Vision Zero: Tampa bicyclist lives to tell his story after near-fatal crash

Editor's note: The Hillsborough MPO's Vision Zero coalition is geared toward creating a more bike-friendly culture and improved safety measures for all users of the streets of Hillsborough County -- which is currently recognized as one of the most deadly places in the United States to be a pedestrian. 

March 30, 2016 began as what Michael Schwaid describes as "just a typical morning" as he suited up in his sweat-wicking cyclist kit, strapped on a backpack containing his work attire, flipped on the front, rear and peripheral lights on his bicycle, and set out for his daily commute.

He explains his setup: "The front of my bike has two headlights -- a bright one and one with a flashing mode. I also have eight LEDs facing backwards. I have two tail lights, one of which is extremely bright -- like a regular tail light on car, and another with 'chaotic' (random flashing) mode. I have a couple tail lights that mount into the handle bars, as well. Those are my favorite because they're two feet apart, so they give a car what they're used to seeing as they get close to a vehicle, with lights on either side."

A stickler for visibility and safety, Schwaid biked the same route to and from work at the Clearwater Courthouse -- approximately 30 miles from his home in Odessa in central Hillsborough County -- for years.

"My main thrust during the last decade has been [being visible in] my commutes. I think that really teaches motorists -- having cyclists out there and riding with them every day -- what to expect. I wanted motorists who are driving that route to expect me; to know I'd be there somewhere along their drive," Schwaid says. 

But Schwaid never made it to work on that "typical morning" last spring. 

Around 6:45 a.m., approximately 10 miles into Schwaid's commute, a motorist struck the cyclist at the intersection of Curlew and Tampa Road. In the hospital, the motorist's blood alcohol levels were recorded at 0.283 -- more than three times the legal limit. 

Schwaid suffered two broken ankles and a broken sacrum. His pelvis was broken in four places and shattered. He had road burn on an estimated 60 percent of his body -- everything that wasn't covered by his spandex kit. First responders to the accident were surprised to learn he survived the ambulance ride to St. Joseph's Hospital in Tampa. Doctors were hopeful that with concerted rehab effort, Michael Schwaid might someday be able to walk again -- but the lifelong cyclist had bigger plans.

In April 2017, Schwaid astonished his doctors when he got on a bike. In May, he participated in his first post-accident ride -- the worldwide Ride of Silence honoring cyclists killed or injured on the road. 

At his wife's request, Schwaid no longer bikes to work. He does, however, hit the trails as frequently as he can, and remains an advocate for cyclists sharing the road. 

"When I found out I was hit by a drunk driver, I was relieved. At least then I knew it wasn't one of the people who drove by me for eight years. It gave me some solace -- so I'm not freaked out on the bike. I'm not looking at every single car as [a danger]," says Schwaid.

Schwaid took a break from a summer morning ride to chat with 83 Degrees about his recovery experience, and his passion for cycling and for bike and pedestrian safety advocacy.

83 Degrees: Michael, how long have you been a cyclist? 

Michael Schwaid: I've been riding most of my life. I grew up in New York City and was a volunteer with the New York City Bike Patrol as a teen. We patrolled Central Park, Prospect Park and Riverside Park and acted as the eyes and ears of the police. On a bike I could go up and down paths to the Park where police couldn't get. I did that from when I was 14 to when I left for college in Florida. I continued to ride a lot in Miami.

I got into it more seriously around 20 years ago when I started doing long distances. My longest ride was a little over 200 miles. I enjoyed doing those solo. For awhile, before I was hit, I was doing a bunch of late night rides. I'd ride to Inverness, Lakeland, down to Bradenton.

83D: It's been only a little over a year since your accident, and amazingly, you're back on a road bike. How did you accomplish that?

MS: The doctors told me the only reason I survived was because I was in such good shape. I was riding around 350 miles a week at the time of the accident.

I was off my feet entirely for three months; confined either to bed or a wheelchair. Then physical therapy was a 'two steps forward, one step back' experience. While going through P.T., I pulled some ligaments in one of my feet and that put me back a couple months.

I wanted to get back on a bike to build my strength back up, but walking was more difficult. For the first year, you can't sit very much, you can't stand very much, and you can't walk very much because everything hurts -- but I learned that if I did it all, it would be OK. They would be different 'hurts' that would average out eventually.

In the beginning I put the bike on a trainer -- a device that holds a bicycle and allows you to pedal. The problem was that it holds the bike very steady, so you can't tilt, and I had a problem trying to raise my leg to get on the bike. ... I ended up giving myself sciatica. That was six more weeks where I was back on a cane and walker.

But with a bike on the street, you can lean the bike -- so I can lean it way over, lift my leg a little, and slide the bike under me. I can't do jumping jacks because I can't move my legs outward in that way -- but pedaling is something I can do.

Before I was injured, one of the groups I rode with with was a Pinellas County employees group. One of the members lent me a bicycle that was easier to work with -- with bigger wheels and better balance. During the Ride of Silence, it poured rain. I probably wouldn't have been able to stay up on a road bike, so I was glad to have it.

Now, I'm on a road bike again. I'm trying to work up slowly. I'm now typically at a 14 mph average. When I was commuting on my bike, my average was 18 mph -- and that includes stopping for traffic lights, so my moving average was above 20 mph.

83D: Why do you cycle?

MS: I love it. I've been doing it a long time -- long enough, now, to see that things get crazy in Florida. That's what's turned me more toward the advocacy aspect of my riding: I want to try to make it safer. I've seen too many kinds of cyclists doing awareness rides or charity rides across the country who come here, and then get hit and die in Florida. It's crazy.

I'm hoping I can do something about that. That's what got me into the commuting -- but after the accident, I promised my wife my days riding to work were over. 

83D: What aspects of cycling would you like to see improve in the Tampa Bay area?

MS: If you go to California and you stick a foot in the street, cars come to a stop. If you stick a foot in the street in Florida, someone's going to run over your foot. We don't hold motorists accountable, so we send the wrong message.

We expect the pedestrian to walk a half mile to the nearest corner where there's a legal crosswalk. If they're trying to cross the street to get to a bus stop, they have to walk past the stop until they find a crosswalk and then walk back. It's too hot for that in Florida.

We often talk about enforcement against cyclists and pedestrians, but what about against motorists? When I'm driving, if I see someone in the street, I don't look to see if they're in a legal crosswalk -- I slow down to avoid hitting them.

Often at a scene where a pedestrian is hit, they do something to make it clear that the pedestrian was at fault -- and at the same time, they keep raising the bar on pedestrians and cyclists. For an example, look at all the pedestrian lights: it used to be that when a traffic light turned green, pedestrian lights would turn green as well. Now you have to push a button and wait [for the signal to activate]. 

Adaptive controls don't consider cyclists. If I have to put my foot down, I'm at a disadvantage. I have to get my feet locked into the pedals because I use clips, and the shoes are slippery -- so you can go down as you're trying to get your feet in the clips. I'm one who doesn't like to stop for this reason. If I see a red light ahead, I'll slow down as I'm approaching it so I don't have to make a complete stop [before it turns green again]. With adaptive controls I don't have that option because I have to stop to activate the signals.

83D: Do you have any safety tips for cyclists on the road?

MS: One thing I've found is that I'm safer wearing a backpack. I always wore spandex when I rode to work because you sweat so much. There's a reason why roadies wear those funny clothes: The shorts are super tight so they don't chafe, and they wick sweat away, same with the jerseys. 

When you're wearing spandex, the motorist takes it as you're exercising -- and you're in their way. There's very little sympathy because they figure, 'you're on the street exercising, so that your problem.' But when I'm wearing the backpack, it changes. To the motorist, now I'm not just exercising -- I'm going somewhere. I get more respect. Cars are more careful when passing; they give me more leeway. I wear a camera when I ride and the difference in how I'm treated is obvious.

Another thing I haven't mentioned is that if you're riding in the street, don't ride on the white line. Roadies call the white line the 'suicide line' because you're inviting motorists to squeeze by you. They don't have a clear understanding how wide their car or sideview mirror is and they hit people.

I will put my right brake housing on the white line, and that'll push me out around two feet into the road. The objective is: when a car comes up on you, they have to make a conscious effort to pass you.

And motorists -- please be alert. I've had drivers who are in the bike lane, and I'm hitting the side of their car like 'hey, I'm here!' They are so busy on their phone they don't realize someone's hitting the side of their car with an open hand. They're so distracted they don't even look up.

Michael Schwaid was awarded Bike/Walk Tampa Bay Cyclist of the Year in June 2017 for his inspiring rehabilitation journey and his continued advocacy for cyclist and pedestrian safety. 

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Read more articles by Jessi Smith.

Jessi Smith (she/they) is a freelance writer who is passionate about sustainability, community building, and the power of the arts and transformative storytelling. A fourth-generation Floridian, Jessi received her B.A. in Art History and English from Florida International University and began reporting for 83 Degrees in 2009. When she isn't writing, Jessi enjoys taking her deaf rescue dog on outdoors adventures, unearthing treasures in backroads antiques and thrift shops, D.I.Y. upcycling projects, and Florida-friendly gardening.