Cycling Tipping Point

In a pseudo-apology, I note that I’m passionate about cycling. This appears also at Harrumph.

Time to get serious,boys and girls, rather far past time.

Today’s catalyst was the latest death of a cyclist on Boston streets. This one was Chris Weigl, a 23-year-old photographer (website up at least for now).

The wreck (never call these “accidents” as though they were unavoidable fatalities) had familiar basics, as limned by the Globe report. A tractor-trailer took a four-lane right turn on a major avenue, aiming for a tiny side street by a local university. The cyclist in a bike lane was instantly mushed to death.

As long as they are up, the comments at the Boston Herald let cycle haters drink their fill. The this-but-that versions will stay up at Universal Hub. This is no place to broach the craziness of all-cyclists-always-break-all-traffic-laws or cyclists-don’t-have-licenses-or-pay-taxes or ban-all-bikes folk. They are beyond reason as well as compassion. Instead, Boston has started its bicycling evolution. What must be do next for safety and civility?

Simple legal stuff

Stop signs and traffic lights. We have to stop being puerile here and look to what has been successful in Idaho since the 1980s — rolling stops for bicycles.

Stops as yields. Somewhat different but a corollary is treating red lights and stop signs as yield signs. Both of these do many of the same things.

Most important is increasing safety for all concerned by taking into account the huge differences between bikes and motor vehicles.

Two emotional responses to overcome are ingrained but not immutable. Most drivers here love the dumb cliché promulgated by the likes of Mass Bike, the barely logical same-road/same-rules chant. The anti-biking types like it as a weapon to pull out and slug cyclists with for any real or perceived infraction of a traffic law or regulation.

There are two underlying pretenses here. First, all cyclists are total scofflaws and all drivers are absolutely law obedient. For the latter, I have yet to follow a driver for more than 10 miles without observing multiple violations, such as changing lanes without signaling, failure to yield to pedestrian in crosswalks, not coming to a complete stop for a light for stop sign and before the marked line, stopping on a crosswalk, exceeding speed limits, passing through an intersection after the light changed red and on and on.

If all traffic laws were evenly enforced, a tiny percentage of drivers would retain their licenses. Yet that does not prevent most of living in a fantasy world of reckless cyclists and virtuous car drivers.

The second is more childish and visceral. The sense that even if a change in law is for the safety of all, anything that gives a right to a two-wheeler that a four-wheeler does not have is morally wrong, damn it! It’s the three-year-old’s wail of “She got an ice cream and I didn’t!”

To the same-rules bozos, I have little but disdain. We can easily observe and surmise myriad differences. Cars can drive on interstates and other limited access highways. Bikes can travel bike paths and lanes. Drivers must signal before every turn or lane change, cyclists when it is safe to do so taking a hand off the bars. Cyclists can dismount and use a crosswalk. It goes on and on. More significant are physical differences. A cyclist is hard pressed to hurt or kill anyone, but doing so is built into the one to three ton motorized vehicle. A bike can stop at speed in only a few to 25 feet, long before a driver can move a foot from gas to brake. Even then, a car  or truck total stopping distance is in hundreds of feet. Likewise, a bike has the same tiny inertia leaving a red light, so it can be into or across the intersection before a driver can give it gas.

These and many other differences beg for reasoned nuance in laws and regulations. Yet both driver gut responses of these are so real, and both so enabled by the lunacy of same-road/same-rules that any improvement has to deal with them. Unfortunately for humankind, about half of us seem very literal minded, like rules-are-rules bureaucrats. They need extra care and attention on any topic.

I can remember when I first introduced the stop-as-yield law and testified before the MA Joint Committee on Public Safety and Homeland Security hearing and sensing that is-this-fair attitude from the senators and reps. My proposed law, dutifully introduced by my then Rep. Willie May Allen, would indeed have granted cyclists an option motor-vehicle operators would not have. I explained how as a multimode guy — car, T, ped, bike — I was aware how nervous and thus dangerous drivers were when they were beside a cyclist at a light or red octagon, when it was time to proceed. On the other hand, when the cyclist leaves first, the driver overtakes the two-wheeler and feels in control. The driver doesn’t worry about the car’s width or where the bike is.

I could feel the progress but also those present would need to hear this more than once. I didn’t think there was a cyclist there other than I. This must be what folk used to this process have told me, that you need to introduce a bill three to five times and make your arguments each time to get it through.

Hard legal stuff

Meanwhile, the pros here, bike czars in major cities here and in Europe, concur that presence equals awareness. As we get more cyclists on the roads, drivers gradually accept that they are sharing the road not only with pedestrians, trucks, buses and trolleys, but also with cyclists.Wish as they might that all the others would disappear, they come to accept that they’re all there forever, like mosquitoes. They learn to deal. When they do that, they are less likely to do thoughtless maneuvers that can bring death and dismemberment. This process has one great accelerator, enforcement.

If you read the Herald anti-bike comments, you’ll see one-sided calls for that, as of course, drivers are always blameless in any wreck. Cyclists need bike licenses, need to pay cycling insurance, and most of all need a cop on every block to ticket them for their incessant law breaking.

Those multimodal types among us, including me, snort in their general direction. If virtually any driver were ticketed for every infraction large or small, none would take a trip to the grocery or flick without multiple tickets and perhaps a trip to jail.

Instead, I have to agree with  the rules-are-rules types here, but for everyone. Ticket and even tow the bad guys!

Pause here for the self-pitying and self-righteous keens of cops. Oh, Lawdy, no. “If we have to enforce traffic laws for drivers, that’s all we’ll do. Murderers, thieves, and dealers will rule the streets!”

That’s the most flammable of strawmen, of course. In the real world, when cops or umpires or any enforcer does the job, it’s short term. If local police enforce the laws, words gets around quickly and drivers even cyclists would show some restraint and sense. Then cops can go back to pretending they are serious crime fighters.

Boston is infamous as a city where the police live by the no-blood/no-ticket model. They hate paperwork and are insulted by the $1 jaywalking tickets, the $20 cycling ones, and other pissant enforcement. They can go decades or whole careers without a felony arrest, foot chase or detective-level investigation, but they love to live the fantasy. Any moment, their duties will call them to major crime busts.

That melodrama can’t continue to interfere here. The local commissioners, supers and unions have to know that public safety is more than a bromide. Enforce the damn laws for a couple of months. The citizens will get the idea and straighten up. Let both drivers and cyclists (hell, peds too) be afraid they’ll get hauled away and maybe financially ruined if they cause injury or death. Make it certain. Let them sweat for a few months. They’ll adapt and we’ll all be safer and saner.  

By the bye: I’m overdue for reintroducing my cycling bills and testifying.


24 Comments . Leave a comment below.
  1. One recommendation seems counterintuitive.

    Seems to me it would actually be MORE important for their own safety for a cyclist to really stop at lights and signs. If you want to change the law to make bicyclists more like pedestrians as opposed to motor vehicles that may make some sense, but there would have to be a lot of education behind it. I was taught growing up the bicyclists must follow the same traffic laws as cars, but I so rarely see them followed that I start to wonder if something changed and I didn’t get the memo. There may have been a few other good points in this diary, but unfortunately they were obscured by your attitude and tone.

    • Chris, it's not safer

      If a cyclist is clipped into their pedals, as many are, a rolling stop is safer. One point that MM makes that resonates it this: if you and I get into an accident with you in your car and me on my bike, it is likely that I will get either maimed or killed, while you might get a scratch on your fender. The rules have to be written with that in mind.

      I’m not advocating stupid dangerous behavior like running red lights or weaving in and out of traffic. But when the rules don’t make sense then chaos results, and that seems to be the current state of affairs on Boston city streets.

      • Blaming the pedals is lame

        Yes, it can be hard for cyclists to come to a full stop when they are clipped into pedals, but those pedal designs are designed for cycling efficiency, not safety. Perhaps urban cyclists who go through many intersections and situations in which they may have to stop should avoid pedals that they cannot easily detach from. Maybe such pedals should be regulated. After all, you could just as well say that people with bald tires shouldn’t have to come to a complete stop because it might be hard.

        The rolling stop idea is not entirely bad, but would probably only be safe in circumstances where the visibility is high and there is little chance that someone driving through on a cross street will be unable to stop for a cyclist that suddenly pops out from behind a truck at a stop sign. I don’t see how changing the law would actually accomplish anything in any case. The fact is that cyclists already do roll through stop signs on a regular basis and drivers already know that.

  2. Well Ok,

    Not sure what clipped into their pedals means. I just know that even driving if there is any question in my mind what the other driver will do I will stop and let them do their thing rather than at all trying to compete. It is precisely because I on a bike am more likely to be more badly injured that I will be extra careful and when in doubt stop.

    • Falling over

      Being clipped in is a good point. I have a road bike with cleats and clips as well as two others that just have those pedal cage/strap combos. All those keep the rider’s foot in the right position to deliver power to the pedals. They also require either pulling a foot back and out or where a cleat attached to the shoe clips into the pedal, kicking out (twisting the ankle to break the connection). Doing those things are quick but reentry can be awkward.

      I almost beefed up the difference list. A big one is falling over. Drivers likely don’t think about this. For non-cyclist drivers, imagine if your car tipped, damaging it and you when you stopped for a light or sign unless you stuck your left foot out the door and stabilized the car.

      That’s the sort of difference a driver as well as the cyclist should notice and take into consideration. Likewise, anti-bike comments often include how-dare-the-cyclist-use-my-travel-lane?! As well as being legal and allowed whenever the cyclist thinks that’s the safe route, an observant driver should notice shoulder/bike lane debris like glass, sand, rocks, and tree parts that compel a biker to use the lane.

      Apparently that’s very unusual for a non-cyclist to see and take into account. Likewise, when a cyclist sees a parked or stopped car opening a door or even a driver who may do so, self-defense mandates checking your mirror and moving left into the travel lane. Here’s where the state law requiring drivers to overtake a bike (also a ped or horse) at a safe distance and reasonable speed. In my experience, a more typical response of a driver is to threaten with the horn and buzz the biker. Such actions fall under another MA law — driving to endanger.

      Drivers could also be a lot more savvy, alert, and safe.

  3. Maybe not the tipping point you're after

    Stanley Brown, who works at the CVS pharmacy at the intersection where Weigl collided with the truck, said that he noticed the tractor-trailer making a right turn onto St. Paul Street from the far left lane that the ­bicycle “was just going too fast to react to the truck.

    That sounds like the poor guy didn’t have control of his bike, in that he was going so fast that he couldn’t stop in time to avoid hitting the huge hazard approaching, which must have been in his view in front of him, and which could not have been going very fast. Maybe he was distracted by something. It’s not super-clear what happened, but the Globe article seems to say he ran into the truck, not the other way around, and the quoted witness also seems to be saying that. If that is what happened, it’s hard to see what the trucker could have done to prevent this.

    It was an accident. Using that word does not mean it wasn’t avoidable; quite the opposite.

    Christopher, serious cyclists wear special shoes that secure to devices on their bikes’ special pedals. I believe it allows them to pull up on the pedals, adding power to the ordinary pushing-down force.

    • Lesson there?

      I noticed that and concluded that it said more about the quasi-witness, who did not see the collision, than the wreck.

      By the bye, it doesn’t help Chris Weigl, but MA law requires turning drivers to be sure the way is clear before and during their actions.

      Of course, we can be damned sure he was pedaling well under the 30MPH speed. A cyclist can stop much shorter than a car too. Alleging he was going too fast ignores both physics and the laws in play. If the truck driver turned into the bike or its path, that’s the cause of the fatal wreck, not a cyclist in a bike lane who was obeying the law.

      If a witness is afraid of a bike at 12 or 17 or even 20MPH, that’s a judgment but not meaningful.

      • Still unclear

        If the truck and bike were traveling in the same direction before the truck turned, then yes, the cyclist probably was acting properly, and the trucker should have seen him. For some reason I assumed they were going in opposite directions. The Globe report is lacking sufficient facts to figure out what happened.

        • Both inbound

          Details are at UniversalHub, BU Today, and the Herald among others. Both bike and truck were headed inbound on Comm Ave. The truck was in the far left lane and made a wide right turn to aim to the very narrow St. Paul Street.

          I wasn’t there of course. However, the driver’s cab had to be facing perpendicular to Comm Ave and the cyclist for that turn. How he could not have seen the cyclist is a matter for the police investigation.

          • Probably both were partly at fault

            The trucker should have seen the bike and the biker should have seen the truck. Probably neither looked around as much as they should have, which is probably the primary cause of the vast majority of accidents involving any kind of vehicle.

            BTW, the truck did not take a “four-lane right turn” unless you count the bike lane and the parking spots as lanes.

            • Still an illegal turn, though

              I understand that trucks make wide turns, but still — suddenly turning right from the far left lane is just illegal. A passenger car driving legally through the intersection would have crashed just as hard (though presumably the occupants would have had a better chance of surviving).

              I’m just not sure that the distinction between three and four lanes (I just looked at the Google satellite view, there are three distinct lanes at that intersection) is all that material — no vehicle should be allowed to turn right from the left-hand lane.

              • What's your alternative?

                Should the trucker drive past the small street, then turn around, come back, and make a left turn? What if there’s no such left turn allowed, because the street is divided or one-way? Having to make turns like that is one of the reasons being a trucker was never attractive to me.

                • Drama Queen Turns

                  The laws do require turning from the closest lane. Trucks and buses that have signs about their wide turns don’t necessarily obey that.

                  It can be like the many drivers I see passing me when I am next to the fog line or in the bike lane on a cycle who suddenly serve totally into an on-coming traffic lane like their cars are 20 feet wide.

                  Cut the crap, slow down, drive in relationship to your vehicle’s true size, and again slow down. If the trucker had eased into the turn, tolerated beeping horns behind him, he almost certainly would have 1) eased into St. Paul Street and 2) paid attention to parallel traffic (car or bike) to his right.

                  • You have a point

                    People in cars who veer to the left before making a right turn (or even more unnecessary, to the right when turning left) always puzzle me. Where did they learn this behavior?

                    Big trucks, though, have to do something like that, or their trailing wheels will roll over the corner and wipe out whoever and whatever is occupying it. It’s simply not possible for them to turn into a small street from the closest lane. I think you understand that. I’m not sure if Tom does.

                    • I do understand

                      I understand the difficulties that big trucks have in negotiating tight corners. I suggest that if it truly isn’t possible, then perhaps the delivery has to be scheduled for a smaller truck. Perhaps the big truck has to take a different route. Had the truck arranged to be on the outbound side, and turned left, would the turn have been as difficult? St Paul is not that narrow, are we sure the truck couldn’t come in from Beacon?

                      In my view, if a truck is too big to make a legal turn then that truck is too big to be making the delivery.

              • No

                If it were clearly an “illegal” turn, then I hope the police would have cited the guy. It may have not been possible to turn right from the right lane. It is also not at all clear from the reports so far that the turn was “sudden” or that the driver was not signalling. Regardless, the driver should have been more careful and so should the cyclist.

                There are clearly *two* lanes in the satellite view. There are three lanes going outbound, but only two inbound which is where the accident occurred.

                • Nope.

                  Two stripes, three lanes —curb, center, left— parking is illegal near the corner (as in many intersections). I see three lanes in the satellite image and I suspect you do too.

                  I’ve lived in an around Boston far too long to assign any meaning to the decision not to cite the truck driver for turning right from the left-most lane. I don’t care whether it’s “sudden” or not — it was a bozo move and it killed a cyclist.

                  As far as I’m concerned, if it isn’t possible to get that truck into that street without doing that move, then that truck should have to do it at 3:00a, or do it with a special detail (paid by whoever is taking whatever delivery was happening), or something similar.

                  • Do you ever drive there?

                    There are two lanes of traffic, plus parking along the curb. Parking may be illegal near the intersection, but you can see that there is only room for two lanes of travel if you use street view.

                    • Of course I drove there

                      I lived in Coolidge Corner for eleven years. Whether two or three “lanes of travel” is irrelevant — two stripes, three lanes, I call that a “three lane” road.

                      The truck made a hard-right turn from the leftmost lane, across the path of the cyclist. It was a bullshit move, one that killed a cyclist.

                    • Well I drive down that stretch of road just about every week and as I said, there are TWO driving lanes and one bike lane. The bike lane accounts for the extra stripe. If you want to call a two lane road with a narrow bike lane next to it a three lane road so be it, but then I guess we can call the Minuteman Trail a two-lane highway, right? Do you make a practice of driving in bicycle lanes? Do you expect the truck to have driven in the bicycle lane when he made his turn? If the truck had turned from the “middle lane”, I guess that would still be wrong?

                      Anyway, my point is that exaggerating the circumstances of the accident is only going to make it easier for people who disagree with the premise that bikes need better protection to simply dismiss the post as pro bike propaganda. (To be clear, I am not such a person)

                      Anyway, given the information reported so far, it is hard to put the full blame on the accident on the trucker, but as I said, if EITHER the trucker or the cyclist had paid sufficient attention this probably would not have happened. But we don’t have to convince ourselves that the trucker is at fault to agree that more can be done to promote bicycle safety in the Boston metro area.

                    • Focus

                      I’m not sure how I can say this any more clearly, I’ve written several times: “Whether two or three ‘lanes of travel. is irrelevant”.

                      Making a sudden hard right turn across TWO lanes of travel was a dangerous and reckless move that killed a passing cyclist who was obeying the law and riding responsibly. The trucker shouldn’t have done it. Are you seriously telling me that when you are driving down that stretch of Comm. Ave, going through a green light with a vehicle on your left, you “pay attention” to whether the vehicle is about to make a sharp right turn across you? What do you, keep your foot at the ready, prepared to enter a screeching skid? At least in your car you are less likely to be killed when some maroon pulls a stunt like that. The victim was not so lucky.

                      No. I don’t do it, I doubt you do it, and it’s unreasonable to blame the victim for not doing it. The victim was by all accounts a safe and careful rider. The truck driver had no business making the move he made. I think he should be cited, apparently you disagree.

                      I agree that we can and should do more to promote bicycle safety in the Boston metro area. Making excuses for truckers who pull moves like this works against that laudable goal.

                    • But it is not irrelevant

                      Describing this incident “across three lanes” is designed to exaggerate the fault of the driver and sensationalize the incident; the further to the left he can be made to have started his turn, the greater the fault.

                      This is profoundly counter-productive. If the incident is entirely the fault of a horrible truck driver taking crazy risks, then no additional protections for cyclists are needed. Instead, we should prosecute and incarcerate the truck driver, and move on.

                      If the trucker was doing something that is routinely done by drivers of large vehicles on Massachusetts roads, then maybe the rules of those roads ought to be thought out a bit.

                    • Still a quibble, in my opinion

                      I think of that stretch of road as a three-lane road — I don’t distinguish between a lane with parking and a lane without. Others differ. Mea Culpa.

                      I’m not sure any other protections for cyclists are needed. If I’m driving down the left lane of a multi-lane divided highway, and I make a sudden sharp right turn into a side street, I’m going to (properly) get a ticket. I don’t think a huge truck, capable of causing far more damage, deserves a pass because the driver can’t be bothered to find a safer route to the delivery location.

                      The rules of the road already HAVE been thought out. The bizarre exception is the apparent claim that trucks have a right to do it, apparently because so many of them do so. Does that mean that trucks also should be able to double-park in the middle of busy intersections (try getting through Ball Square sometime)? Should we make it legal for trucks to drive the wrong way down one-way streets?

                      Sorry, but I think this driver’s actions were indefensible. As far as I’m concerned, the most important learning from this tragedy — for cyclists, drivers, and even pedestrians alike — is to ENFORCE existing laws that ALREADY disallow turns like this.

  4. Large vehicles

    The Boston Herald story covering all five bicycle fatalities in 2012 notes that 4 involved large trucks and MBTA buses. The other, an apparent drunk driver, who could have killed a cyclist, someone crossing the street or another driver. This should be a red flag to both drivers of large vehicles and bike riders who need to be more aware of trucks and buses that require larger turning radiuses.

    As a driver I am more aware when I have a bike along side or nearby. However as a driver my opinion of cyclists tends to be defined by the bad players out there. The weavers, the headset wears, those who move from street to sidewalks and back. And let’s be honest bike messsengers have negatively impacted my opinion of all cyclists (both as a driver and a pedestrian who has had bad experiences in traffic and on sidewalks with messengers). Much as bike riders opinions of motorists are colored by the rude / dangerous drivers, cyclists pay the price for the worst among you.

    Clipping in / rolling stops: I have my problems with this concept. I get the power issue however riding block by block where traffic lights stop cars and pedestrians walk based on the lights, the idea that a cyslist should simply roll through a light as people are legally crossing a street doesn’t play well with me.

    Personally, if I am riding a bike (and that hasn’t been the case since high school) and my safety depends on avoiding 3,000 lbs moving objects, I’m not going to simply concede that the driver will do the right thing. I may be in the “right” on a street decision but being right and dead doesn’t get me much.

    I certainly morn for this young man and wish there were easier answers. Mutual respect would be a good start. Drivers and cyclists need to call out the bad players within their ranks rather than blaming the other side for what are accidents, yes accidents, not incidents.

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Sat 29 Apr 11:32 AM