In Print: Issue 30 – Accidents Happen

Editor’s note: California framebuilder and rider Todd Ingermanson has pedaled thousands of injury-free miles. Then suddenly in early 2013 his world was torn apart by a motorist. He wrote about his experience with the recovery process in our recent issue, #30.

BT30accidents

By Todd Ingermanson

As the car tires squealed and the Nissan sped off up the hill we had just come down, my unconscious friend Kirk slid off the back of the sedan and landed on the same side of his face that he had just peeled back the roof of the car with. It’s times like this when time slows down, decisions are made clinically, and the oddest of thoughts seem to invade one’s mind. I wasn’t quite sure if my friend was alive or dead, but I was pretty sure my hip wasn’t quite right: seeing the back of my knee where the kneecap should have been and my foot pointed in the wrong direction. It’s a strange thought to have when faced with such things, but that was when, “Man, there goes my summer,” flashed through my mind.

In an instant

Moments before, Kirk and I were enjoying the end of a perfect spring Sunday on the coast of central California. The sun was shining down that magic low-angle golden light as we turned west, down off the ridge hanging a handful of miles and a couple thousand feet over the Pacific, where we started our ride. Just to the East lay Silicon Valley, full of young active people who are usually the type to wake early and get their kicks with their bicycles, motorcycles, sports cars, and such.

Kirk and I are more of the type to let things settle down and ride while everyone else is at the barbeque or getting the kids ready for the upcoming week. We’re deliberate in our actions, but not exactly what you might call A-type. We had timed our descent as we had in the past, getting down with light to spare, but just enough.

The top of the road runs fairly flat, just below the hogback of the ridge, goes through a shallow saddle, and then drops through a dozen or so steep switchbacks down to the heavily wooded creek where it straightens out a bit for the last few miles. Now these aren’t the type of switchbacks where it’s a point and shoot situation: they are tight and blind, going around rocky outcroppings that the narrow road bed is cut into. They’re not 30mph corners; they are leftover relics from when the coastal redwood forests were clear cut at the end of the 19th century. These hastily cut roads that brought millions of board feet of lumber to the mills had been just as hastily paved in the mid 1930s then forgotten.

Kirk was taking his turn in front and I followed 15 feet or so behind, as we entered into the last of the right hand switchbacks before reaching the bottom of the canyon. From behind the rock outcropping around which the road was cut, a large red SUV suddenly came into view. No problem, they were on their side of the road and under control, as were we. Okay. We let go of the brake levers we had just tapped, when without warning a grey Nissan sedan came up around the corner in our lane: had the driver seen the lights from the SUV’s own brakes and assumed it was an invitation to pass around a blind corner?

The sedan accelerated around the corner and right through my friend Kirk, yet somehow I managed to dodge the car. Kirk had the bike hit from beneath him and continued like a 6-foot, 7-inch missile into where the roof of the car meets the windshield, breaking three vertebrae, his skull in a couple places, and cutting his face to ribbons, all before coming to rest on his side on top of the car. Though I didn’t so much as touch my head to the ground, I don’t remember exactly how I ended up down the hill about ten feet from the back of the car, in the ditch, with the ball broken off the top end of my femur and nary a spot of road rash.

As both the red SUV and the Nissan sedan quickly removed themselves from the scene, they left the smell of scorched tires in the air and two very broken people in the middle of a narrow road, in a blind corner, with darkness in the redwoods approaching. Not good.

Damage control

Our predicament was obvious. Not knowing if Kirk was even alive, I crawled up to him and assessed the situation: he was unconscious and alive for now, but there was nothing I could do for him. I checked his jersey pockets knowing both that he had not brought his phone and that there was no way we would have reception in the tight coastal canyons if he had. There was nothing to do but wait and hope for the best.

Somewhere around 10 to 15 minutes later, an evening riding kindred spirit came up the road on a bike. Kirk had come to by then and was caught in the heavy concussion loop of not knowing what happened nor that he had already asked what happened ten times. His face was still bleeding pretty badly and he was moving around quite a bit, but the best I could do for Kirk was to keep telling him we had been in an accident and to lay still. I had already done everything I could when I crawled up to him and I was now going nowhere.

Our new best friend on the bike left to find a land line and call 911. As we once again waited in the road and hoped for the best, shock set in and darkness grew closer. A long 15 minutes later, an ambulance showed up to take us down the hill where a helicopter was waiting to fly us to Stanford University Medical Center.

(These days when I pine for the “good old days,” when life was simpler, I remember that we didn’t have helicopters to scoop us up and drop us on the operating table of a state of the art medical facility within the time span of our favorite TV show. In those days with a broken hip you’d be lucky to work up to being a lifelong burden on your family.)

I guess I’m skipping an important part here. A few minutes before the emergency crews showed up, the driver of the Nissan sedan, complete with a smashed windshield and blood streaks off the trunk, showed back up saying she was going to go find a cell signal and call 911. As I watched the Nissan sedan again drive off leaving us in the middle of the road, I had to wonder: ‘Why did she leave and then come back? What had she been doing for the last 15-20 minutes? Was she even the one driving before?’ After just a few minutes, but before I finished asking myself unanswerable questions, she arrived back on the scene, right as the ambulance showed up, with the police shortly behind.

Putting pieces back together

After surgery, where the doctor and nurses screwed me back together with five fancy lag bolts and a titanium plate, and after a few days of weird hospital food, I returned home to a heavily pillowed bed. As I drifted in and out of my painkiller-induced daze, I was a bit worried about what the bills might pile up to be. Being a self-employed bicycle frame builder, I had health insurance of the catastrophic-high-deductible type, but not much else as a safety net other than the institutions we’ve all grown accustomed to. I was concerned but confident: surely things would get squared away one way or another. A week and a half or so after the accident, I received the police report in the mail.

Things fell squarely on the shoulders of the Nissan sedan driver with our bicycle tire skid marks about a foot from the outside edge of the pavement showing we were on our side of the road. The driver was found at fault, but not cited. The one witness in the red SUV had also left the scene, and never returned, so being that the Nissan driver had come back to the scene before the police, there was no mention of a hit and run. The report was not really an accurate reflection of what I thought had happened, but it’s an impartial system and surely things would get squared away.

The report noted the insurance information the sedan driver had given to the police and I promptly called to file a claim. A couple days later the insurance company called back and said her policy was not active at the time of the accident and that I was on my own; sorry. Whoa, quite a bitter pill to swallow, but surely things would get squared away.

As it turned out, the driver of the car was a 20-year-old single mom who lived in a poor area of a foggy agricultural town. Getting any financial help from her would have been like getting blood from a stone. Suing her for any expenses would have cost far more than it could ever yield, and would be made much more difficult by the fact that she wasn’t cited at the scene. But still, surely things would get squared away.

Being self-employed and running a one-man shop, federal disability insurance for just me was an expense that was deemed not to pencil out with what seemed like other opportunities for coverage. Bad gamble. The possibility of even a bit of income from this fund I paid into for years was out. As it turns out, disability insurance is just that: insurance. If you’re not actively paying the premiums, you don’t qualify for the payout.

Fair enough, but, surely…

Now, I’ve been riding bikes for 30 years and had my fair share of injuries (including being previously hit by a couple cars), so I’m familiar with the chances one takes when one throws a leg over the top tube. Even acknowledging the dangers, I had decided to try and live my life “car-lite,” never actually owning a car but sharing one, owned by my girlfriend of 16 years. Her vehicle’s insurance policy with un/under-insured driver coverage would not cover anything having to do with this accident because we are not married and I was only listed as an “additional driver” rather than an “insured party,” since the vehicle was registered in her name alone.

Makes sense in hindsight, but these things are not self-evident when signing on the dotted line and paying the monthly bills. The coverage decisions made by the insurance companies are based upon semantics that are not always clear to the holders of the insurance policies, especially policies that save you a buck by signing you up over the internet without an agent, assuming you know the ins and outs.

As the options got fewer and I became more desperate to find help with bills upwards of $200,000, it became more and more obvious that the system we rely on for our well being makes some very hard and fast rules. If anyone plays outside those rules, the cracks can open wide and swallow you up.

Worst-case scenarios

“Surely things will get squared away,” is a dangerous and terrifying place to be. As it sat, I was only a month into what they said was a year’s recovery, no way to pay a mounting tab at Stanford with no income as I lay in bed, unable to work for the foreseeable future.

As I used my time to contemplate things, it seemed that there was a lot money changing hands. The ambulance was going to get paid. The helicopter was going to get paid. The hospital was going to get paid. The company selling crutches, commodes, and various sundry to heavily drugged patients at the hospital was going to get paid. The car insurance that we thought covered us both had already been paid.

All these organizations provide services that our lives are decidedly much better for, and that our healthcare system relies upon, but it seemed like the guy that was just riding his bike down a quiet road on a Sunday evening that turned out to be the wrong time and place, was now holding the bag. I’d always heard the entrepreneur was the “backbone of America;” certainly, it couldn’t be this easy to fall through the cracks. The ostensibly overlapping safety nets I was depending on appeared to only function within a very narrow range. I had thought things would get squared away, but suddenly it didn’t seem so likely.

Then, I got lucky

I can’t say that what happened in the end can be counted on by anyone as a repeatable outcome. As it turns out, at the time of the accident I happened to be quite close to Stanford Hospital, a very affluent private university with an endowment for people in situations like mine. I was able to apply for financial aid, and received assistance, paying for all the services Stanford provided for. Luckily, the helicopter is also run by the hospital, so I was left with the remaining deductible paying for the ambulance, medications, mobility devices, etc. Suddenly the bill had a couple fewer zeros at the bottom.

Likewise, several months before the accident I had come across a club of riders that liked to do the same style of riding as I do, without all the B.S. that can so often be associated with riding in groups on the road. Every year the Steel Wul Cycling Club has a couple of big group rides where they pull out all the stops: cater it like we’re champions, do a great big loop, and have a really good time.

While I was recovering, the founder of the club, Jake, and the rest of the Steel Wul club, decided to call one of these rides a benefit, charge money for participation, and give it all to me to help pay for the roof over my head and the costs associated with trying to keep a business afloat when you’re in bed for five months. A good friend also pre-paid for an open ended bike frame order and there were friends throughout the bicycle industry that helped put together a raffle to benefit the situation I found myself in. I feel incredibly fortunate to get the opportunity to be indebted to these people. Had I been new in town, new to the industry, or had any of the other uncontrollable variables been different, this story could have had a very different ending.

While there was a literal outpouring of support, there was no one to help me through the maze that is our healthcare system. I have attorney friends who very graciously advised me through the legal aspects, but when it became obvious there was no statutory direction to take, that was all they could offer. When faced with something like this, someone really is their one and only advocate in navigating not only the physical healing, but also the ins and outs of our social safety net.

Beyond a friendly insurance agent to help make sense of what can seem like a mess of legal-speak and loopholes, you’re really on your own. There’s no one to lobby for the driver to be cited as you’re carried off in an ambulance just as there’s no one else to find out if there is financial aid at the hospital you’re taken to. Trying to make sense of it all really was a full time job unto itself. Fortunately for me, the one thing I had was time; time spent on the phone, listening to hold music.

Looking ahead

A year after the accident, things have been tight trying to get back on my feet, as it were, but it is getting squared away. These days, I’m a lot less sure of what’s around the corner, literally and figuratively; a little slower on the bike and a lot slower in the car; a little more prone to read fine print; and trying to think situations through to their conclusions. I’m left with an overwhelming sense of betrayal by those who were involved in and witnessed the accident. I will forever remember the sight and sound of my seemingly lifeless friend being unceremoniously dumped onto his already shattered face as those with the only ability to help, drive away. At the same time, I’ve gained a much stronger sense of community with the people who helped me how and when they could; it’s a strange dichotomy.

More than anything, I’m terrified of what could have happened. Things could have gone so terribly wrong but for the smallest of margins, and I would have been faced with millions of dollars of care over a lifetime. Who pays? With a serious disability, I would have lived in poverty, on what I could squeeze out of government disability programs, or perhaps made ends meet by suing the county because the road was too twisty and narrow, the exact reasons why I was on the road in the first place. I consider myself lucky that I got a glimpse into that alternate universe, but didn’t have to stay there. It’s a sobering reminder however, that that alternate universe is so dangerously close to real life.

My friend Kirk, despite his injuries, has healed up well and is now facing down what could be some formidable mental and emotional demons. Kirk is a longtime veteran of the bicycle industry and, undeterred by (or because of) this experience, has opened a bike shop in Portland, Oregon named Category Six. The shop specializes in serving bicycle commuters, those who are at most risk for a negative interaction with cars. He has placed an order with me for a new road bike.

Dealing with absolutes

When it comes to our social safety net, the rules of engagement are not explicit. There are ways to protect yourself and loved ones from situations such as these, but the solutions are not obvious. In fact, our system is set up to support and further the theoretical ideal, where everyone on the road is a rule-following, fully insured and licensed, car driver—even though we know that the reality of the situation is not so absolute. Outside of that focused ideal, things get pretty fuzzy.

It sounds so square, but a huge amount of due diligence and savvy is required should you choose to do something as “radical” as not own a car or be your own boss. The vulnerabilities of riding a bicycle are not just physical. Every time you get on a bike your entire reality is at stake, yet every time you get in a car you’re adding to the problems that put everyone in danger.

There are no easy questions, let alone easy answers. Be engaged. Be aware. Be safe.


 

Todd is the sole proprietor of Black Cat Cycles in Aptos, California, where punk rock, surfing, and chasing grins on dirt and pavement are a priority of most in this Santa Cruz County outpost of nearly 6,500 souls. Check him out at blackcatbicycles.com.

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