Wear Your Cycle Helmet

Today, my cycle helmet might have saved my life.

This morning, I was cycling to work along my usual route, National Cycle Network Route 51, on its final leg down Banbury Road to Parks Road. Here, the cycle route shares its path with a bus lane, and – on a warm, bright morning like this one, having a broad, flat lane is a great opportunity for a strong cyclist to make great time in a safe environment.

Bus/cycle lane heading South on Banbury Road.
Oxford’s multitudinous bus/cycle lanes are great for public transport and even better for cyclists: providing a safe, well-signposted space away from the majority of the main flow of traffic.

As I approached the bus stop, a spotted a car in the lane to my right, just ahead, slow down and turn on it’s indicator to turn left: it was heading for one of the driveways. But when the car began its maneuver, a split second later, I realised that the driver had not seen me. Perhaps she’d not checked her mirrors before turning? Or perhaps she’d only glanced (and seen no buses in the bus lane – just me and the second cyclist behind me)? Or perhaps she’d underestimated my speed, or dramatically overestimated her ability to get into the driveway before I reached her? In any case, she turned out to be wrong. I hit my brakes as sharply as I safely could, but it wasn’t enough to stop me from ploughing right into the side of her bonnet.

I’m not entirely sure what happened next. At the time, it felt like everything went into slow motion: a gentle flight through the air followed by a gradual landing on the other side, and that I’d be able to recall every single moment. But, probably as a result of the blow to my head (which as I’ve discovered before can have profound and confusing effects on memory), my memory of everything from a few seconds before the collision onwards is fuzzy and fragmented. But I spoke to the driver (a woman with dark hair), to the cyclist behind me (who was wearing a white t-shirt), and to a man who came out of a nearby building (who spoke with an accent – these details are the only things I can reliably remember about any of them), and based upon their descriptions – any my injuries – I’ve managed to piece together broadly what happened.

A penny farthing: the rider has tipped over the handlebars and ended up thoroughly upside-down.
There never was a graceful bicycle crash. Some, however, are less painful than others.

I hit the side of the car and flipped forward, throwing myself, some of the contents of my pannier bag, and my D-lock into the air. My handlebars knocked a dent into the bonnet of the car, and the lock landed elsewhere on it, but I flew clear over the car and flipped around in the air. I’m not sure how I landed, but it was probably on my back, because I struck the backs of my head, right shoulder, and elbow… but I must have rolled, because I also managed to scrape and graze the front of my legs.

I initially thought that I was fine (though I was clearly in shock), but I discovered about a quarter of an hour (or thereabouts: I’ve only been able to piece together a timeline in hindsight) that I was in more pain than I’d first thought, was feeling intermittently dizzy, and was unable to remember the details of the accident or even what day of the week it was. I asked for a taxi to be called for me and rode to the hospital, where they cleared me of anything seriously wrong (spinal injuries, serious concussion, broken bones, etc.) and sent me home for a day of lying down and mainlining NSAIDs.

A Kryptonite New York lock, like the one I use. It weighs about a ton but it's pretty-much bombproof.
A heavy D-lock like mine makes quite an impact when it’s catapulted into sheet metal.

Now it’s the early evening. I’m still far from entirely “with it”: I feel like my brain’s been rebooted into safe mode – I seem to be incapable of decent multi-tasking (for example: I can have a conversation with you, or can listen for my name being called by the doctor, but not both). I’ve got aching shoulders and arms and a bit of a limp. And I’ve been pretty much exhausted the whole day.

But here’s something: if I’m right about the angle I landed at, based on where I hurt the most, then it’s possible that my cycle helmet saved my life, today.

Wear your cycle helmet, folks.

Toggling

The other morning, I did a strange thing. I got up as normal and had my breakfast. I made myself a packed lunch, just like always. I went outside to begin my cycle to work, but when I got to my bike, in the back garden of New Earth: instead of unlocking it and riding to work, I locked it up.

Then, I had to unlock it again so that I could ride it.

Why did this happen? It happened because my brain has clearly made the association that my daily routine includes “toggling my bike lock” as part of it’s actions, rather than “unlocking my bike lock”. It’s become ingrained that I have to “change the state” of my bike lock (from locked to unlocked, or vice-versa) before I can go to work… so when I forgot to lock my bike up the previous night, it threw off my morning as I began the day by locking it up, rather than unlocking it.

A Kryptonite New York lock, like the one I use. It weighs about a ton but it's pretty-much bombproof.

Back when I had my concussion last May, I did a similar thing, swapping the contents of two cupboards that we’d already swapped. I couldn’t remember why they were being exchanged, just that they were, so I swapped them over.

It’d be nice to think that I only engage in this kind of “toggling” behaviour when I’m sleepy, perhaps, or when I’ve suffered a head injury. But sadly, that turns out not to be the case:

Over the River Thames near Friar’s Wharf, there’s a footbridge that forms a part of the National Cycle Network. It’s part of my usual ride to work. A few months ago, I spent my workday running training sessions in an office on the other side of the river, and so I didn’t need to cross it to get home. But when I was cycling home, along the towpath, and reached the bridge, I started to cross it! I got half-way over before I realised that I was now heading exactly the wrong way and turned back. Again: my brain clearly has a short-circuit there, in that when I come to that bridge during a journey, I feel that I need to cross it. What’s the deal, brain?

This phenomenon seems to be related to muscle memory and the so-called “driving trance”: the same thing that traps you when you plan to run an errand on your way somewhere and somehow reach the other end of your journey having completely forgotten to run the errand. “I walked right past the post box with the letter in my hand! Why would I do that?”

I wonder how others experience “toggling”. Do you “toggle” things when you’re on autopilot?

Content Freeze

Isn’t memory strange?

Last week, we updated to the latest version of the CMS that powers the Bodleian‘s web site. During the process of installing and testing the new version, we initiated a “content freeze”, disallowing the 100+ regular content editors access to the administration sections: any changes they’d have made wouldn’t have been replicated in the new version, and we didn’t want a discrepancy in content while we were testing that the change had taken! We still had back-end access, of course, and a few minor “emergency” changes were made (on both the old and the new version), but in general, the site was in a read-only mode for several days.

A similar thing happened to my head during this weekend’s house move.

While running  a van-load of stuff from Old Earth to New Earth, Ruth, JTA and I stopped off at Argos to buy a few bits and pieces for our new home. We parked in one of the few remaining parking spaces capable of accommodating our extended wheel-base van. Unfortunately this brushed us up very close to an unfortunately-placed tree, whose branches reached in through the door as I clambered out. I spent a while trying to reposition them so as not to slam them in the door while Ruth and JTA walked ahead, towards Argos, and so when I was done they were quite a way ahead. I turned and ran to catch up with them…

BAM! Something struck me on the top of my head. We’re still not all in agreement as to whether it was a branch or the wing mirror of the van, but it hurt like hell. My knees buckled up and I collapsed into a heap.

Before long I was on my feet, but as I began to feel dizzy and nauseous, we started to worry that I might be concussed, and Ruth took me to the hospital. By then, I was unable to keep my eyes open without feeling like the world was spinning and I was going to throw up, and I kept feeling like I was moments away from falling asleep.

By the time I’d seen a doctor, about three hours later, I was starting to feel a little better. We took a leaflet of “things to watch out for after a concussion”, which advised that I shouldn’t lift any heavy things (“But I’m moving house today!”) nor use a computer or drink alcohol (“This is my life you’re talking about!”), all of which I ignored to some degree or another.

I napped on and off for a lot of Sunday and some of Monday, but it was on Monday that the amount of damage I’d done became most apparent. I got out of bed and staggered downstairs to find that Ruth and JTA had at some point bought a shoe rack. They weren’t around, but neither was the van, and I reasoned that they must have been out collecting more boxes, but I thought I might as well make myself useful by assembling this shoe rack they’d gotten. It was of the variety that hangs on the back of a door, so I spent some time deciphering the instructions and putting it together… only to find that it wouldn’t actually fit onto any of the (quite thick) doors in our new house.

That’s when Ruth & JTA arrived. “I saw you’d bought a shoe rack,” I said.

“Yes,” they replied, “We bought it yesterday. We told you about it.”

“Oh. I don’t remember that. Anyway, I built it, but it turns out that it won’t fit any of our doors.”

“Yes, we know: we told you that too. We were about to take it back to the shop.”

I have no recollection whatsoever of that conversation. Or several other conversations, it seems. In the hospital, I remember that Ruth talked to me for an hour or more (I wasn’t capable of conversation myself, some of the time, but it was nice to hear a familiar voice), and I still can’t remember any of it except for snippets (something about her father’s new house?).

For much of Sunday, my brain went into “content freeze”, too. A read-only mode where my memories worked fine, except that I couldn’t construct any new ones: everything just went in one ear and out the other. Maybe this is to be expected: a quick look at some maps of brains and an examination of the bump on my head indicates that the blow came to a point squarely in the centre of the middle frontal gyrus (the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex)  of the right hemisphere of my brain: an area associated with emotional self-control, social judgement, lateral thinking, and the transfer of working memory.

Still: it was certainly a strange experience to be told about events from only a day earlier that I simply can’t remember. It also made Tuesday interesting: long weekends are confusing at the best of times, but parts of my memory made it feel like I’d had only a two-day weekend (as parts of Sunday are simply missing from my memory), and so it was even harder than usual to shake the feeling that it was Monday when I arrived at work on Tuesday. That’ll be a pleasant surprise on Friday, anyway, when the weekend “comes early”: maybe I should bang my head every time there’s a long weekend.