Until January of 1984, Kathleen O'Brien had been thinking she had a very good chance of making the U.S. Olympic cycling team. Though she had only been a competitive cyclist for a couple of years, she is a talented athlete who had been on the U.S. track and field team for nine years. In her mid-twenties, she had decided to give cycling a try, and in a surprisingly short time, she had won the respect of other competitive cyclists. Some of them were even calling her “a real animal," which comes very close to being the highest compliment one cyclist can pay another.
O’Brien, a determined woman with explosive energy and an unruly mane of long blond hair, usually rode anywhere from forty to ninety miles per day, seven days a week. On this particular day, she was using the commute from Del Mar, where she lives, to La Costa, where she worked, as a way to add mileage to her training schedule. She was traveling north on El Camino Real, cruising along in the bike lane at perhaps twenty-five miles per hour. As she approached the intersection at La Costa Avenue, she suddenly sensed in her peripheral vision that something very large was bearing down on her from the left.
“I was aware that something was wrong, and I tried to get out of the way by veering right,” she says. Witnesses later said that a large truck delivering pharmaceuticals to the local drug store had swerved across two lanes of traffic, without signaling, to make a right-hand turn at the light. The truck’s fender struck O’Brien’s rear tire, her bike slammed into the curb, and she vaulted into the air and crashed headfirst into a wooden road sign.
At first the paramedics thought she might have been paralyzed, since she was unable to move her limbs. But after spending a few days in the hospital, she regained the use of her arms and legs. “My helmet saved my life,” she says. ‘‘The top of it was completely crushed.” Miraculously, her only permanent injury was a bulged disc in her back. Later that summer, back in animal form again, O’Brien broke a seven-year-old record at the Rosarito-to-Ensenada bike course.
Just a few days before O’Brien’s accident, a section had been added to the California vehicle code. Section 21200 begins by saying, “Every person riding a bicycle upon a highway shall have all the rights and shall be subject to all the provisions applicable to the driver of a vehicle....” Cyclists celebrated the new law as the emancipation proclamation for their sport. For the first time, they had the legal right to use the roads as equals with motorists. The trouble is, most motorists have never heard of the law and still see cyclists (if they see them at all) as being nothing but a hazard and a nuisance. Every day cyclists are being reminded of what they knew all along: that the laws of physics are not subject to the California vehicle code. Being equal on paper with a motorist is of no value to a cyclist in a collision with a 2000-pound mass of steel and glass.
In December of 1985, less than a year after Kathleen O’Brien’s first cycling accident, she was riding south on the Coast Highway through Encinitas. She had passed the light at Encinitas Boulevard, climbed a short hill, and was riding in the bike lane just across the highway from La Paloma Theatre. Still nervous from her first accident, she was carefully watching the traffic around her. Suddenly, a driver who had just passed her saw a parking space he wanted on the right side of the road. The driver quickly swerved across the bike lane in front of O’Brien and into the parking space. Before O’Brien could react, the driver opened his car door directly into her path. Her neck struck the corner of the door, bending the door so badly that later it couldn’t be closed. She then went flying through the air and landed on the highway. In the few seconds before she lost consciousness, she saw the cars on the road bearing down on her as though they were going to run her over.
Once again O’Brien was lucky — if you can compare a crushed esophagus with good fortune. She also suffered a crushed sternum and internal bleeding. Even now, ten months later, there are times when she has difficulty walking. She occasionally loses control of her bladder and has seen a psychiatrist to help her cope with the frustration and depression of finding herself an incapacitated athlete. Just a few days ago, she got back on a bicycle again. Stiff and obviously in pain, she managed to complete a short workout. She hasn’t abandoned her hopes of becoming a competitive cyclist, though she is thinking it may be impossible for her to train under the traffic conditions in San Diego County.
The most disturbing thing about O’Brien’s unfortunate experiences on the road is that they aren’t particularly unusual. Almost any competitive cyclist can tell stories about his or her own crackups or near-misses involving motorists. Many cyclists say if you ride long enough, you’re going to get hurt. A bicycle mechanic at Leucadia Cyclery says, “Not long ago, we had four accidents within a couple of miles of here in one weekend. It’s gotten to the point where if it’s a sunny day out, we know we’ll be hearing sirens.”
According to the California Highway Patrol, there were 1440 cycling accidents in San Diego County last year, including eleven fatalities. There are few statistics to compare these with, but it is certain that cycling accidents are on the increase — not necessarily because cycling is getting more dangerous, but because there are so many more bicycle riders in San Diego now than there were just a few years ago. San Diego had become something of a cycling mecca. On a per-capita basis, only two communities in the nation, Sacramento and Phoenix, have more cyclists than San Diego. There are almost twice as many people who commute by bicycle as by public transit. Government studies show that the Coast Highway bike route, between Los Angeles and the Mexican border, is the most heavily traveled cycling route in the United States, with 1500 to 2000 cyclists per weekend.