The Best Time I Got Hit by a Car

by Erica Sackin

Let me be clear: I am in no way endorsing getting hit by a car.

In 2002 I was living in Washington, DC. I had just graduated college and bought a moped. Not a Vespa or a motorcycle or anything else cute, but a crappy moped. Those kind of bicycles on steroids that delivery men ride and that shake when they go above 20 miles an hour. I got it because I was too broke to buy a car, and also because riding it made me feel romantic and European as I buzzed along to and from work each day in my drab office clothes. It also was a really easy way to pick up boys. “Oh, I rode here on my moped,” I’d tell them, as I’d shake my hair slightly and smile. “It’s just out front. Do you want to see it? And maybe take a ride?”

“Shouldn’t you wear a helmet on this thing?” was something they’d often ask as they climbed on the back of my bike “No way,” I’d reply. “Legally you don’t have to wear a helmet unless your vehicle goes over 60 mph. This thing barely goes up to 25!”

The helmet question was one that came up often, actually. My boss would ask me every afternoon as I was leaving, “Don’t you have a helmet yet?” My father would send me links to news articles about people who had died riding motorcycles, while my mom tried the fear route with her personal stories.

“You know my friend Emily, the one who has seizures?” she’d tell me over the phone when I called. “Do you want to know the way she got epilepsy? She was riding her bike in the park without a helmet on, and fell and hit her head. And that was just with a bicycle. Imagine what would happen to you, riding a moped.”

My aunt even went so far as to send me a catalogue of bicycle helmets with a note that said I could pick out any one I wanted and she would buy it for me. Once I’d walked into a motorcycle shop and almost bought a helmet, but the sales guy had made some sexist comment about how because I was a girl my neck probably wasn’t strong enough to hold up a real motorcycle helmet anyway, and I’d just walked out. But, truthfully, I was also just too lazy to use one. And too 22. I didn’t just ride that bike without a helmet on, I rode it in short skirts and flip flops. I rode that moped like a bicycle, dodging through traffic and running red lights. I rode it for fun, and to find cobblestone streets and pretend I was in Italy. I didn’t want to have to worry about helmet hair, or what kind of road rash a crash would give my bare legs.

It’s ironic then that when I actually did get hit by a car it wasn’t my fault. Sure, I was driving home along busy 14th Street, but for once I was obeying the traffic rules. Here’s what happened: In the distance I saw a woman in a minivan driving toward me, and she was about to make a U-turn. I slowed down. Then she looked right at me, and stopped. Thinking she was letting me pass her, I sped up, only she sped up too, and before I knew it we were on a path to collide and no amount of breaking was going to be enough. At that exact moment in time, these were my thoughts:

1. Shit.
2. Oh fuck oh fuck oh fuck.
3. Whatever you do, don’t hit the car.
4. Whatever you do, don’t hit the car.
5. Fuck, you are hitting the car.
6. Ok, whatever you do just stay on your bike.
7. Don’t fly off your bike.
8. Whatever you do don’t fly off your bike.
9. Don’t fly off your bike.
10. Oh my god, you are in the fucking air.
11. Is that the ground? You are flying towards the ground.
12. Ok, whatever you do, don’t hit your head.
13. Just don’t hit your head.
14. Why didn’t you listen to your goddamn mother and buy a fucking helmet.
15. Just don’t hit your head.
16. Just don’t hit your head.
17. If you hit your head your mother will have been totally right.
18. Just don’t hit your head.
20. Fuck, you just landed your head.
21. Am I dead?

Shock is a funny thing. I don’t remember too much of what happened after that, but I do remember immediately standing up with blood dripping down my face and yelling, “Someone call 911!” I remember a kind soul walked me out of the middle of the street — I had been thrown off my bike headfirst into oncoming traffic — and deposited me in what must have been an after-school community center, because I remember a line of terrified children filing by me. I remember yelling for ice until someone brought me some, the whole time being terrified my brain would start hemorrhaging and I’d die. I remember at one point feeling my foot sting, looking down, and realizing that while it was mangled beyond recognition it still, somehow, had a flip flop attached. I called my roommates, and in what must have been the most understated phone call ever, told them that there had been a small accident and could someone please come and make sure they locked up my bike? And I remember calling my mother and leaving her a short message: “Hi Mom, it’s me. There’s nothing to worry about or anything but you might want to make sure you call me when you get the chance.”

The EMS arrived and strapped me into a neck brace and wooden board, a move I remember at the time thinking dumb, as I’d already stood up and walked out of the street on my own. One angelic roommate rode with me in the ambulance to the hospital, where we waited for two hours to see the emergency room doctor. Apparently two rival gangs had gotten into a knife fight, as the emergency room was full of people suffering from stab wounds. Since I couldn’t sit up or even turn my head, she kept me entertained by describing the scenes around us. “I think that guy is the one who win the knife fight because he’s bleeding the least,” she told me, “but that guy over there, he totally has not one but two girlfriends waiting for him. Ooh, I think they might fight.”

A catscan, x-rays, and multitude of other tests later it was determined that I was not going to die. My foot was torn up pretty badly, and for a year afterwards the scar tissue would act up any time I wore high heels or flipflops. For weeks afterwards blood pooled in my eyelids, making it less like I had two black eyes and more like I’d just decided to forgo eyeliner for some strategically placed internal bruising. The gash on my forehead was definitely leaving a scar, and for a brief moment, in the way only a 22-year-old who has never yet had to close the door on a career, felt regret that if I wanted to I could never become a model.

I was also acutely aware that I was mortal. Cars seemed reckless to me, knowing that it took just one slip of the wheel to turn them fatal. The first time I drove a car after the accident, all it took me was one driver cutting me off to send me into tears. I pulled over to the side of the road and cried for five minutes before I took a deep breath, restarted the engine, and kept going.

I was also aware of how lucky I was, and that by most accounts, someone who had been thrown off their bike headfirst into oncoming traffic should have been dead.

I found out later that the woman who’d hit me was really concerned — asking everyone at the scene if it looked like I was going to be OK, if I was going to make it. The cops never let her see me and I never learned her name. At the time I thought it was to protect me, or because I would be too angry to see her. But looking back they might have been protecting her — not knowing if I, in all my mangled glory, was going to make it, they might have wanted to protect her from seeing the girl her minivan had just turned into a corpse.

Eventually, I was OK. I walked to work, or when it got cold out, I took the metro. I bought a bicycle, and a helmet, and learned how to pick up boys the old fashioned way: in bars.

Oh, and also thanks to an out-of-court settlement with the insurance company of the woman who hit me, I got $10,000.

Erica Sackin now almost always wears a helmet.