First Person: Please Don’t Kill Me!

Photo: gerlinda gorla

It was still dark that September morning, a warm Sunday in 2002. I was participating in an organized bike ride and met up with my cycling partner, Vernon Izuka.

I’d been riding with Vernon for about two years. An experienced rider, who was known for encouraging people to get into cycling, he was a robust 61, with a wife and two daughters. He was one of those guys who was always helping people and, in fact, I met him when he helped me change my flat bicycle tire. My riding partner at the time had stood idly by, talking to some friend—and it was Vernon who had helped me out.

Our cycling group gathered in Kapiolani Park that morning, ready to ride in the Century Bike Ride, a yearly event, with a winding course that covers 100 miles. Vernon mentioned that he didn’t feel well, and I wish I’d asked him to skip the ride and just go have breakfast instead. But we set out to see how far we could go on the route. As it turned out, we didn’t get very far.

The start of any organized ride is tricky, because you have riders of all levels crammed together, pedals flying, trying not to get tangled up with each other. That morning, Vernon was riding, as he always did, behind me and to the left, to protect me from traffic. We were heading east toward Wailupe, the pack began to thin out a bit and we started to relax. Then, with the sun bright in my eyes, I saw a rider up ahead crash into a jogger who had been running toward the pack of cyclists in the bike lane.

That crash caused a pile-up of cyclists, but I stayed focused on the road and kept pedaling, knowing that if I stopped abruptly, I would just add to the domino effect. But I sensed that Vernon had left my side, doing a U-turn to bike back toward the crash to see if he could help. That was so his nature: selfless. I looked back over my shoulder to check on him, and I couldn’t believe what I saw—my friend was about to be hit by a Nissan Pathfinder.

Just before he was struck, Vernon turned and glanced at me. I don’t think he knew the SUV was about to hit him, and I don’t think the driver even saw Vernon until the impact. The vehicle’s left front bumper hit Vernon’s bike, and his body flew about eight feet into the air.

I had an odd sensation—I knew this was my friend, but somehow thought it couldn’t possibly be him. I pulled over, dumped my bike on the ground and somehow dialed 911. I was able to tell the operator what had happened and where we were, but as soon as I hung up, I lost all rational thought. I ran screaming down the middle of the street to where Vernon had landed, by the inside guardrail. I remember yelling hysterically, “It’s Vernon! Oh my god, it’s Vernon.”

My friend was about to be hit by a Nissan Pathfinder.

The driver of the car was fine, as was his passenger, and the jogger, and the cyclist who’d hit the jogger. But my friend Vernon was pronounced dead at Queen’s Medical Center.

Like many people who have witnessed something traumatic, I used to wonder what I could have done differently to save Vernon. I’ve come to accept that, while there is nothing changeable about his death, there’s something I can do now for my fellow cyclists. In the nearly three years since the accident, it’s become my personal mission to get cars and bikes to coexist safely.

I know a lot of cyclists who follow the rules, and I also see a lot of cyclists who are cocky and belligerent. They dart in and out of traffic, without signaling. They ride the line so motorists can’t tell if they’re coming or going. They act like they’re driving cars when they want to be cars and bikes when they want to be bikes. They ride three abreast, yakking away and oblivious to their surroundings. These are the cyclists who give all of us a bad name.

When riding, I used to run red lights. Then an angry man pulled up next to me once, and yelled that he had almost killed a cyclist who had done this. At first, it shook me up, as he was red with rage and screaming. Afterward, I wished I’d apologized to him, because I could see in his passionate plea that he was upset at being reminded of how someone’s stupid mistake came so close to ruining his life.

The author (center) with Vernon (left).

Photo: Courtesy of Terry Rollman

So I plead with you motorists to be more considerate, careful and patient. If you’re driving a car, you might not realize how quickly something can go wrong, and how just one incident can impact your entire life. True, cyclists may inconvenience you on the roads—but remember, you have the power to actually kill us.

We live on a small island, with bad traffic and inadequate bike lanes. With soaring gas costs and more cars than ever on our roads, it would be great if more people could use bikes as viable transportation. But many people won’t consider cycling, because they consider it too dangerous.

I still ride. I worry more than I did before the accident. But I know that my friend is, as he always was, behind me and to the left, watching over me and protecting me from traffic. His memory keeps me riding, and it keeps me motivated to let people know that our vehicles can coexist, if we’d all just please be careful.

Tips for motorists

  1. Don’t make right-hand turns directly in front of a cyclist. We can’t stop on a dime.
  2. Be patient. I’ve had people race around me, just to get up to the next stoplight, where they then have a red light. Everyone is in a hurry, particularly in this 100-mile-an-hour world we live in. Is it that important to get there a few seconds sooner?
  3. Don’t honk. It scares the crap out of us.
  4. Don’t reach out and try to grab us or throw things out the window at us. This should be obvious, but it’s happened to me.

Tips for cyclists

  1. Make yourself as easy to see as possible. Wear bright colors by day, and use lights if it’s dark.
  2. Let people know your intentions! Use clear signals to show you are about to go right, left, stop or move into traffic.
  3. Don’t act like drivers owe you something. Instead, thank them with a wave or shaka to let them know you appreciate their courtesy.
  4. Know where you belong. Stay as far to the right as possible when the lane is wide enough, but move into the center of the lane when you can keep up with traffic and there’s no shoulder. Move in the direction of traffic, on the road, not on the sidewalk.
  5. You’re on the road, so respect the rules of the road. Don’t sail through a stop sign or red light, just because you don’t see anyone around.