|Kent and Marla the week before the accident |
on a cycling trip to France
“My memory is like a GoPro thrown out of window or something,” he says. “White, black, white, black, white, black.”
Kent never lost consciousness and says he remembers it all: hitting the passenger side of the car and landing on the sidewalk, hearing the crunch of the bikes being run over, the sensation of color returning. The car stopped, and the driver’s door opened. He realized he couldn’t see Marla.
“My first thought was that I’d lost her, she’s under the car,” Kent says. “And then I saw her from the edge of my vision as she got out of the road, heard her screaming ‘call 911!’”
|Photo by Joseph Iley|
The 23-year-old driver, who to his credit was one of the first to call 911 and stayed on the scene to render aid, was arrested by the police for drunk driving.
For Marla and Kent, the eventual prognosis was good. Marla had a fracture in her left foot (next week she’ll see a specialist to determine whether her cast can be removed). A chunk of her hair had been ripped out in the crash, there was a heavy bruise on her right hamstring, a deep cut in her finger would require stitches, and she had some minor road rash on her arms—all told, she looked better than the windshield she’d shattered. Kent, however, had rolled more down the side of the car, in the process breaking his scapula and fracturing vertebrae in his lower back. Fortunately, there hasn’t been much swelling, and all the bones are in place, so no pinning or surgery has been required. He’s now home after three days in the hospital, and the prescription is immobilization. Doctors say he’ll likely be in a brace for the next four or five months, and he’s currently on bedrest for six weeks. It’s still a long road ahead.
When news media report on an accident involving a cyclist, there’s often a witch hunt, and oddly enough, it’s usually the victim who’s put on trial. The title of the Aug. 3 article published by KXAN, an Austin news station, was “Cyclists: Area where drunk driver hit bicyclists is dangerous.” I saw the article all over my Facebook feed, shared by cyclists because it was the only one available.
What KXAN posted online essentially mirrored their TV coverage. The first match to light the pyre: the cyclists didn’t have lights. Ironically, this was a false claim, ostensibly made by the drunk driver in his statement to police but attributed by KXAN to “police documents.” The second match, struck (disappointingly, I might add) by a spokesperson for cycling advocacy organization Please Be Kind to Cyclists: this was a “scary stretch of road” that wasn’t “safe at all.”
As I read the article, still reeling, I figured their meaning was loud and clear. We might as well just go ahead and finish the job they’d started, for a mercifully quick end if nothing else, right? Let’s haul Marla and Kent out of their hospital beds, tie them to the stake, and break out the marshmallows and graham crackers; clearly they’re the ones to blame, not the man who was driving drunk at 6:30 on a Sunday morning.
Most cyclists don’t take South First on a typical weekday, but lots do on weekend mornings. On Saturdays and Sundays, the early hours are the best time to ride in Austin: the streets are empty, the temperatures are as cool as they’re going to get, and the whole city is almost eerily quiet and calm. Any Austin cyclist knows that in addition to “good roads” and “bad roads,” there are good and bad times. If you say that cyclists don’t belong on South First at 6:30 in the morning on a Sunday, you might as well come out and say what you really mean to, which is that they don’t belong on the roads at all. To make that one stick, however, you’ll need to change state and municipal law.
When I spoke with Garret Nick of Please Be Kind to Cyclists about the statements he’d made to KXAN, he said his intent was never to say that the cyclists were at fault or were not 100 percent within their rights. He was thinking of things more “big picture,” he said, and cited needed improvements to infrastructure and reductions to vehicle speed in the urban core. Though I agree with his point that Austin could do a lot more in the way of bike planning, I still can’t get past one overarching thought: where are you safe from a drunk driver? People have been killed biking, walking, driving, sleeping in their beds…none of them responsible for or capable of preventing what the drunk driver had done.
The morning of the accident, I was supposed to meet up with Marla and Kent farther south along the route. I’m probably the only reason they were even going that way. When Marla called I had helmet and shoes on and was about to walk out of the door. Her voice was distraught, and when I asked if she and Kent were okay, I couldn’t understand her answer; there were other voices, sounds, the muffled background noise of an emergency.
I’d literally seen a cyclist in a body bag the day before—I’d been hiking on the trails near Bauerle Ranch, where a father mountain biking with his son had died of a heart attack. Carrying my own two-year-old son in my arms, I’d walked right past his family, had seen their grief-stricken faces. As I drove the eight miles from my house to the site of the collision, resisting the urge to speed even though I seemed to be one of the only cars on the road, I wavered between the best- and worse-case scenarios of what I’d find when I got there, from “everything’s okay because Marla wouldn’t have asked me to pick up the bikes if it weren’t” to “Kent’s going to die,” or “Kent’s going to be paralyzed.” I thought of his three daughters.
We don’t always consider what police officers do for us, the burden they bear to not only protect but to take on the worst of what can happen in our lives, whether crime or accident. After two days of seeing what they saw every work day, I was at the point of breaking. In both emergencies, APD officers were exceptionally kind to me, going out of their way to explain the situation or to help me locate my friends in the hospital. I was overwhelmingly grateful to them, and to the doctor who saw my face (and cycling kit) when I first came running into the hospital and said, “They’re doing okay,” and to Kent for being alive and in one near-whole piece, friendly as ever even as he lay prone on an emergency-room table in terrible pain. I had to fight the urge to give each of them a bear hug, and I’m not a huggy kind of person.
You want to know what the loneliest place in the world is? A hospital parking garage. I’d been to the collision site, then to Brackenridge, then back to the collision site when they said I could pick up the bikes, then parked the car again at Brackenridge. The rear wheels of the bikes were bent and shattered or crumpled like paper, so I couldn’t attach the frames to my roof rack. All the pieces were tangled up in the backseat, and as I pulled into a space in a dark corner of the garage I saw the gleam of flashing lights behind me. “What now,” I thought in what had become an all-too-familiar state of panic, but it was only the red rear lights blinking on the bikes, still illuminated from earlier that morning when Kent and Marla had turned them on, just headed out for another training ride on another day.
Kent and Marla asked me to include an expression of their gratitude to all their friends and family and the local cycling community. They say they’ve been overwhelmed by support and feel fortunate and humbled to have received so much help and kindness.