Shannon Chisholm’s last memory before her life changed was stopping on her bicycle at a red light on Hendersonville Road in Fletcher late Sunday morning, July 17, 2011.
Moments later, a truck traveling behind her on the five-lane road moved over to get around Chisholm. But, according to Chisholm’s attorney, Ann Groninger, a car following the truck didn’t. According to a report from the N.C. Highway Patrol, the car was estimated to be going 40 miles per hour when it struck Chisholm.
Chisholm doesn’t remember the accident, but she recalls her husband’s voice two days later and the moment she realized she couldn’t feel her legs or move them.
“It was very scary,” the 37-year-old mother of two said. “As a physical therapist assistant, I kind of knew the road ahead.”
After punishing rehabilitation, Chisholm has retained some use of her legs and some feeling but not enough to walk, even with the help of crutches. While she’s had to redefine some of the most basic tasks of life, such as driving, interacting with her children and getting around her home, Chisholm is optimistic about her recovery and her future. For example, she was a competitive bodybuilder before the accident and has continued to compete after the accident in wheelchair bodybuilding events.
“Some days are more challenging than others. There’s a lot of frustration,” Chisholm said. “I’ve had to rely on my faith a lot. It made me realize how much I have. My life didn’t end; it changed.”
Pushing for safety
In the year since the accident, Chisholm has become an advocate for cyclists and pedestrians, speaking at several public events to push for bicycle safety.
“If you can get hit on a five-lane road on a Sunday, you can get hit anywhere,” she said. Of drivers, Chisholm said: “You have to slow down and give room to cyclists. Sometimes it ticks motorists off, but we are entitled the space.”
Mike Sule, the co-founder of Asheville on Bikes (AoB), a cycling advocacy organization, said Chisholm has provided a powerful and eloquent perspective on her accident. And while her testimony may have a positive impact on cycling safety in the mountains, Sule said, “we still have a long way to go.”
The urgency of their cause was underscored by two recent accidents. On June 28, Asheville cyclist Marlon Cleghorn was hit from behind and suffered a serious injury on Airport Road in Asheville. The driver fled the scene but has since turned himself in, according to a report from WLOS-TV Channel 13. And on July 4, the state’s mental health director Steven Jordan was struck from behind by a logging truck in Raleigh and killed. The driver has been charged with misdemeanor death by vehicle and failure to reduce speed to avoid collision, according to news reports from WRAL.com and other media.
According to the Division of Bicycle and Pedestrian Transportation of the North Carolina Department of Transportation, in 2011 there were three fatalities and 78 injuries in bicycle-vehicle related crashes in the 17 far western counties of North Carolina. In 2010, there were no deaths and 105 reported injuries.
A University of North Carolina Highway Safety Research Center study published in August 2011 for the NCDOT reported a total of 4,824 bicycle-vehicle crashes and 114 fatalities statewide between 2005 and 2009.
The UNC study tabulated that between 2005 and 2009, the most common bicycle-motorist collision was when a vehicle overtook a bicycle from behind in an attempt to pass. This type of collision accounted for 17 percent of all collisions statewide and was the type of collision that occurred in the accidents involving Chisholm, Cleghorn and Jordan.
Raising awareness on the roads
Ann Groninger, a Charlotte attorney specializing in bike law who represents Chisholm, said drivers often have no idea what to do when passing a cyclist from behind and that cycling lanes can create confusion.
“The bottom line is, under the North Carolina statute, bikes are vehicles and have the same rights as cars,” Groninger said. “It’s important to know the law, but motorists have to be constantly vigilant and at every second be aware they can change — or take — someone’s life.”
Common strategies to try to improve cycling safety are to provide more bike lanes, signage and other infrastructure changes that increase cyclist safety. In 2008, the Asheville City Council passed a comprehensive bike plan and a region-wide bike study called the Blue Ridge Bike Plan is underway. The study’s aim is not only to coordinate existing local and county bike plans but also to assess the region’s current network of facilities for cyclists and formulate future policy recommendations to guide local and regional transportation investments and improvements. [Read "New regional WNC cycling plan underway" for more.]
Adding bike lanes and other cycling and pedestrian infrastructure have obvious challenges in the mountains: topography that forces narrow roads and few transportation alternatives. Adding to that, seldom do municipalities have the right-of-way to widen narrow roads, which makes it costly to add bike lanes and sidewalks.
Yet bike lanes may not be a complete answer to cycling safety. While dedicated lanes raise awareness of cyclists, Groninger worries that separating bikes from cars may send a message that bikes don’t have a right to the road. In North Carolina, there is a general passing law for all vehicles that requires at least two feet of space, and bike lanes are considered another road lane.
More focus on cyclists, pedestrians
Sule understands the frustration of motorists and suggests cyclists also be aware of the rules and cycle with care. Still, he said he believes the current transportation system is geared towards motorists.
“I think we’ve put the machine before the person,” Sule said. “It’s culturally acceptable to drive 10 miles over the speed limit or to have a snack while driving. That has to change.”
Chisholm, Sule and Groninger all advocate for an overhaul of the driver’s education system to include a greater focus on pedestrians and cyclists.
“We have a really great opportunity to change how we think we think about transportation education to teach the next generation of motorists,” Sule said. “Look at where drunk-driving was two or three decades ago. In terms of multi-modal transportation, we have a lot of catching up to do.”
Groninger also suggests cyclists prepare for the worst and protect themselves financially by having enough uninsured motorist and underinsured motorist (UM/UIM) coverage on personal automobile insurance policies. According to Groninger, for an injured cyclist to make a claim, the law requires proof that the motor vehicle driver is responsible. North Carolina requires drivers have a minimum of $30,000 UM/UIM coverage, and in serious accidents such as Chisholm’s, the amount of coverage may come far short of the actual expenses of a life altered by a debilitating accident.
The financial blow aside, Chisholm said the emotional toll of an accident is even more difficult to fathom.
“I want to help do something to protect people from what my family has gone through; I want to help prevent this or something worse,” she said. “The accident has allowed me a new opportunity to help change things.”