive and responsible driver, like I did, but still succumb to distraction. Maybe you’re driving through the dark for an alpine start or coming home after a long day recreating outside. Maybe you can’t wait to sleep in your own bed after a number of nights on the ground, so you keep driving, even though you’re nodding off. Maybe some guacamole from the burrito you’re chowing on drips onto your lap, and you look down to wipe it up. Maybe you change the song on your Spotify playlist, double-check the directions on your phone’s GPS, or reach to give your kid in the back seat a snack. Maybe you’re crouching down to gaze at the view out the passenger window, or dreaming of possible routes on roadside cliffs. All it takes is a split second.
It could have been worse. The cyclist I hit is alive, he wasn’t paralyzed, and as far as I know, he has recovered from his physical injuries. Many cyclists in these crashes never do.
In the guiding and climbing world, it’s customary to openly discuss near misses and accidents. The American Alpine Club publishes a book listing and evaluating each year’s climbing casualties. Avalanche professionals also share stories of close calls and mistakes to gather more data and learn how to prevent future fatalities. These examples from the outdoor recreation world make it clear that sharing such experiences can help others learn.
It’s a lot harder to share the mistakes you’ve made while driving, but I think it’s equally important. While my experience continues to be a huge burden every time I drive, it’s also made me more attentive. I know driving makes me drowsy, even when I’ve gotten enough sleep, so now I prioritize pulling over to take a nap, even if that means my drive takes twice as long. I hope that my story will be a reminder to you to put the phone down, get some shut-eye, turn your blinker on, or double-check before you make that turn or change lanes, so you don’t have to learn the hard way, like I did.