A few years ago, I won a case in small claims court that I maybe should have lost. Allstate Insurance coughed up a couple hundred dollars toward the purchase of a new bicycle after my old one was crunched in a collision with a car.
I should have lost because I was riding the wrong way on a one-way street. The street is small and residential, and the one-way uphill block represented the most direct route from the old location of the Bangor post office to the east side address where I then lived. The elderly female driver had plenty of room to avoid me. But she made a truncated left turn, cutting off the corner. She claimed she didn’t see me over the hood of her Cadillac. I suffered a few scrapes; the bike’s frame was bent beyond repair.
I like to think of myself as a conscientious bicyclist. I wear bright clothing and use lights and hand signals. I was way over on the side of the road. An alert driver would not have hit me. Had there been a car parked where I was riding – as is often the case on that street – the woman would have struck it.
This was the point I made in court – or rather, in a mediation session that included me and a mediator and an attorney for Allstate, who had driven up from Portland that morning. My case went to mediation because the judge was acquainted with the woman who had hit me. The case was going to be postponed for thirty days.
I’ve forgotten the attorney’s name, but we had a hilarious conversation about how much money Allstate was willing to pay him to defend a $400 case. Wouldn’t it be cheaper just to give me the money, even if I was, technically, in the wrong? He made three phone calls before the company agreed to split the difference and throw me two hundred bucks toward a new bike.
It was fun being a thorn in the side of a huge insurance company. I felt like I had struck a blow against the forces of evil.
But before my court date, I had read Mary Karr’s memoir Lit, and one particular passage began to gnaw at me. Karr tells of a conversation with another writer, who advised her not to try to make herself look good in the reflected light of memory. I realized that I had allowed my attitude about cars to color my perception of what happened.
It pains me to admit that I can cop an air of superiority when I’m on my bike in traffic. I convince myself that I’m doing something more enlightened than the drivers around me. Any one of those cars could squash me like a bug. Their drivers are trying to get through the day and get things done, just as I am. I’m not going to convince anyone of anything if, even subconsciously, I’m looking down at people who have made a different choice. I tell myself I don’t do this, as Karr convinced herself she never drank in the morning. But my actions speak otherwise. I need to pay attention to this.
A bicycle is a vehicle. It is every bit as illegal to bicycle as it is to drive the wrong way on a one-way street. We’re supposed to stop at red lights and stop signs. I admit that I don’t always obey the letter of the law. But when I roll through a stop sign (after looking both ways) or cut across a parking lot to avoid a red light (after making sure that it’s safe), I’m doing the same thing a driver does when exceeding the speed limit by five to ten miles an hour.
Or am I just rationalizing my own bad behavior? Well into my forties, I blithely rode my bicycle with my head protected by nothing harder than a baseball cap. I did this on the streets of San Diego and on the lonely highways of Maine, until a surgical nurse I’d grown close to described for me in graphic detail the injuries suffered by freedom-loving, bareheaded bicyclists. “But Bobby Orr never wore a helmet when he played hockey,” I replied.
She looked at me with what can only be described as incredulity. “Do you hear yourself?” It was clear in that moment that I didn’t have the stronger argument. I’ve worn a helmet ever since.
I took the money, and I still believe that drivers operating 3,000-pound motorized vehicles should be held to a higher standard of safety than bicyclists. But I haven’t ridden up any more one-way streets.