Laura Bliss is a staff writer at CityLab, covering transportation and technology. She also authors MapLab, a biweekly newsletter about maps (subscribe here). Her work has appeared in the New York Times, The Atlantic, Los Angeles magazine, and beyond.
It’s scary and unimaginable, but pedestrians and cyclists must know how to react if it happens to them—or to someone else.
One Sunday morning in March, as I was walking through a crosswalk on the way to buy groceries, a car turned left into me. I screamed as it knocked my hip, hard, and thrust me to the pavement. The driver stopped short and leaped out of the vehicle, shouting what seemed like nonsensical apologies as I cried and swore on the ground: I’m so sorry, I just didn’t see you.
Luckily, my injuries weren’t life-threatening: just a nasty bruise that smeared my hip for about a month and some very real PTSD.
The aftermath disturbed me the most. I wasn’t prepared for the game I had to play in order to ensure justice for myself.
Here’s what I mean: In the event of a collision, there are crucial steps pedestrians and cyclists must take to protect themselves, medically, financially, and legally. I took some of these steps, and failed to take others because I didn’t know that I should. There were real consequences to not knowing the right strategy.
So, reader, if you are ever hit by a car as a pedestrian or cyclist—or if you witness an accident of this kind—here’s what you need to do.
1. Stay Calm and Move Out of the Street
So you’ve been hit. You’re on the pavement or crumpled on your bike. Assuming you’re conscious, a mix of fury, incredulousness, and crazy levels of animal adrenaline are overwhelming you. These are the perfect ingredients for unleashing rage onto the driver. That won’t help you. Breathe and try to control your (very understandable) emotions. When police arrive on the scene, you will look more sympathetic. You’ll also be better able to communicate with the driver.
This is all easier said than done: I was swearing and and crying and yelling. A couple of kind witnesses helped diffuse my panic.
Then, if you can, move out of the street to a sidewalk or driveway.
2. Keep the Driver There
Even if you think you’re unharmed, do not let the driver leave. Peter Wilborn, a Charleston-based personal injury lawyer and founder of BikeLaw, a national network of bicycle and pedestrian attorneys, says it’s incredibly common to think you’re basically OK and shake off a driver, only to later find out you’ve got a broken wrist, rib, or worse.
“A lot of times, you perceive [injuries] to be very minor in the moment,” Wilborn says. “But not only are you in shock, you also might be embarrassed to admit you’re vulnerable. Lots of people almost apologize for the accident themselves.”
Your adrenaline may mask serious physical harm: After all, you, a soft sack of bones and flesh, just collided with two tons of moving steel. Calmly ask the driver to please stay while you wait for the police to arrive. If witnesses are gathering around you, ask them to stay, too.
If it’s a hit and run, try to snap a photo of the car’s license plate, or at least aim to make a mental note of its make and color. Also know that if you have auto insurance, you may be covered by an Uninsured Motorist clause on your policy, even though you weren’t driving.
3. Call the Police—and Wait for Them
When I was hit, I didn’t call the police, thinking a) I was OK, which was mostly true, and b) I could always file an accident report after I’d calmed down, which was 100 percent false. When I rang a few hours later, at my mother’s behest, the officer let me know that I was too late, adding, “Next time, make sure you call us at the scene of the accident.”
Next time. Right.
So call then and there. A police accident report is an important form of documentation of the accident. And don’t feel guilty about the driver, OK? I definitely felt bad about incriminating someone. But the sad fact is, in this situation, no one else is watching out for your best interests, except you. A police report can help you strike up with the driver’s insurance company. You may have to wait a little, since 9-1-1 has a lot of incoming calls to triage, but it’s worth it—don’t leave the scene.
4. Collect the Driver’s Information and Take Tons of Photos
While you wait for the police to arrive, get all the motorist’s basics, as you would in the event of an auto collision: Driver’s license, insurance information, license plate number. Then whip out your phone and snap pictures of everything else. “Take photos of you, your bike, the car, the plates, the traffic light, the intersection, the street signs—anything you see,” says Gregory Billing, Advocacy Coordinator at the Washington Area Bicyclist Association (WABA). “You can’t take too many photos.”
Most of these snapshots probably won’t end up being useful, but some could. If you file an insurance claim or lawsuit, there might be a misplaced sign or a hard-to-see traffic light that could help your case. And don’t assume you can come back later to capture this stuff: “In cities, the physical environment is always changing,” Billing adds.
If you’re not able to collect photos and information yourself—for example, my hands were shaking, and my cell phone memory was full—ask a bystander to help you. Jot down his or her information, as well: full name, phone number, and email address.
One thing not to do: Tweet about it. “Social media can be great later on, if you share your accident with local advocacy groups or let transportation officials know there’s a dangerous condition that contributed to the crash,” says Ken McLeod, Legal Specialist at the League of American Bicyclists. “But in a lawsuit, it can make it seem like you were negligent, checking your phone when you got hit. That can be used against you.”
5. When the Police Come, Make Your Voice Heard
Give the officer a complete account of what happened, from your perspective. Billing says that close to 40 percent of the police reports WABA has reviewed did not include a statement from the cyclist involved. This is particularly common in cases where the victim is transported immediately to urgent care.
Don’t be shy about politely asking to check the officer’s facts. After a few days have passed, contact the police to see if you can review a copy of the report to make sure it’s accurate. If it’s not, fight to fix it. “Just because it’s written, doesn’t mean it’s not amendable,” says Wilborn. You might want to call a lawyer to help with this. More on that shortly.
6. Seek Medical Attention ASAP
Even though my loved ones advised me to see a doctor that same morning, I didn’t. In the hours after the crash, my heart sped like a fan, tears came in waves, and my body felt frigid and burning at turns. Going to the E.R. sounded even more traumatic, so I waited until the next day.
It would have been better to go immediately, for a lot of reasons: 1) I could easily have broken or fractured something and not realized it, 2) I’d have received treatment more quickly, and 3) It would have helped my case when I later filed my insurance claim for my injuries.
And PTSD? It’s very real. If you’re experiencing emotional distress following the accident, go see a therapist. Help yourself.
7. Start an Insurance Claim
Call up the driver’s insurance company and open a claim. Do not give them more than cursory information about what happened: That you were hit as a pedestrian or cyclist by this driver on this day and time in this city. They will likely pressure you to give a full narrative of what happened, whether you’ve seen a doctor, filed a report, and so on. You don’t have to disclose any of this, and you shouldn’t until you’ve consulted with a lawyer. They will badger you with emails and phone calls asking for your account. Don’t give it to them—you might accidentally say something that hurts you.
Then start documenting your related expenses: Medical bills, receipts for taxis you had to take, charges for fixing your bike, lost wages—all of it. You’re going to give it all to the insurance company eventually.
8. Call a Lawyer
After I’d filed my claim and seen a couple of doctors, I called three D.C. area personal injury lawyers who listed pedestrian collisions as a specialty. I wanted advice on how to craft my letter to the insurance company, in which I’d give my account of what happened and ask for damages.
And all three refused, saying they were barred from offering advice without representing me. Frustrated but determined, I wrote a letter on my own, asking for my medical expenses covered, plus some money for the psychological distress I’d experienced. The insurance company ended up cutting me a small check, a couple hundred bucks over my doctor’s bill.
Wilborn says I needn’t have gone it alone, and if I hadn’t, I’d have likely received more than I did. He says that he, or any of the lawyers in the BikeLaw network, would have helped me out—for free, or a nominal fee.
“When a cyclist or pedestrian gets hit, we don’t have someone in our corner,” says Billing. “And you’re up against the driver who has a team and legal infrastructure in the form of their insurance, trying to find ways to give you less.”
So talk to a lawyer, even if it seems unnecessary. “You can’t do this by yourself,” Wilborn says. “I don’t care how smart or intelligent you are: My letter means more to an insurance company than yours.” Plus, lawyers might provide information you’d never otherwise be privy to.
When You Witness Someone Else Get Hit
The victim needs assistance, even if he or she appears OK. So consider it a moral imperative that you help the victim follow steps one through six, assuming you are not physically endangering yourself by doing so. Diffuse the situation by being a calm presence. Make sure the driver sticks around. Call the police. Collect the driver’s information. Help the pedestrian or cyclist seek medical attention. And give your testimony to the police—your corroboration of the events can help the victim later on.
“Every witness should get involved,” Wilborn says. “Our system relies upon people having not just courage, but the dignity to respond.”
Help victims protect themselves. It’s not easy to play the game all by yourself.
Top image courtesy of Photographee.eu/Shutterstock.com