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Critical Mass Collision

Today, I participated in my first ever Critical Mass, a large, loosely organized bike ride that starts at the Westlake Center in downtown Seattle around 6:00 pm and meanders around the town, directed by the whims of whoever is in front. The ride is somewhat controversial in that the riders manage to stay in one cohesive group with a tactic known as “corking” where cyclists place themselves strategically to block traffic, allowing the group of cyclists to continue, even through red lights. Nevertheless, the whole procession isn’t that big of a deal — at most, drivers are inconveniences for about 5 minutes as the group rides by.

As a cyclist, I learned today, it is a ton of fun. We just ride around Seattle hooting, hollering, and ringing bells, putting on a show for downtown drivers and having a good time. In fact, as you ride, you enter into a bit of a mob mentality: you’re having fun, surrounded by bicycles, exploring the city, not really worrying about where you or anyone else is headed. As a frequent driver myself, I can understand how another driver could become frustrated by the cyclists’ apparent lack of concern about the temporary traffic jams we create (“we’re not blocking traffic, we are traffic,” goes the mantra), but I can’t understand very well what happened today.

Riding up Aloha street on Capitol Hill, between 14th and 15th, the critical mass encountered a man and a woman in a white Subaru who were late to a dinner reservation. Although he wanted to go the opposite direction we were going, due to the cars parked on his side of the road, there was not enough room for both the cyclists and car. So, to prevent any rash moves, a couple of cyclists had stopped in front of the car to allow the rest of the group to pass by safely — in effect, the car had been corked. However, the man driving with his girlfriend/wife was clearly unhappy about the blockage, so in order to lend support to the brave souls that were corking, I stopped as well. If enough cyclists were stopped in front of him, I figured, we would all be safer.

I was wrong.

Not long after I arrived on the scene, the driver decided that he would turn around. This didn’t make any sense, since there were by this time many more cyclists to his east (the direction he was turning around to head) than to his west (the direction he was originally heading). So, to turn around, since we were in front of him, he backed up off of the road onto the grassy knoll behind him, which concerned all of us because it was kind of crazy. But I didn’t think he’d be crazy enough to then pull forward.

Again, I was wrong.

With two cyclists directly in front of him, two on the drivers side, and me and another guy on the passenger side of his car, the man at the wheel slammed on his accelerator and drove straight into two cyclists. One, a petite girl, got mostly out of the way. The second, a man, was not so fortunate. He fell to the ground and was pushed six feet across the pavement, his bicycle flattened (pictured below), his hands on the car’s front bumper to avoid being pulled under, before the car turned left, ran over his right leg, and accelerated east on Aloha towards 15th. The woman in the passenger seat was screaming hysterically as she passed me, the car grazing my front wheel. A cyclist directly in front of the car heard the acceleration and turned around to see the car coming right at him, so to avoid being hit, he jumped up on the hood of the car.

[CLARIFICATION: The following pictures are not of my bike. They are of the bike of the man who got run over by the car]

Fixed gear bike with tacoed wheel and badly bent handlebars

Handlebar of bike twisted strangely

The two cyclists on the drivers side of the car chased after the car which now had a cyclist standing on the hood, hanging on to the roof rack for dear life, with no indication that the car was planning on stopping. One of the cyclists in pursuit managed to slash one of the car’s tires by the time it arrived at the stop sign on 15th. The guy on the roof kneed the front window, and another cyclist hurled his u-lock at the rear window, breaking it. Not even a block away and the car was stopped in its tracks, both windshields cracked, the driver’s side view mirror hanging limply, all four tires slashed. The driver also reportedly received a u-lock to the head; all I know is that in the aftermath, he was bleeding on the left side of his head. It was a bad situation. Fortunately, once the car was stopped, the situation did not escalate.

Someone was quicker onto the phone than I was — and it didn’t take long for police and ambulances to show up. The police started interviewing the people involved. I eventually got interviewed as a witness as well. To complicate matters, the police were busy shifting from the second to third shift, so the initial responders were different from the people who ended up inheriting the situation. The officer who became in charge of the situation, a man by the name of Lutz (sp?) proceeded to get the account of events pretty throughly incorrect. His account “compiled from a variety of sources” had cyclists hitting the car before the car accelerated into the cyclists. No such thing happened. There were definitely raised voices, high tempers, and nasty words being exchanged directly before the event, but Lutz’s recount was heavily biased towards an point of view that sounded like it came from inside the car.

Not wanting to become too frustrated listening to Lutz spout his misconceptions, I walked off towards 14th, where another officer asked me what was going on, since he had just been doing traffic duty. I explained the situation to him from my point of view, and he pointed out that he had noticed that we didn’t feel right about Lutz’s compilation of “facts.” It was nice to talk to someone who seemed to care that his fellow officer was getting it wrong.

At any rate, the cyclists who were hit were not seriously injured. I sustained minor flesh wounds (slight bleeding on both legs caused by my bike’s front wheel being grazed), but I didn’t even notice the wounds until much later. The cyclist who got the worst of it is probably going to have his ankle x-rayed, but his leg bones remained intact despite being run over by a car. The girl cyclist escaped physically unharmed, but was very emotionally distraught. The man in the car received the worst injury; he ended up being bandaged and transported to a hospital. Hopefully he was also under arrest, although I was not able to confirm that.

Two cyclists were also arrested — my best guess is that they were the ones claiming responsibility for the bloody head and slashed tires. I asked the officers arresting them what the charges were, but I was rebuffed. The exchange went something like this:

Ryan: What is he being arrested for?
Officer: Can you move back over there?
Ryan: I am capable, but do I have to? Is that an order?
Officer: Yes it is.
Ryan: Alright.

Then I left. The officers clearly were not interested in talking about what was going on.

Most of the locals were compassionate, with the exception of one incredibly bitter man who blamed me personally (and the other cyclists in general) for the whole incident. I declined further discussions with him. One local brought out plastic cups and a pitcher of water, which was very pleasing to me. I thanked him profusely, but not enough. So, thank you again!

As everything was winding down, King 5 news showed up and put together a mostly incorrect story for the 10 o’clock news. At the end of the story is the sentence, “The cyclists on the scene declined to comment on what happened.” While it is true that the cyclist who got ran over declined to comment since he was being driven home, it was not true in general. Specially, I was there and willing to comment (which I let them know), but they did not take me up on the offer.

I stuck around for probably an hour and a half in total, but since I haven’t been wearing my watch for a while, I’m not sure about the actual timing of events. I was one of the last to leave the scene — the girl got a ride home with an officer, the male cyclist went with his wife, the driver took a ride in an ambulance, his car got impounded and towed, and everyone else cycled or walked away. A few of us exchanged email addresses before parting ways to stay in touch in case any witnesses were needed for future legal action.

How’s that for a little excitement? It certainly ended badly, but next month, on the last Friday of August, I’m definitely riding in Critical Mass again.

UPDATE [2008-07-28, 2:09am]:

I think its pretty important to read what the driver had to say. Its a believable story, so its quite possible that this is how it really went down, from his perspective.

He does leave out the fact that he was yelling back at the cyclists, but this is not very important. It is also possible that he really did think that all the cyclists had passed (about 90% had, and the stream of cyclists was definitely thinner than before at the time he made his unfortunate decision).

While this was still a really bad decision on the driver’s part, at least this gives us a glimpse into his mindset at the time, and it also helps humanize him a lot, which I think is lost a lot in these he-said she-said battle of words.

As I gain more information and perspective on the whole incident, my fault compass is gradually pointing more towards the two cyclists who were at the left of the car shouting profanities into the car window. In the ruckus, I can believe that one of them might have joked (or been serious) when saying something like “lets tip the car.” I didn’t hear any such words, (UPDATE: nobody acted like they were about to tip the car, nor did anyone touch the car) but nor could I quote to you very much of the argument that was said in the lead-up to the incident because I didn’t think it was important to try to remember at the time.

Its still totally stupid and screwed up that a driver drove over a cyclist, but its also stupid and screwed up that there were antagonistic cyclists as well, without which, the incident probably would not have happened.

UPDATE [2008-07-03 7:35 pm]:

Upon rereading the driver’s account, there are numerous factual errors that are concerning and that make it difficult for me to believe too much of what the driver said. Here is the meat of his story:

While driving through Capitol Hill, Mark says he saw a herd of Critical Mass riders and pulled over on a parking strip on Aloha to wait for them to pass. After waiting for five minutes, Mark says he tried to turn his car around to get out of the way and get off of the street. That’s when about a dozen cyclists surrounded his car, he says.

“As soon as I tried to turn around, they completely corralled me in and were shouting things,” Mark says. Although he says cyclists were initially “playfully taunting” him, Mark says the longer he waited, the more aggressive they got. “They wouldn’t let me move even after the rest of the bikes went by, he says, adding that he started to panic when cyclists began tugging on his side mirrors and he heard someone say “let’s tip the car.”

Mark says he felt intimidated and was concerned for his safety, so he began to rev his engine. “[I] was going to…try to be macho and scare some people,” he says. “I didn’t realize my car was in first [gear].”

Mark says he rolled over two bicycles when his car lurched forward, before a crowd of cyclists swarmed him. One rider tried to punch him through his open car window, but missed, and others were clinging to his car as he sped off.

Although a number of reports have indicated that riders slashed the car’s tires, forcing it to stop, Mark says he heard a rider shout “someone’s really hurt” and slammed on his brakes. “I thought I just knocked 2 bikes over,” Mark says. “I wanted to get away from the situation but if I’d hurt someone, I didn’t want to flee.”

Error #1: When I arrived on the scene, Mark wasn’t trying to turn around. He had his car at a 30-degree angle towards the oncoming lane of traffic (where the cyclists were coming up the hill). He was already angry, and initially, cyclists were trying to calm him down by telling him that he only had to wait a few minutes. I parked myself in front of his car, with a few others.

Error #2: When Mark very suddenly decided to turn around, he backed up rather quickly and violently over the curb and onto the grassy hill between the curb and the sidewalk. I remember a few “whoa!”s over the suddenness of the move. At this point, there were six — count them, six — cyclists near his car. Two were on the drivers side a few feet away from his window, two were in front of the car, and me and another guy were in front of the car on the passenger’s side. This could be described accurately described as a “bowl” around the car but certainly not as “surrounded.” Granted, he had bicyclists at perhaps an angle of view of 180 degrees spread out in front of him, so he may have felt surrounded in his emotional state. That doesn’t make it truth. Also, it was after the driver suddenly backed up that I remember the argument became very heated.

Error #3: “he started to panic when cyclists began tugging on his side mirrors”: I’ve said it before, I will say it again, and I will probably testify to it someday soon: Mark’s car was not touched until he drove into the two cyclists.

Error #4: I won’t discuss it here because it is a lynchpin that might make the driver’s falsified story fall apart in court, and I don’t want to give him the chance to come up with a better lie, if he is going to chose to lie.

There may be additional factual errors, but I do not have first-hand knowledge of any others. However, the rest of the story is spun very heavily in the driver’s favor — for example, he states that he stopped on his own accord when he heard someone was hurt (but how do you run over a bike with a bicyclist on it without hurting someone?!). He further states that he was hit in the head after he got out, that most of the damage to his car happened after he stopped. I’m not saying these are lies, because I don’t know that, but I am saying, with the other fabrications this story seems to have, I’m much less likely to believe these parts of the story.

Among the last statements in the story is this little diddy: “I’d rather not have anyone…be charged from any of this.” Especially, I am sure, not himself.

109 Responses to “Critical Mass Collision”

  1. Bobby Valentino Says:

    I would just like to say that I got stuck behind a critical mass or whatever you call it last summer. Only 25-30 bikes were blocking three lanes of traffic when they could have just used one. I drive a dodge durango with huge off road tires so i just ended up driving onto the sidewalk and flying by at about 30mph before coming back onto the road and knocking 3 or 4 bikes off. i dont feel bad at all cuz they were blocking me on purpose just because they cant afford cars to drive. they could have just used one lane or even 2 but they scattered into all 3 lanes on purpose for a full 10 minutes going 3mph down the road so i hope i hurt them really badly. oh btw, now whenever i see a biker i always make sure to drive as closely and quickly as possible and cut in front of them. that incident made me hate all bikers, so like others said, you’re only making it more dangerous for yourselves. you guys suck!

  2. Thoughts That Make You Think Says:

    Critical Mass is just crazy in San Francisco. In fact, they now close down the road with motorcycle cops. They lead the pack and clear the way. There has been some injuries and collisions as well and they now also ride in the crowd and to bring up the rear. I was in the middle of this at the end of May standing on the sidewalk.

    It’s a good cause and as long as it stays safe and in control it’s fine, but it has gotten violent and crazy in some months!

  3. Chester Says:

    I can’t say what it’s like in other cities, but Critical Mass in San Diego is nothing more than an excuse for the jobless douchebags of this town to cause problems.

    I openly admit I’m no humanitarian, so put your soapboxes away on this, but we should meet the Critical Mass riders with no less than baseball bats and chains. There’s nothing that pisses me off more than people out looking for trouble, and as others have already pointed out, cry the victim when they inevitably find it. I would happily end your lives if the consequences weren’t so high; believe me when I say that.

    Thankfully, one of the pieces of shit did actually get hit by a car and die last year. But good job guys… you’ve clearly helped your cause in my case. Since I learned of the Friday rides, I consider assholes on bicycles worth double points now. Now if only I can hit one of you and pull it off as just an “accident.”

  4. Vijay Says:

    Thanks a bunch for your comprehensive account… Whenever something like this goes down, there’s a whole lotta hype and info flying around when all I really wanna hear is a realistic first person account that I can believe that is honest about the weaknesses on both sides. THANK YOU.

  5. vijaysbhagat Says:

    How frustrating is this? The Seattle Police Department has a completely biased story that gets major events completely wrong (such as hiting a cyclist while backing up, which is NOT what happened).

  6. Dog tags for dogs Says:

    Ouch. I once gave first aid to a cyclist that didnt get run over, but got a car door opened to her face. She was in pretty bad shape, but nothing to a real car accident.

  7. Racing Fan Says:

    Its a shame the that cyclists have to wary of situations like this. I really hate when something tragic happens to someone on a bike. Thats not good for anyone.

  8. Selling Gold Says:

    You have a point but it does seem a little one-sided. I guess it makes a better story to say that rowdy bikers destroyed a car for no reason… Even if I hadn’t read what you wrote those stories would seem a little fishy to me. I agree with you that the cyclists actions could be partially justified. While I might disagree with Critical Mass’s methods I know that they don’t have a violent/negative message. Something obviously set them off.

  9. Jane Silver Says:

    I had never heard of the term “corking” before in a cycling context, but the driver in the white Subaru was right of order. A similar incident happened recently in brazil with the driver currently on a manslaughter charge.

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