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Dublin: 19 °C Sunday 31 May, 2020
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Opinion: Cycling to work shouldn't feel like going to war but I still get flashbacks from being hit by car

Joan O’Connell is fighting for safer cycling conditions after she was knocked off her bike by a 1.5-tonne seven-seater car.

Joan O'Connell

IT WAS WITH some trepidation that I sat down to write this article. In no way do I want to discourage anyone from everyday cycling: it’s healthy and it’s great craic. But I’ve got to be realistic.

I hugely enjoy cycling. It gives me freedom, it brings me joy, it’s sociable, it’s quick, it’s convenient, it’s inherently very safe, it’s easier than walking. It’s fun!

But when you cycle – certainly where I cycle, in Dublin – it’s more likely than not that you’ll encounter serious dangers on your journey. Some of these dangers will threaten your life, some will change your life forever, and some have ended lives. Nearly all of these dangers are preventable, avoidable and unnecessary.

  • (Do you want to know which roads and junctions are the most dangerous for cyclists? Find out here how you can support a Noteworthy project on this issue.)

And it is with great trepidation that I set out on my commute each weekday, or make a journey around my locality. My loved ones worry unless and until I send a message to confirm I have arrived at my destination safely.

“I was certain I was about to die”

They have good reason to worry. Just over two years ago, on my way to work, a driver hit me with their 1.5-tonne, seven-seater car. I was travelling through a junction when at the last moment I realised what was about to happen. I was certain I was about to die; I was gone.

I was later told that my body struck the bonnet of the car, which was badly dented, and then struck the windscreen, which shattered. I remember rolling and hitting the cold, hard road surface.

I seemed to pause: I realised I was not dead, but I was waiting for the car to roll over me. I remember bracing myself, and wondering whether the wheel would roll over my head or over my body.

Moments later, the pain began to spread throughout my body, and I began to scream. The only word I could form was, “ambulance”.

I was lying on my side. I could see passersby on their phones. I could see my bike, the car number plate, and my backpack strewn down the street. A woman came to comfort me. She was kind, and held my hand. 

It felt unreal. Paramedics arrived to the scene. They went through their protocols: neck and spinal checks, checks for internal bleeding, checks for cognitive functions, and so on. With help from the fire brigade crew, they rolled me on to a spinal board, and I was immobilised from the head and neck down.

There followed transportation to an emergency department, ultrasound scans of my abdomen, CT scans of my head and torso, x-rays of my lower limbs, surgery and titanium plates, wound dressings and re-dressings, bed pans and sponge baths, a total loss of dignity, orthopaedic boot and crutches, physiotherapy which continues to this day, PTSD and depression which continue to this day.

After returning to work after nine months, my incredulous colleagues repeatedly said: “But you were always lit up like a Christmas tree”.

The driver was prosecuted and convicted in the Criminal Courts of Justice.

He was fined €250.

Cautiously back on the saddle

And if you think the universe doesn’t have a sense of humour, one of the easiest forms of exercise approved by my physiotherapists was cycling. I still can’t run or exercise the way I could before the collision, but from soon after I was able to walk without crutches, I could cycle. Even now, cycling remains easier than walking.

So, I returned to cycling, cautiously. I still get flashbacks and nightmares, and at times I have to take time out when I get a jolt. But I actually missed cycling, and I didn’t want the man who did this to me to take cycling from me as well.

I became more interested in how my city can be made safer for cycling, through enforcement, better street designs, and building safe cycling networks. I helped form a social cycling group, Monthly Cycles, which is primarily aimed at women, especially those who are nervous about cycling Dublin or who don’t cycle but would like to start.

Going to work shouldn’t feel like going to war.

Infrastructure for equality 

Dublin already is a cycling city – Ireland may even be a cycling country – and there is huge potential for cycling numbers to grow. Official figures show that more people cycle on Dublin’s Quays during rush hour than drive cars, and that’s with the dangers and hazards that are out there.

If real and practical steps were taken to minimise those dangers, Dublin could easily be transformed into a pleasant and easy-to-navigate city, similar to Amsterdam, Copenhagen, Paris, Seville and others.

This means enforcing road traffic laws, with an emphasis on safety and harm reduction, and prioritising the most vulnerable road users first: starting with walkers and cyclists. It means redesigning the public realm to ensure it’s safe and accessible to all ages and abilities, including making junctions safer; introducing speed reduction measures; and increasing lighting, footpath space, and bike and pedestrian traffic light phases.

It means recognising that cycling and is not for the brave commuter or sport cyclists, but that cycling is for all: over 50% of people who cycle in the Netherlands are women.

Research shows that women are generally more risk-averse than men when it comes to cycling, so that if there is a lack of safe cycling networks, this excludes women more than men. It also excludes younger and older people, and some people with physical disabilities, who can often find it easier to cycle longer distances than to walk. It also excludes people who can’t afford a car or public transport, but who could afford a bike.

In other words, ensuring safe cycling is in many ways an issue of equality. And that means public bodies, local authorities and government abiding by their duty to ensure equality for members of Ireland’s communities and society.

Joan O’Connell lives in Dublin, helps to organise Monthly Cycles, works in the field of data protection, and tweets at @clicky_here and @monthlycycles.

BICYCLE BLACKSPOTS Investigation 

Do you want to know which roads and junctions around Ireland are the most dangerous for cyclists?

The Noteworthy team want to analyse the last ten years of official data to see collision and fatality rates on the country’s roads and take a look at accident blackspots around Ireland.

Here’s how to help support this proposal>

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