Are Crashes Involving Only Cyclists Accidents?

Blurred Cyclist

Recently, I read about the untimely death of a well-respected local cycling leader in Los Angeles. She died as a result of a crash which occurred during a group ride.

Despite following the story over a number of days, not much in the way of details came to light. The general story was that this cyclist, Pam Leven, who was the president of the LA Wheelmen, touched wheels with another cyclist and they both crashed.

According to the report I read, “she suffered injuries including a broken hip and collarbone, as well severe head and facial trauma. The second rider was not seriously injured.”

From this description, it’s difficult to determine what happened and why. Most of what is known appears to have come from friends and acquaintances of this woman.

After several updates on this story, it still isn’t clear exactly how the cyclist sustained injuries serious enough to end her life. Only a few murky details were left as comments on this post, and an online memorial, a few allegations were made, but no one seems to have pursued them.

A few weeks after the crash, a guest column on the blog where I originally saw this story provided some background about the incident, but not much else. The author was a participant in the ride, but did not witness the crash.

The ride in question was not a race, but rather a leisurely ride. It was an official “newcomer” ride, even though no newcomers were present. Everyone participating was a regular rider of this group.

Here is how the guest columnist described the moments leading up to and after the crash:

“When I arrived to the corner of Sunset and Amalfi, most of the riders, including the experienced rider involved in Pam’s accident, crossed Sunset and were waiting on the southwest corner for the rest to catch up.  It was a long light.  Finally the light turned green, and I and another rider crossed the intersection heading south on Amalfi descending the slopped street at about 5 miles an hour.  Not far behind me, Pam was crossing the same intersection riding south on Amalfi at a similar speed.  Suddenly, I thought I heard Pam yell “Oh! Oh!”, and then there was a horrific sound of the crush of metal.  When I stopped and looked back, I saw Pam lying in the middle of the street on the pavement facing downhill.  The other rider involved in the crash, who had a large bruise or road rash on his left cheek, was kneeling at her side calling her name, and squeezing her hand.  She was not responding.”

This description suggests that the riders were traveling at approximately 5 miles per hour when they interacted and crashed. Such a slow speed makes it unlikely that the rider’s injuries were from the fall itself. Even falling head first at 5 miles per hour would probably not kill an experienced rider, although he or she could suffer significant injuries from landing that way.

An interesting point was made about how such incidents are handled by authorities:

“The kind of “accident” that led to Pam’s death will never be fully understood.  Apparently, there are no guidelines or rules that require any investigation about such accidents.  Even if someone tried to figure out what happened, it would be difficult because someone moved both bikes to the sidewalk.”

Unlike in a car crash, where the cars are left in place until police arrive on the scene, both bicycles were moved. Consequently, the only person who knows what happened is the other cyclist involved in the crash — unless a pedestrian or motorist witnessed the incident. Even if there was a witness, as the author pointed out, there is generally no an investigation when  accidents involve solo riders or two or more cyclists.

Instead, such crashes are assumed to be “accidents.” What’s odd about the acceptance of this terminology and description of events is that many cyclists are adamant about the fact that we should call all clashes between cars and bicycles “wrecks” or “crashes.” They want us to refrain from using the term “accident” at all costs.

Their reasoning for this is that when a car hits a bicycle, it is not an “accident,” someone is at fault. Of course, someone is always at fault when a crash between two vehicles occurs. If we accept this as true, then why are cyclists willing to call the tragic and unnecessary death of an experienced cycling advocate and rider an “accident,” merely the result of participating in an activity that entails risk?

What makes this even more surprising is the author’s comments about the history of the rider who was involved in the accident with Pan Leven.

“If this accident had involved anyone else, I would not feel as angry as I do.  I have been riding with the Corner group for about ten years.  During this time, this rider was known to have a record of reckless riding.  This includes riding too fast and aggressively, riding too close to other riders and cars, listening to music while riding, rude behavior such as flipping off car drivers and verbally antagonizing other riders and belittling slower riders, and encouraging the group to ride ahead and not wait for them.  Last year, he made an unsafe move which caused another club rider to fall off the bike.  Luckily, they were riding along the bike path.  Had the other rider fallen on pavement and not on sand, this rider might have sustained severe facial injuries.  And not long ago, he broke his collarbone when he flew over his handle bars riding too fast downhill and hit a hump on the road.  As president of the Los Angeles Wheelmen, Pam had several discussions with him about his riding etiquette and style, but apparently, this is where it ended.”

So, apparently, some people have seen the rider who became entangled with Pam Leven riding recklessly. And yet, no one wants to assign blame, even if it turns out that something this man did resulted in the unnecessary death of an innocent person.

This raises an important question: is there a distinction between crashes involving cars and bikes and those involving only bikes? Is the former always a “wreck” and the latter always an “accident?”

There are probably times when a car versus bicycle encounter is truly an accident and times when a bicycle versus bicycle encounter is the result of negligence on the part of one of the parties. Still, cyclists don’t want to blame their own, even if the life of a vibrant, capable woman has been lost.

Maybe no one knows exactly what occurred and no blame can be assigned. But shouldn’t we at least consider the possibility that one of the cyclists made a mistake or engaged in unsafe behavior which resulted in someone’s death? We always consider this when a car hits a bike.

Unfortunately, we will probably never know how an experienced cyclist on a leisurely group ride, riding at 5 miles per hour, ended up dead. Most cyclists believe that riding at a moderate pace will protect them from serious injury. Theoretically, it should — which is why we must reconsider the premise that when two bikes interact “accidents happen.” Accidents never just happen; they have a cause, and we should look for that cause even if it means incriminating one of our own.

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11 Responses to Are Crashes Involving Only Cyclists Accidents?

  1. JonT says:

    I’ve ranted about the misuse of the word “accident” before, but people are still misusing it, so here I go again…

    The word “accident” just means that it wasn’t intentional. It doesn’t mean that there was no fault. In fact, there’s often an implication that there WAS negligence involved. Think about what a kid means when he breaks something and says “it was an accident”. Or check a dictionary. Merriam Webster gives “an unforeseen and unplanned event or circumstance” as its first definition, and “an unfortunate event resulting especially from carelessness or ignorance” as its second. So except in the case of road rage, all of these collisions are accidents.

    • IsolateCyclist says:

      Jon,

      I don’t disagree with you. However, cyclists other than yourself have admonished me for using the word “accident” when referring to a collision between a car and a bicycle. They always insist on the opposite of what you are saying, namely that the word “accident” implies something which could not be avoided, and therefore is excusable. Such people (not you apparently) don’t want reporters, bloggers, journalists or everyday people to call such incidents “accidents” on the pretext that “language matters.”

      I was told to always use the words “wreck,” “crash” or “collision” to describe these incidents. According to the proponents of this idea, even police departments and lawyers are in favor of getting rid of the word “accident” when referring to a collision between two vehicles.

      To this end, bicycle advocates have demanded a change in language with respect to how we talk about car versus bike crashes; the goal is to protect cyclists. So the point I was making in this post was that the victim was a bicycle advocate, yet her friends and acquaintances don’t seem interested in trying to find out what happened to her and why she died.

      I would like to know what transpired because referring to a 5 mph crash resulting in death as an accident makes cycling look like a very dangerous activity. It’s really not that dangerous; most people don’t die from slow speed crashes. There must be more to this story, but unfortunately those who were there don’t seem willing or able to tell us what happened.

  2. bikinginla says:

    I agree, a collision, even between two experienced riders, is seldom if ever merely an accident. One rider, or maybe both, rode recklessly, carelessly or inattentively, or made an error in judgment that led to an almost incomprehensible tragedy.

    However, I am not willing to blame the victim without basis, or point the finger at the other rider based on past behavior. We simply don’t know what happened in this case.

    • IsolateCyclist says:

      “However, I am not willing to blame the victim without basis, or point the finger at the other rider based on past behavior. We simply don’t know what happened in this case.”

      I agree. You would be remiss in your duties as a reporter if you attempted to assign blame without facts. Someone other than yourself, an eyewitness for instance, ought to tell us exactly what happened. There must be more to this story. Both you and the guest columnist offered possible theories about what might have caused the type and severity of injuries Pam sustained, but unless someone steps forward with a plausible account of the interaction between the two cyclists, her tragic death will remain a mystery.

  3. The problem with this wreck is there are only two people that were in a position to know what happened, one is dead and the other has a head injury. That makes investigation rather difficult. The other problem with wrecks like this in general is they are so rare people don’t know what to do when they happen. And treating the injured frequently destroys the physical evidence needed to decipher the mechanism of the wreck. The narrative that both cyclists were pulling away from a stop indicates that one may have zigged when the other zagged and the decedent went over the handlebars, but that is pure speculation. Any way you cut it the lack of credible witnesses and physical evidence makes this case “not solvable”.

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  5. KillMoto says:

    “…we must reconsider the premise that when two [people operating vehicles] interact “accidents happen.” Accidents never just happen; they have a cause, and we should look for that cause even if it means incriminating [someone]…”

    It must be frustrating for you that people assume an event that ended in a person’s death was “an accident” without all the facts being known. Wouldn’t it be better if we knew what exactly happened before dismissing it as accidental?

    I was told to always use the words “wreck,” “crash” or “collision” to describe these incidents. According to the proponents of this idea, even police departments and lawyers are in favor of getting rid of the word “accident” when referring to a collision between two vehicles.

    I said something similar to that. But I never said “always”. My recommendation is to use words known to be true, and evolve the message as facts are revealed. But my greater point is, it’s dangerous to habitually call events “accidents”. That makes some people simply think “accidents happen”; that wrecks can’t be prevented and we should not look for a cause.

    My crusade is to convince people to stop accepting the high death toll on our roads as inevitable, and instead ask ourselves and our government: “what exactly happened?” The USA tolerates a death rate per mile that’s nearly three times that of first world countries. This is related to our culture first, infrastructure second, and our legal system third.

    Using words properly will help correct the cultural problem.

  6. brad5d says:

    with so little factual information the only two posts from the LA site’s I’ve been reading worth repeating here are the following…

    “When someone dies, you don’t ‘get over it’ by forgetting.
    You ‘get over it’ by remembering.”
    Leslie Marmon

    Michael Klein said…
    Pam was a bright, talented, hard-working woman, kind, warm and friendly and full of life. I said prayers for her healing even against the high odds I was told she faced and now, I say them in her memory. Blessings upon you, Pam’s spirit!

    I should probably stop at that, but cannot help but go on to express amazement (along with some fear and dismay) that someone who was presumably well trained and equipped with the best safety gear could be so badly hurt in a routine biking accident. It causes one to wonder about the safety of biking generally, which would no doubt pain Pam deeply, but doesn’t someone have to ask the question: How can one make the sport that so many more seem to be adopting a this time safe? Maybe the good that could come of this is some focus on that and how to avoid things like this in the future. The Pam Leven Safe Biking Research Foundation? Something similar?

    • “I should probably stop at that, but cannot help but go on to express amazement (along with some fear and dismay) that someone who was presumably well trained and equipped with the best safety gear could be so badly hurt in a routine biking accident. It causes one to wonder about the safety of biking generally, which would no doubt pain Pam deeply, but doesn’t someone have to ask the question: How can one make the sport that so many more seem to be adopting a this time safe?”

      This is exactly why I wrote a post on the subject. I can understand how a novice rider might die from what I would consider a routine crash, but not an experienced rider.

      I was once struck from behind by a car driving between 35 and 40 mph. I flew head first over the handlebars, like a projectile, and I still managed to control the fall. Fortunately, I only sustained minor injuries. And, as someone who used to race, this was certainly not my only crash.

      Something more must have happened to have caused Pam’s death. I would like to know what it is because I do not regard cycling as a very dangerous activity, and like you, I would like to see some good come out of her senseless death.

      Before we can do any research, we must know what happened. One of my readers said that there were eyewitnesses to this crash, but clearly none of them have been helpful in shedding light on what could have caused such severe injuries.

      Having hard facts and analyzing those facts is the only way we will ever avoid things like this in the future.

  7. brad4d says:

    I read two competing assessments, one that her handlebars locked with another rider and the other theory was her front wheels touched the back wheel. Either of those two scenarios are things she as an experienced cyclists might neglect to caution newcomer cyclists about before a group ride. When I lead a ride I usually spend more time explaining the dangers of a front wheel falling into trolley track.

    The skills for riding in close proximity to others is usually only thought necessary for performance minded cyclist who travel 20 plus miles per hour in huge pelotons or pacelines.
    http://www.aabts.org/safety/How%20To%20Recover%20from%20Bumping.pdf

    My guessing whether Pam even knew the techniques performance cyclists are skilled in to prevent loss of control while bumping into cyclists does not really answer what you keep coming back to ….that Slow-motion falls do not usually lead to anything close to a fatality. True, However if you don’t have control over what you fall onto while also having 200 or more pounds of dynamic weight landing on you, any number of possibilities exist for an all too vulnerable body to sustain ….burst appendix or aneurysms …what ever the still unreported factor is, read the riding skills and consider for yourself if you need to practice them. Eventually the significant details of Pams death will be cleared up by a coroners report that could confirm or reject things like burst appendix,internal bleeding etc

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