Cyclists, here’s what to do if you get in an accident!

You’ve just been hit by a car while riding your bike. What on earth do you do next?

I’ve been biking to work (and most places I go) in New York City for over eight years, and in these eight years, I’ve been spared an accident, despite countless close calls. But I knew one day my turn would come, and that day was today. While coasting down the two-lane, one-way Dekalb Avenue on the left bike lane, a car pulled out of a hospital driveway on the right, cut across both lanes of traffic to try to get onto a road that he should have never tried getting onto. For a split second, I saw the car accelerating sideways towards me, and so I swerved, and I almost thought I avoided him until I heard the crush of my helmet on the asphalt.

I was stunned. I couldn’t believe I had been hit. I lay in the road for a few moments, unsure of what had happened. Then, I immediately began checking that I was okay. “Yes, I’m okay,” I thought. “Thank goodness I’m okay!” When I tried to stand up, I realized a small crowd of witnesses had gathered and they began to shout: “Don’t move, honey! You stay right there. You okay? Stay right there! Don’t move!”

Where the accident happened.

Before getting hit, I had already decided what I would do in this situation. I had witnessed too many bike accidents to not think it through hypothetically. I had heard so many stories of cyclists getting hit, thinking they were fine, biking off only to realize later they were injured, needed to go the hospital, and then were stuck with a year’s worth of medical bills.

When a car hits another car, there is a clear protocol to follow. Pull over, call the cops, take photos, get the contact information, etc. But when a cyclist gets hit, most people don’t know what to do, neither the cyclist nor driver, and it makes a bad scenario an even worse one.

After my initial shock subsided, I really did feel okay, despite taking the fall head-first on the asphalt and having some cuts and bruises. But even after hypothetically determining what I would do in this situation, I couldn’t think clearly and suddenly had no idea what to do. “Should I call you an ambulance?” someone asked? “Um, ok, sure, yes,” I muttered. When the sirens came, I hated all the fuss I was causing. I too wanted to just get back on my bike and continue on my way, to just get on with my day. But I knew if I saw someone in my situation do that, I would yell at them to stay put, call the police, get an ambulance, and follow the protocol, simply because you never know!

But what is the protocol? I was lucky to have a witness who called 911 for me before I could back out and another who kept yelling at me when I tried to get up and move. Had I not already decided for myself before the time came exactly what my protocol should be in this scenario, though, I might have still refused the ambulance called for me and disregarded the cautions to stay put. But decision by decision I pieced together the right steps to take, even when I was feeling less than rational. I made sure to get a police report and go to the ER. I checked out in good health and felt relieved that what could have been worse wasn’t.

When I finally got home from the hospital, I decided to formally do some research on best practices and rules for this scenario. Immediately, it was clear that there was still a lot I didn’t know about what to do in the case of a bike accident. It’s a sad truth, but if you are a cyclist, you need to prepare for the worst, because in the moment, you won’t be able to Google what to do, much less even act upon what you might have resolved to do. Knowing the protocol when you are in an accident is wildly important, and yet not widely known or publicized, so I want to yell it loud and clear.

So, if you are a cyclist and you are hit by a car, here is what you should do!

1. (Prerequisite) Wear. Your. Helmet.

  • This of course isn’t part of the post-accident protocol, but I cannot stress enough the importance of helmets. It’s ridiculous it still needs to be said, but I see so many people every day biking without a helmet. I was wearing a neon green jersey, riding safely in the bike line, not even at an intersection, and I still got hit. My head took the bulk of my fall. If I wasn’t wearing my helmet, I don’t even want to imagine what kind of shape I’d be in, if I were to even be alive. My helmet saved my life.

2. Get out of the street…but don’t move.

  • Obviously, you don’t want to get hit by another car or a cyclist, so if you’re in traffic, get out of the way if you can!
  • But after that, don’t move. Even if you don’t think you were hit very hard, don’t move. Even if you’re sure you’re okay, don’t move.
  • If you have a neck or back injury, moving can be more detrimental. Wait for the EMT’s and let them guide and help you. You may not know you have a neck or back injury until you are examined by a medical professional.

3. Call 911, or ask someone to call for you.

  • Don’t worry about who is at fault right now. The important thing is getting medical attention. This is neither dramatic or an over-precaution! Again, you might think you’re okay, but you are not in a position to make the call. Get an ambulance even if you think you’re fine. Let the EMT’s check you out and determine if you need to go to the hospital for exams and scans.
  • When you are hit, you are in shock. Your adrenaline is rushing, you’re thrilled to be alive, and so you may not notice that something is wrong with you. You really cannot assess if you are hurt or not after the trauma of an accident. Many injuries, even serious ones, may not present themselves until a few minutes, hours, or even days later.
  • Don’t worry about the bills just yet. Hopefully, your insurance will pay for it, or if you are not at fault, the driver (well, his insurance) will pay for the ambulance and all your medical bills. But the most important thing is your well being and seeking medical attention, regardless of the cost.

4. Get a police report.

  • Assuming you are coherent enough to talk to the police, explain what happened to the police, and only the police. Get them to file a report.
  • Don’t admit anything is your fault. Until you really know what happened, don’t say you are in any way responsible. Doing so could be to your disadvantage later on in courts or when making an insurance claim, if it turns out it really wasn’t your fault at all.
  • Don’t declare that you are fine or minimize your injuries. Until you are inspected by a doctor, you don’t know what injuries you might have sustained, and if the police report says one thing but then you discover an injury later, it will be very hard to prove. John Duggan, a Seattle lawyer who specializes in bike accidents, says, “If a police report is filed based on information gathered at the scene, the story can’t change later on if you need to submit an insurance claim.” So even if you feel fine, still ask to see a doctor and refrain from stating that you know you are definitely free of injury.
  • Don’t settle with the driver or accept any payouts or deals. You cannot trust that the information they are giving you is accurate or that they won’t deny anything at a later date. You also don’t yet know what kind of medical care you will need and how much it will cost. Call the police and let them deal with the driver.

5. Get the other people’s information, too.

  • In addition to a police report, also try to do your own due diligence, assuming you are capable of this.
  • Get the drivers name, number, insurance, and license plate. Do the same for any witnesses who are willing to provide it.
  • Greg Hanscom, who also has a helpful list of what to do when you’ve been hurt, says: “Don’t assume the cops are right. It’s not uncommon for police to ticket cyclists who have been hit.…It’s not necessarily wise to challenge a cop on the spot, but you could have a lawyer look into the question after the fact.” So, it’s good to get any important information yourself, as back up.

6. Get your bike inspected.

  • If you are lucky and escape the crash without any serious injuries, and are released by the EMT’s or ER doctors, don’t think you can just bike home. Like your body, your bike might have sustained damage that is not immediately obvious, and riding it could be unsafe. Go to a bike mechanic to get it inspected. This is especially true of carbon fiber bikes where any slight fissure or crack would mean a completely compromised bike.
  • If the mechanic finds something to make your bike unsafe, you might want to delay getting it fixed, if you plan on making a claim to repair or fix it. The bike is your evidence. And definitely ask the mechanic to put into writing the fact that your bike is unsafe to ride and needs to be repaired or replaced. You will need this if you file a claim to replace your bike.
  • While you’re at the bike shop, get a new helmet! Helmets are made for one-time collisions, so if they are in any sort of accident, they’ve done their job, but may not be effective next time. Even if they don’t look cracked, the foam could be compromised, and won’t protect well anymore. Get a new one!

7. Get a lawyer.

  • After all this, hopefully, you really are okay! But if you are injured or your bike is damaged, consider getting a lawyer to help you navigate making insurance claims to get your bills paid for and your bike replaced.

I’ll leave you with this helpful graphic. AND DID I MENTION THAT YOU SHOULD WEAR A HELMET?!?

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