Although it's been over a month since he was nearly killed by a hit-and-run driver in Boulder County, elite-level cyclist Andrew "Bernie" Bernstein remains hospitalized, and that's likely to remain the case for months more. But even as he continues to grapple with a series of what were originally considered life-threatening injuries, including damage to his spinal cord, he's speaking out about the roadway risks that almost cost him his life.
"I believe the focus should be on making driving safer," says Bernstein in a quiet, raspy voice that's a lingering after-effect of emergency treatment; he was unconscious for days after the crash and heavily sedated for around three weeks. "Cyclists are vulnerable, and when we get hit like I got hit, the injuries can be catastrophic, or we can die. But the truth is, driving dangerously can also be very harmful for anyone driving a car, or anyone who's a passenger in a car. So I believe the key is to greatly increase enforcement of restrictions on cell phones, on speeding, on drinking and driving. And I think we'd all benefit if driver education was more intensive."
Rapid population growth and increases in volume on highways and surface streets are matched by rising concerns about traffic safety along the urban corridor. In Denver, for example, Cameron Hagan, a visitor from Billings, Montana, recently became the first person to die in the Mile High City riding an electric scooter, and late last month, the Denver Cruisers staged a ride in honor of cyclists who've died from crashes in the area. Meanwhile, data shows that more than 3,000 pedestrians were hit by cars in Denver from 2012 to April 2018.
Bernstein was well acquainted with such risks long before he was struck so violently that his bike snapped in half. A former editor for Bicycling magazine currently working as an account manager for the outdoor-industry public-relations firm TRUE Communications, he's described as a recognized endurance track rider, and he uses his bike to get around. He finds the biking infrastructure in Boulder to be "pretty amazing. I tend to use the protected bike lanes a lot. Some cyclists don't like them, but I think they're great. I've never had an incident in Boulder, but they tend to happen more in rural areas, where some drivers are impatient around cyclists. I've experienced that all the time. We see a lot of drivers pass too close or pass when it's not safe, which endangers themselves as much as it endangers the cyclists, and a lot of excessive speed."
All of these factors may have come into play just after 4:30 p.m. on Saturday, July 20, on Highway 7, better known in the greater Boulder area as Arapahoe Road, at approximately mile post 56, not far from Legion Park. Bernstein had been riding at the Boulder Valley Velodrome in Erie and was pedaling west on the right shoulder when he was hit by what the Colorado State Patrol believes was an older model Dodge Ram van, whose driver kept going instead of stopping to help. The CSP subsequently revealed that on August 2, investigators impounded what they believe is the vehicle in question, and its owner is said to be cooperating. However, no criminal charges have been announced to date.
As for Bernstein, the crash itself remains a mystery. "I had left the velodrome and was riding down Arapahoe, and someone who'd been at the velodrome, too, passed me in their car and waved — and that's the last thing I remember. The next thing I knew, I was coming to in the dirt, in a ditch. I tried to find my phone and wasn't able to find it, and then I tried to think about how I could raise myself up to wave at a car to help me. But I don't remember anything after that until I woke up in the hospital almost a week later."
Shortly thereafter, Bernstein learned that he had been visited by a guardian angel — a man named Tim (he doesn't want his full name published) who had gone through a very similar experience. This past May, Bernstein reveals, "he was hit by a car when he was riding his bike. It left him with significant injuries that required an extended hospital stay."
On the 20th, Tim "was driving his father home from church," Bernstein goes on. "He was being observant and he saw me in the ditch." Tim called 911 and stayed with him until emergency personnel arrived, and, Bernstein believes, "If he hadn't seen me, I would be dead."
The crew that rallied around Bernstein during the weeks that followed was led by Gloria Liu, his fiancée (and another ex-editor at Bicycling), and included his younger brother Eric, who immediately flew to Colorado from Berkeley, California, and stayed for weeks.
"It was disorienting, for sure," Eric says from Bernstein's bedside. "We spent a lot of time in hospitals — two or three hospitals, in Gloria's case." (Bernstein had stays at Boulder Community Health and Denver Health prior to being transferred to Colorado Acute Long Term Hospital in Denver, where he's currently staying.) "It's been nightmarish because of the fears and horrors of seeing a loved one so badly injured, and there's also that other-worldly quality of time so intense it's like no other that you've experienced. But it's also been fun at times, like when he woke up. It might sound odd to say it was a joy to be in the ICU, but when you're considering the very real possibility of losing a loved one, especially a sibling, and then realizing that you're not going to suffer that loss, because they're still there with you, it makes it hard to stay sad for too long. And my brother has had the most impressive, indomitable attitude ever since he woke up."
Today, Bernstein says, "I'm feeling okay. I still don't have any significant ability to move my left leg, and I'm in significant pain. But day to day, the staff at Colorado Acute Long Term is doing a great job of taking care of me. I'm certainly better than I was a month ago."
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He adds, "I've benefited tremendously from amazing medical care — and I was able to access such great care because I had good health insurance through my employer. It's scary for me to think somebody else might not have access to good health insurance and might not get the same kind of care I received. I think it's important that we move to a position in this country where everyone has access to the best health care we can provide, and that's why I believe Medicare for All is the right pathway."
Eric feels the same way, and while he's a recreational cyclist rather than a competitive one, he has observed the same traffic menaces as Bernstein outside Colorado. "I've lived in Washington, D.C., and New York City, and I'm now in the East Bay, and I've commuted by bike in all of those places — and like every person who rides a bike in traffic, I've had many scary close calls when cars pass very close or come into the bike lane or stop abruptly in front of you. I've been doored, for sure. I think there are a lot of drivers out there who do not drive with any sort of concern in their hearts for the people around them, and that's very scary."
The road on which Bernstein was hit "is sort of like a country highway," Eric continues, "and we need to think as a society of inculcating people with an inherent concern for those around them. Even one instant of inattentiveness can drastically change someone else's life, or your own life. The Colorado State Patrol is certainly investigating this, and if the person is apprehended, they'll wish they'd paid more attention when they were driving. They would have avoided a lot of heartbreak for a lot of people."
And Bernstein? After everything that's happened to him, he's got a new goal — to be home in time for his birthday, on November 21.