Cyclists vs. drivers: The debate over bike safetyView 16 Photos
"At the end of the day, it could have been anybody. Anybody who throws a leg over the bike and goes out of the driveway is one distracted driver away from the hospital."
Adam Bunger thinks he might have bounced once after he was hit by a truck in June.
On the morning of June 28, he took his usual 20- to 25-mile bike ride and was traveling north on the 6200 block of Dayton Boulevard when he thought he heard a car behind him. He turned to look, but saw nothing and faced forward again.
"Then all I saw was a flash of this dude's grille," he said.
Bunger was hit from the left and thrown into the air like a rag doll. He stopped when the right side of his torso slammed into a utility pole. The driver of the Ford truck had been traveling south on Dayton Boulevard when the driver tried to turn left into a driveway and struck the back end of Bunger's bike.
"I kind of remember hitting the ground," he said. "Everything went black for a second and then I was staring up at the sky and this pole in a mild state of panic like, 'What just happened?'"
He said the driver got out and an ambulance was called. As he lay on the ground, he looked down, saw his leg was mangled and focused on moving his toes.
"Nothing really hurt, but then the adrenaline started to wear off and I could see my leg starting to swell up," he said. "I really didn't know what to think. I knew what had happened, but it took me a minute to accept it."
State and local officials say incidents like this are becoming more common — as the area's cycling population grows, so do the number of crashes.
Since 2014, Chattanooga has seen 27, 32 and 30 crashes involving cyclists and cars each succeeding year, respectively, but there have been 27 to date in 2017 and there are still five more months left in the year.
In the 116 crashes since the start of 2014, 91 people have been injured — two fatally.polls here 4051
RULES OF THE ROAD
Tennessee traffic laws require bicyclists to:
› Ride on the right-hand side of the road with the same direction as traffic
› Obey all traffic signs and signals
› Use hand signals to communicate intended movements
› Equip their bicycles with a front white light visible from 500 feet and either a red reflector or a lamp emitting a red light which shall be visible from a distance of at least 500 feet to the rear
THE COST OF CRASHES
When paramedics arrived to take care of Bunger, they immobilized him and transported him to a local hospital, where doctors told him his leg had broken just below his hip. It would require pins and a plate to fix, but before they could do anything, they had to put his leg back in place.
"The bone had sort of overshot the break into the meat of my hip," he said.
They tried drilling a bar through Bunger's calf and using a set of weights to fix the problem, but when that failed, a doctor simply grabbed his foot and pulled, slowly but firmly.
"I can't recall anything in my life hurting that bad. I was immediately doused in a cold sweat and biting the inside of my cheek to keep from crying "
Six weeks later, Bunger has a large scar on his hip and more than a month of physical therapy left.
Even though he could have died, as he thought he might at points in the aftermath, he's eager to get back on two wheels. But his crash serves as a sobering reminder to him and the larger cycling community how dangerous the road can be.
"At the end of the day, it could have been anybody," he said. "Anybody who throws a leg over the bike and goes out of the driveway is one distracted driver away from the hospital."
Accident or no, it's not the first time drivers have put him in danger, and it probably won't be the last.
"I don't want to say there is more animosity toward cyclists in this town, but I have had a number of drivers either lay on the horn or not give you any space," he said.
"I've heard stories of people getting beer bottles thrown at them, golf balls, full cans of soda for no reason," Bunger said. There are people who just really don't want to contend with bikes and they will make it blatantly obvious."
Drivers increasingly are to blame for crashes involving cyclists in Chattanooga, said Rob Simmons, spokesman for the Chattanooga Police Department and former head of the Safe Bicycling Initiative.
"The numbers for 2017 are showing a near-even fault between motorists and cyclists during crashes citywide," he wrote in an email. "In past years, we've seen more fault on the part of the cyclists in crashes."
"Our cycling population is growing exponentially [public bike system, bike lanes, recreational cycling] and fault is shifting to the motorists."
Simmons said everyone in Chattanooga, whether they sit behind a steering wheel or handlebars, should remind themselves of the rules of the road and follow them religiously.
According to information provided by the Tennessee Department of Transportation, a bicycle has the legal status of a vehicle, meaning bicyclists have full rights and responsibilities on the roadway and are subject to regulations governing the use of cars.
"It is important that motorists understand that cyclists have the right to be on the roadway," Simmons said. "It is equally important that cyclists know they have the responsibility to operate bikes on the roadways like they would a vehicle. Being predictable as a cyclist is the best way to avoid being involved in a collision."
Simmons said that over the two years he headed the Safe Bicycling Initiative, the group chose to focus on education rather than citations, which led to a 26 percent decrease in crashes.
"I concluded that if I walked away from the traffic stop and gave the driver/cyclist a fundamental understanding of why their action was dangerous, it was more impactful than issuing a citation that only made a minor impact on their bank account," he said.
"Simply put, financial penalty was temporary; education was longer-lasting in modifying behavior."
But while it's everyone's responsibility to avoid crashes, when it comes to collisions involving a cyclist and a car, the cyclist is typically going to be the one who winds up being hurt most, as evidenced by the incident involving Bunger.
"The cyclist [whether at fault or not] is going to be the loser in any collision," Simmons said. "Cyclists are the vulnerable users of our roadways."
Martin Penny, president of the Chattanooga Bicycling Club, said he was hit by a car while cycling in 1989 and can attest that cyclists will usually end up worse off than drivers.
"The physics just don't add up for the cyclist, do they?" he quipped.
"Operating a machine can be dangerous. You've got to take some ownership of that responsibility," he said. "Drive defensively. We've heard that since we were 16."
But that responsibility cuts both ways, Penny said. If cyclists expect to be treated as they should be, they also need to do everything in their power to communicate clearly and predictably to drivers.
"They need to pay attention to what's going on out there," he said.
A TRAGIC DEATH
On Browns Ferry Road, two white bicycles are chained to a telephone pole and a residential fence to mark Chattanooga's only fatal cyclist crash in 2016.
J.T. Pruitt, 17, was struck as he crossed the five-lane highway on his bicycle around 7 a.m. on Nov. 16 last year. The boy was on his way to class at Lookout Valley Middle/High School.
He was hit from behind while crossing diagonally from the left side of the road to the right side just over the crest of a hill, police said. The driver, Kimberly Hartman, said she couldn't see Pruitt until she came over the hill and he was right in front of her.
Hartman stopped and called 911 after the accident, gave a statement to police and cooperated, police said, and neither alcohol nor speed contributed to the crash.
Hours after the crash, Pruitt's bicycle still lay in the middle of the far right lane, one tire bent out of shape, and one of his sneakers sat nearby.
Nine months later, faint blue circles spray-painted onto the asphalt by investigators still show where evidence was found. From first to last, the circles that marked everything from blood spatters to where the bike landed stretch more than 30 yards.
The white bikes that sprang up after Pruitt's death have hundreds of counterparts across the nation marking other places where cyclists have been killed or hit on the street. They're called "ghost bikes," according to ghostbikes.org, a website dedicated to the cause.
"They serve as reminders of the tragedy that took place on an otherwise anonymous street corner, and as quiet statements in support of cyclists' right to safe travel," the website reads. "For those who create and install the memorials, the death of a fellow bicyclist hits home. We all travel the same unsafe streets and face the same risks; it could just as easily be any one of us."
Contact staff writer Emmett Gienapp at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6731. Follow him on Twitter @emmettgienapp.