Ashley McKean was biking home along Broad Street when she was hit. It was late February 2011, and McKean, then 24, had just started the second semester of her junior year at Temple University. She was majoring in geography and urban studies. For a little more than six years McKean had cycled on Philadelphia streets, but that February day was the first time she had ever been doored.
Around 1 p.m., a driver parked near the intersection of Broad and Brandywine streets opened the driver-side door of her Honda Accord. In court Marci Shepard testified that she checked her side mirror and saw McKean coming, but thought she had enough time to get out of her car. McKean was much closer than Shepard anticipated, however, and by swinging her door open, Shepard immediately blocked McKean’s way. (Thereare no designated bike lanes on this stretch of Broad.)
McKean says instinct took over. She moved slightly to the left to avoid hitting the door, and just carefully enough to avoid swerving into traffic. It wasn’t enough. Her right thigh caught the door, and at that moment a van following behind slammed into her back tire, propelling her off the bike.
“It happened so quickly,” McKean tells SPOKE. “The door opened, I hit it, and then after that I felt the impact. And then I was on the ground.”
The collision broke her left hip, pelvis and the left side of her tailbone. Then the van drove over her left leg that lay exposed to traffic, fracturing her ankle and snapping the tibial spine in her knee. McKean spent two weeks undergoing surgery and another three in rehabilitation before recuperating for several months at her parents’ house in northeastern Pennsylvania. She eventually brought a lawsuit against Shepard, as well as against the van driver, Robert Crawford, and his employer, MCT Transportation.
This past June, a verdict was delivered in McKean’s case. She won $2.4 million, a substantial portion of which will go toward future medical expenses. As Philadelphia magazine reported at the time, the driver of the van testified that McKean “should have been riding on the sidewalk,” which is illegal in Philadelphia for cyclists ages 12 and older.
Mckean’s case laid bare the general confusion over laws of the road as they apply to cyclists, and how drivers should interact with them. So where are cyclists supposed to ride in the city? And what are cars supposed to do when they encounter bikes on the street?
“It happened so quickly. The door opened, I hit it, and then after that I felt the impact. And then I was on the ground.”
Per Title 12 of Philadelphia’s law code, it’s actually quite simple. With a few exceptions, cyclists must ride in bike lanes when available. They can stray from these lanes, however, if they have to make a turn or avoid debris and other obstructions — car doors, for instance. If no bike lanes are on the street in question, cyclists must ride single-file in the roadway. Helmets are legally required for riders under age 12.
As for cars: Typically the rule is to maintain a distance of 3 feet from road cyclists, as roughly half of U.S. states require, although Pennsylvania is the only state with a 4-foot law. Enacted in April 2012, it requires drivers to leave a gap of 4 feet between their vehicles and any cyclists they might pass on the street. But the overarching principle is that cyclists are considered motor vehicles in Pennsylvania, with the same rights to and responsibilities of the road as drivers.
Those are the basics, but Pennsylvania lacks a Vulnerable Road User law, something the Bicycle Coalition of Greater Philadelphia has been calling for since as far back as 2009. Delaware is one of seven states with such a law, which essentially classifies pedestrians and cyclists — anything not protected by a few tons of metal, really — as weaker participants in traffic. Stiffer penalties come into play for drivers found guilty of careless or negligent driving in states with these laws on the books.
A Vulnerable Road User Law might prove useful in Philadelphia for when crashes like McKean’s occur, especially as more cyclists take to city streets. U.S. Census data released in September confirms that increasing numbers of people are commuting by bike. Of the 70 largest U.S. cities with the largest share of bike commuters, Philly ranks 10th. More than 14,000 city residents are riding around on bikes.
Cyclists are considered motor vehicles in Pennsylvania, with the same rights to and responsibilities of the road as drivers.
McKean isn’t among them. By July 2011 she had returned to Philadelphia, but still needed crutches. The following month, she resumed classes at Temple. In February 2012, on the one-year anniversary of her collision, McKean had her bike repaired, but she wouldn’t attempt to ride it again until that summer. And it wasn’t until later that fall that she felt comfortable enough to ride on the streets of Philly every so often.
“I thought I was ready to be back on the bike, but I wasn’t,” she says. “It was just something I kept delaying because I just wasn’t ready mentally.” An internship with the Bicycle Coalition motivated McKean to get back on a bicycle. “It was kind of like this silent process that I was going through. I needed to overcome that fear because cycling is a very important part of my life.”
Now 27, McKean has since relocated to Providence, R.I. While her outward appearance hides the internal damage, pains from her crash still linger. Metal screws and hardware intermingle with the bones in her left hip, pelvis and ankle. Instability in her left knee limits the amount of time she can spend walking or biking. At times, her left ankle swells uncomfortably. The memory of the crash remains, sometimes presenting itself in flashbacks as she bikes.
“It’s not an experience that I’ve forgotten at all,” she says.
Illustration by Elliott Lamborn