You too can prevent fatal truck-bicycle collisions

I am sick at heart.

Last December we lost Chris Weigl, graduate student in journalism at Boston University, a young man of great promise, killed when a semitrailer truck ran over him on Commonwealth Avenue near the BU campus. The green arrow approximates Weigl’s line of travel; the red arrow, the truck’s. (Also see larger Bing map.)

Chris Weigl crash

Chris Weigl crash

I’ve already posted more extended comments about Weigl’s crash on this blog, and there have been a number of thoughtful responses to that post.

On Sunday, May 19, we have had another major loss to society: Kanako Miura, visiting scientist at MIT and Japanese astronaut candidate finalist. She had to be very special to rise that far. Here, where Bay State Road splits off to the right of Beacon Street (also, see reconfigurable Google map):

Beacon Street and Bay State Road

Beacon Street and Bay State Road

Where Beacon Street comes out from under the Bowker overpass at the top of the picture, there is an unmarked shoulder (red arrow in picture) to the right of the bike lane, and motorists are expected to bear right across the bike lane to enter Bay State Road. It’s a messy intersection, with expanses of pavement that allow turning without slowing — but also,  the dashes next to the bike lane extend way past where a driver would normally initiate a right turn onto Bay State Road.

I haven’t seen a report yet, but the crash is described as having occurred on Beacon Street — and yet video coverage shows police markings in the striped triangle (no-drive zone) between Beacon Street and Bay State Road; also, police lines and Miura’s smashed bicycle on Bay State Road. Probably, the truck and Miura were both headed west (toward the bottom of the picture)  on Beacon street, and the truck turned right across Miura’s path to enter Bay State Road.

The truck driver claims never to have seen Miura, suggesting that the truck was initially going slowly, or stopped, and Miura was  passing it on the right. The trucker may have initiated his right turn late, unexpectedly crossing the bike lane and the triangle. That could be tempting, for example, if traffic was congested a block ahead in Kenmore Square: it is possible to drive a couple of blocks on Bay State Road and turn left, then right to continue on Commonwealth Avenue.

The Miura and Weigl crashes are only the most recent among what is shaping up as an epidemic of serious and fatal truck-bicycle collisions in the Boston area.

In an attempt to avoid more such tragedies, let’s look at some specifics of right-turning truck crashes.

Humans have clear vision in only one direction at a time, but a trucker about to negotiate a turn has to look into several different mirrors, and also must scan ahead. Trucks have huge blindspots, and a bicyclist riding next to a truck may not always be visible in any mirror.

To the sign on the back of trucks, “If you can’t see my mirrors, I can’t see you,”  I would add: “if you can see my mirrors, I still might not see you.”

The trucker in the Miura crash clearly was breaking the law, and confounded expectations about right of way if he turned into an area where driving is prohibited. But, regardless of the legalities, does it make sense for a bicyclist to hand over all responsibility for his or her own safety to the trucker?

A right-turn conflict is almost always foreseeable — and, having anticipated it, a bicyclist can prevent the collision. That Weigl and Miura were brilliant academics does not translate to their having had any instruction in how to look out for their safety on a bicycle.

Instruction exists. The City of London, England, has detailed advice including this graphic:

Graphic about cyclists and trucks from London, England

Graphic about cyclists and trucks from London, England

Graphic from CommuteOrlando site

Graphic from CommuteOrlando site

CommuteOrlando in Florida  has the page, What Bicyclists Need to know About Trucks, including the graphic at the right. On that page, Keri Caffrey describes how she easily avoided the same situation which killed Weigl — truck turning right from the left lane.

The advice  is clear and simple: don’t overtake into the danger zone next to a truck.

The two drawings below convey the same message. You may have seen them already.

Truck blind spots Right hook risk

Just in case you might discount the London and Orlando advice as Not From Here, those drawings are copied from pages 100 and 101 of the Massachusetts Driver’s Manual (pages 22 and 23 in the PDF of  Chapter 4).

The second drawing portrays the exact situation which led to Chris Weigl’s crash, only showing a car instead of Weigl.

If the information in the Driver’s Manual is important for motorists, isn’t it even more important for cyclists, who are more vulnerable?

On the other hand: here is the pitch which advocacy organizations and bicycle program managers are making to the public: You fear motor vehicles, so we will provide a bike lane for you. Bike lanes make people feel safe and encourage them to to start riding. Then thanks to a “safety in numbers” effect, safety will increase because drivers will look more carefully. Oh, and also: bicycling’s health benefits far outweigh the risks.

All true, but it didn’t do anything for Chris Weigl or Kanako Miura and it doesn’t assure your safety either. It isn’t reasonable to overtake into the area next to the truck where the wheels will offtrack over you if it turns, and place your complete trust in the driver not to turn across your path. A statistical improvement and a feelgood promise are no substitute for the specific, on-the-spot choices which keep you out of danger.

There’s a sharp divide in the bicycling community.

On the one hand, some bicyclists — I’m one — practice defensive driving, and  apply the rules of the road to make ourselves visible and predictable.

This behavior is self-reinforcing. As soon as a bicyclist takes it up, the rate of close calls and unpleasant encounters plummets. A bicyclist gets the satisfaction of being a good citizen using the public roads responsibly and legally. This extends to validation in maneuvering in ways which the striping does not suggest — for example, passing a truck on the left with plenty of clearance. It is legal to ride outside a bike lane, after all. There’s no law against waiting behind the truck either. Notice that, please. This isn’t about riding fast, as many detractors would like to insist. It is about riding smart.

On the other hand, there is the mentality which equates cyclists’ vulnerability with defenselessness. The many close calls which result from naively following the edge of the road, or the painted stripe –“letting the paint think for you” — suggest that any other choice would be more dangerous — a vicious cycle which traps cyclists in this behavior. As this translates into advocacy, I suppose that if you believe that cyclists are defenseless anyway, enticing them to ride into the danger zone doesn’t feel any less ethical than encouraging them to ride anywhere else. Maybe you believe that it’s all for the greater good, though there will be a few sacrifices along the way.

On the third hand, many cyclists opportunistically violate the rules which make travel predictable. And so do many motorists. And pedestrians. But that’s a topic for another article.

Now the City of Boston and Boston University, on whose doorstep both the Weigl and Miura fatalities occurred, propose to take their infrastructure approach to safety one step further. A painted bike lane isn’t enough: now it will have reflectorized markers. These will probably make drivers somewhat more attentive, but they cannot eliminate blindspots and will reinforce the impression that the bike lane assures safety. Most kinds of reflectorized markers are a trip-and-fall hazard for bicyclists, too, see the video here and comments here.

And yes, some cyclists — children — are defenseless. Their parents need to understand the risks and make choices about where they may ride. In any case, the cyclists who have been dying are adults.

Let me also make it clear that I have no general opposition to bike lanes, no matter what some people say about me. Bike lanes can make for a real improvement in appropriate locations and with appropriate design. For example, you may read my comments about Charles River Road in Watertown. The issue I have is with unsafe design, airy promises and failure to distribute life-saving information.

I have made specific suggestions, on this blog, for some low-cost and effective infrastructure improvements  in and around the Boston University campus. These would serve less confident cyclists — even children —  much better than the bike lanes do, and offer an alternative to the very nasty intersection at Commonwealth Avenue and the BU bridge.

We need to do better. There have been too many sacrificial lambs in this campaign.

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6 Responses to You too can prevent fatal truck-bicycle collisions

  1. Dave gilbert says:

    Not enough cyclists ride to protect themselves. Not enough drivers drive to protect others.
    Dave Gilbert
    EMT Basic
    Professional Driver & Instructor
    Cyclist, LAB LCI # 3516

  2. Thomas A. Fine says:

    Thanks John,

    I’ve seen this trend with trucks (and to a lesser extent, buses) since I moved to Boston 15 years ago. In recent years I’ve tried to point this out on some of the local mailing lists each time these accidents occur. There’s been slight progress, as I believe Massbike very briefly mentions trucks in their safety pamphlet.

    Visibility is one problem, and I’ve always liked this particular video:

    Another problem is the high clearance, which makes it likely that a cyclist will end up under the truck, where they would simply be pushed aside by a much lower car. This is true to a lesser degree with buses, which generally have low side skirts, though not as low as cars. And buses often have higher front bumpers because of clearance issues where there are sudden grade changes in pavement.

    And obviously there is a weight issue. I actually had a small car run over my foot once, with only minor bruising. The same is not true of a heavy truck or bus.

    And then there is the length issue. This is related to the size of the blind spots, but also to time: it takes longer to pass long vehicles, and because of that you experience a much greater risk exposure than when passing a car.

    And related to the length is the much greater tendency for these vehicles to “swing” when turning. That is, the truck or bus body is actually moving sideways during sharp turns.

    What we really need to offer is a comprehensive strategy for passing on the right. I would personally recommend taking the lane at all intersections unless turning right. This is what I almost always do. Nevertheless when I’m turning right, or when I’m in very heavy traffic conditions, I do filter up on the right. Regardless of vehicle, it is of critical importance to position yourself between vehicles rather than next to them. Next to any vehicle, you may be in the blind spot. In front and to the right they can see you through there windshield. Behind and to the right, you can see them and avoid them if they turn. So when filtering up to the right I often position myself just behind the first car and in front of the second. I might filter all the way to the front if I’m turning right, depending on available space. But if I’m going straight, I want to make sure I’m fully in front of any vehicle that may turn right. If I find myself still filtering forward when traffic begins to move, the strategy is the same, position myself between vehicles (still to the right) as I go through the intersection. This reliably avoids turning conflicts.

    In the case of trucks and buses, as I said it takes longer to pass them and it’s easier to get caught next to them. If a truck or bus is first in line, I never ever try to filter in front of it. Even if a truck is the second or third vehicle, I’m hesitant to filter past it unless I’m confident that I know the light cycle and know that I’ll have time. When filtering past trucks and buses that are farther back in line, I should have time to adjust my position before the truck or bus reaches the intersection and ensure that I’m not adjacent at the point of potential conflict.

    Every case is unique and you have to be very careful when filtering. Different roads offer different space on the right to pass. Bike lanes provide a predictable amount of space, but are often nevertheless fairly tight. Very wide space can be a problem in itself, as some cars may be tempted to do just what you are doing – filter forward on the right. They might do this to legitimately turn right, or to pass someone turning left, or just because they’re an impatient jerk. When this happens, they often pull to the right suddenly, without checking (even if there is a bike lane).

    You can’t only focus on the main intersection you are approaching, but also driveways, and street parking, where you could have doorings and also unexpected conflicts entering or exiting. In particular a car edging its way into traffic can squeeze you into adjacent vehicles.

    Thanks for highlighting this issue, and I hope you find my comments helpful.


  3. Paul Schimek says:

    It’s possible that the truck driver initiated the turn shortly after getting the green light while underneath the Bowker overpass, and the cyclist was either waiting to the right or just approaching. I noticed the Globe mentioned that the police were interviewing witnesses, so perhaps one day we will find out more.
    There is room at this intersection to make a Bay State Rd-only lane on the right, then bike lane, then 2 lanes to Beacon Street (provided you make the left lane back into a left or straight lane, which it was prior to the bike laning).

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