Human speed bump: On bike and car collisions in Sacramento

John Bontemps almost died riding his bike in Sacramento. He isn't the only one.

John Bontemps, 47, remembers much more than he’d like about the near-fatal April 14 accident in which a 1998 Toyota Corolla struck him while he bicycled across Arden Way.

John Bontemps, 47, remembers much more than he’d like about the near-fatal April 14 accident in which a 1998 Toyota Corolla struck him while he bicycled across Arden Way.

Photo by Nick Miller

From the moment that black sedan blasted into John Bontemps at 40 mph, the 47-year-old’s brain recorded every excruciating detail.

He remembers the explosion to his right side, which launched him 3 feet above traffic-snarled Arden Way like human-cannon fodder. He remembers feeling his insides shift and splinter upon slamming the asphalt. And he remembers the indiscriminate voices that pegged him for dead.

“I was aware of everything,” Bontemps says more than three months after the April 14 wreck left him a dazed, twitching puddle in front of Arden Fair mall. “I even heard the paramedics say I’m not going to make it.”

Bontemps suffered fractured ribs, a cracked pelvis, lacerated liver, small aortic tear, concussion and chewed-up right arm, which still has glass shards embedded under pulpy scar tissue.

Not listed on his discharge papers from UC Davis Medical Center is the psychlogical trauma that left him another pulverized speed bump in Sacramento’s car vs. bicycle commuter war.

According to the California Highway Patrol’s Statewide Integrated Traffic Records System, there were 206 bicycle-related collisions in the city of Sacramento between January 1, 2013, and January 1, 2014. One proved fatal when a 2008 GMC struck an 18-year-old man on Natomas Boulevard near North Bend Drive last October. Fifteen more collisions resulted in severe injuries to bicyclists, including a 12-year-old boy and an 87-year-old man.

According to the data, most of these injury accidents were due to rider error, with cars having the right of way or cyclists traveling the wrong direction or making unsafe turns and lane changes, 58.2 percent of the time.

But Jim Brown, executive director of Sacramento Area Bicycle Advocates, cautions not to take these figures at face value. “Bicyclists are assigned blame in ways that are sometimes arbitrary,” he says.

Sacramento bicyclists will use the sidewalk or pedal against traffic if not doing so proves more perilous, Brown explains. “For some people, they ride against traffic because it feels safer,” he says. “They can see what’s coming at them.”

In the central city, Brown lists L Street west of 15th Street, I Street west of 21st Street, Q Street near the Interstate 5 on-ramp, and J Street between 15th Street and Alhambra Boulevard as particularly dangerous.

Outside of the grid, bustling thoroughfares like Watt, Howe, El Camino and Marconi avenues, as well as Arden Way, jack up riders’ blood pressure. That’s because they’re designed to facilitate large volumes of traffic from urban job sites to the suburbs, and back, Brown says.

The fact that Stockton Boulevard used to be a state highway attests to how cars slingshot through it today, and is one of the reasons that the Stockton-Fruitridge Road intersection is Sacramento’s most prolific for bicycle- and pedestrian-collisions, he adds.

Brown’s organization comments on development proposals and is urging the city of Sacramento to make meaningful updates to a bicycle master plan that’s remained largely unchanged since the mid-’90s, he says. But that could prove hard. “We’ve kind of got this systemic condition that works against making the kind of changes we need to make,” he says.

At the statewide level, motorists will need to give bicyclists 3 feet of clearance or pass them slowly beginning in September, the CHP states.

According to the most recent data breakdown from the state, bicycling-related deaths and injuries rose steadily in California between 2007 and 2011, when they hit a four-year high. In total, 140 bicyclists were killed and more than 13,000 were injured in collisions in 2011.

Locally, 10 bicyclists died and another 549 were injured in collisions across Sacramento County in 2011, most of which occurred in the city or unincorporated county. Of those who were killed or injured, a whopping 84 percent didn’t wear safety equipment, figures show.

The biggest proportion of those injured in bicycle accidents across the state are ages 15-24, while the largest proportion of bicycle fatalities is felt in the 45-54 age group.

Bontemps barely avoided joining that latter category. He acknowledges committing too quickly to crossing Arden Way, where he found himself trapped between whooshing lanes of traffic. “I was definitely in the wrong,” he says.

Before he knew it, a 1998 Toyota Corolla jerked into the next lane and clobbered him. “I thought I was spinning,” he says, eyes tearing up. “I wasn’t spinning. I was flying through the air.”

An ambulance arrived within minutes. On the way to the hospital, Bontemps says paramedics had him sign three pieces of paper before he passed out. They turned out to be medical insurance forms. Before the staff wheeled his gurney into the emergency room, Bontemps had Medi-Cal.

He spent eight days in the trauma unit, where his mother Betty kept him company. “I knew he would pull through because all my kids have my [late] husband’s DNA,” she says. “He’s a good kid. He’s just homeless at the moment and taking a while to get off the street.”

Bontemps worked in the nightclub industry for 11 years before relocating from Atlanta. He worked as a cook and followed that up with some under-the-table jobs, but says the recession knocked him down.

He’s been trying to get back up ever since.

When Bontemps doesn’t panhandle enough cash for a motel room, he stays up riding his bike, then grabs five or six hours of shut-eye on the light rail, until security rousts him. It’s an even tougher grind while recovering from major injuries.

Dressed in grimy jeans and munching a hot dog, Bontemps nods at the bicycle in the lobby. It’s his seventh since the accident. The others have all gotten jacked.

This wasn’t his first close call, either, and Bontemps says numerous homeless bicyclists are struck by cars without anything ever happening. “Sacramento’s pretty coldhearted,” he says.

He’s on multiple medications for pain and to keep the arterial swelling in his heart down, and has consolidated all his pills into one orange bottle. In about 40 days, he’s supposed to return to the hospital for a CT scan of his wounded heart, something he may have to do every six months for the rest of his life.

“It’s all scary,” he says. “It’s life, man.”