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On a nice fall night in 1992, I set out from a friend’s house in Glover Park on my bike. I was headed to my place in Dupont East and decided to swing through Georgetown. It was around 9:00 pm when I cut through the Georgetown University campus and then snaked my way onto Prospect Street.
It was dark, but it was a weeknight with little traffic, so I felt reasonably safe.
The next thing I knew, I was looking up at a man asking me questions in choppy English. You hear me? You all right?
Not really. As it turns out, I’d crashed hard on the asphalt of Prospect Street. I hadn’t collided with a car or another cyclist or anything like that. This particular crash was sui generis: The front wheel of my bike had plunged into an open manhole. Everything—-the bike, my head, me—-went straight down. There were no acrobatics in this event, no cartwheeling over the handlebars, no flying over someone’s hood.
I’ve suffered no long-term effects from the crash, but my bike helmet couldn’t say the same for itself. It was an old-school Bell helmet, white with a red stripe. At the point of impact, the foam shell broke open. I have little doubt that without the helmet, I would have died or, worse, sustained severe brain damage.
Since then, I’ve had several helmets and won’t even ride down the block without putting one on. For two or three years afterward, I’d put a helmet on when I drove my 1986 Honda Accord up and down I-95. I caught many people laughing at me, and that was fun. I stopped the in-car helmet wearing once I got a car that had air bags.
There are a lot of people out there who feel that the helmet relaxes them, keeps them from monitoring the road—-the cyclists, the motorists. Here’s a line from a great friend of mine: “I purposely don’t wear a helmet in order to remind myself at every moment that some dumbshit behind a wheel could take my boys’ dad from them if I don’t treat all of them as dangerous road hogs.”
OK, fine, so you monitor the “dumbshits behind a wheel.” But that’s just the point of my accident: It’s not just the dumbshits behind a wheel that can kill you. It’s also the dumbshits who left a manhole open in the dark of the night, when no rider, however alert, could possibly differentiate between the black asphalt and a black hole.
Once I’d recovered from my collision, I phoned the city’s police department to inform it of the hazard on Prospect Street. I was told that mischief makers had been taking manhole covers just for kicks.