TIME TO GET SERIOUS ABOUT SAFETY: Looking Beyond Traffic Lights

My tolerance may have been low because of the bicyclist who had been run over that afternoon, the 8th Boston-area death in the past two years – five by right-turning trucks, two by buses, one by a drunk driver – and I was thinking that it could have been me.   But there it was, the rant that everyone who bikes regularly (and every city’s bike coordinator) hears from people outside their normal social circles: “I’ve got nothing against bicycles.  But the bicyclists out there are crazy.  They’re a menace. It’s not safe; they run red lights; they don’t wear helmets; they almost hit me; they’re blocking the road.  You’ve got to do something!”

But the more he talked, the clearer it was that this person wasn’t really talking about safety, or even about bicyclists’ behavior. He was complaining about the entire presence of bicycles in his space.   Bikes were newcomers into the street space that, however dangerous to use by either foot or car, he used to feel he understood how to navigate.  But now his comfort level had been radically disrupted.  And he was angry. I felt a bit sympathetic — I have mixed feelings about Segways.  It’s a normal human reaction: streets are a high stress environment and he felt that the presence of bicyclists was making it worse. Bottom line: Every cyclist in the city could stop at every red light, and everyone could wear a helmet, but he’d still find them upsetting.

Yes, I know that the bicycling community has its share of immature idiots who do stupid things and act obnoxiously to everyone around them, yelling at us as if we’re all to blame for his problems. I doubt that the percentage of offensive jerks is any higher among the cycling community than among car drivers and pedestrians. Still, interpersonal respect is something we have to work on: the goal has to be strengthening our empathy for the other person no matter how they are moving, and respect for their equal right to be in the public way. There is no excuse for rudeness by anyone to anyone and the presence of emotionally-disturbed jackasses within the cycling community provides a too inviting cover for wholesale condemnation. My hope is that as bicycling becomes more mainstream the social norms of “ordinary people” will temper the behavior of the swashbucklers who defined bike culture back when it was a high-risk, deviant activity.

Getting rid of these volatile distractions is important because safety really is an issue. Yes, cyclists generally should stop at red lights and wear helmets. But these are not the most relevant issues we need to address. The real problems are trucks without sideguards or blind-spot mirrors turning across intersections too small for their size; cars going too fast for human safety, even if it’s within the legal limit; distracted and drunk driving; the lack of separate bike lanes or cycle tracks on high volume/speed roads; and the need for cyclists to stop before entering a busy intersection – no matter if there is traffic light or stop sign or no sign at all – and to not ride the wrong way on high-volume one-way streets.   Like New York City, Portland, San Franciso, and Chicago, we need to endorse a “Zero Fatalities” vision, even if we set lower intermediate goals and then work towards making it happen.

As for the cultural problem of public angst about the presence of cyclists on the road, we need to continue to demand that our political leaders and mass media do their part to shape public opinion by making it clear that the streets belong to all of us, that bicyclists are an important and valued (and growing) part of our community, and that we have to respect each other not just to increase safety but to strengthen the interpersonal civility that makes our city a good place to live and our country a democracy.


TRUCKS AND BUSES: Prevention and Protection 

Trucks (and buses) are big, heavy, and always dangerous – especially in the city, especially when they are turning. As the lawyer for the man who ran over the cyclists correctly said, “There is a point in any vehicle when you look to see if somebody’s coming, and there is a blind spot.” For large trucks and buses, the blind spot is not only along the right side but often also below directly in front. New York City, as part of its multi-faceted Vision Zero Traffic Safety Plan, will now require trucks and school buses to have “cross over mirrors” that let drivers see anything at least three feet tall within one foot of the vehicle anywhere across the entire width of the truck. Unfortunately, this this law only covers trucks over 26,000 lbs (13 tons) registered in New York and operated on non-limited-access roads in NYC.

While we are dependent on trucks to deliver the things we need, it might be even more effective to require that deliveries be made “off-hour” between 8pm and 6am, or simply not during peak commuting time. It might make sense to expand on existing noise-control regulations and ban trucks over a certain size from turning across certain intersections from arterials into side streets, or to lower the allowed weight limits on small city streets to filter out the biggest trucks. (The continuing industry push for bigger and heavier trucks is associated with “a spike in injuries and fatalities…Fatalities have increased 16 percent since 2009 from 3,380 to 3,921, and the number of people injured in these crashes has increased 40 percent, from 74,000 to 104,000.”)

In addition, because accidents will happen, the city and state should require that all trucks and buses operating within their jurisdiction have installed full-length deflectors called sideguards – the collision of a truck and a bike can break an arm or leg, but death most typically occurs when the cyclist is thrown under the rear wheel and gets crushed. The presence of sideguards reduced side-of-truck pedestrian fatalities by 20% and bicycle fatalities by 61% fatality reduction after being mandated in the UK for nearly all trucks over 4 tons in 1986. In the USA, a National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) study found an annual rate of about 100-120 pedestrian and cyclists deaths where first impact was against the side of a large truck; and that nearly half of cyclists who were killed by a tractor-trailer collision had first impacted the truck’s side.

Currently, the best effort around sideguard issues is a proposed NYS legislation “An act to amend the vehicle and traffic law, in relation to requiring certain vehicles to be equipped with side under-ride guards” modeled on the state’s existing cross-over mirror regulation. The National Transportation Safety Board analysis argues that 26,000 lbs is too high — that is the weight of a large box truck or a school bus.  The NTSB recommends requiring sideguards on trucks over 10,000 lbs (5 tons), which is the weight of a small delivery truck. UK and European laws (see sections 51 and 52) require sideguards on trucks weighing over 3,500 kg, or about 4 tons — pretty much all trucks that are bigger than a large pickup!

As Alex Epstein – Volpe Transportation Center analyst, LivableStreets member, and key leader in the national effort to research and deploy truck sideguards – notes, the average sideguard cost per vehicle is $850, and it is now possible to get off-the-shelf sideguards from a North American manufacturer (ok: they’re Canadian).

Why not Massachusetts; and if not state-wide, at least at a municipal level?

Massachusetts law already makes the right-hook illegal: “no person operating a vehicle that overtakes and passes a bicyclist proceeding in the same direction shall make a right turn at an intersection or driveway unless the turn can be made at a safe distance from the bicyclist.” It’s time that we not only enforced the law, but also required trucks to have the tools to comply.

SPEED KILLS: 20 is Plenty

According to the US Department of Transportation, about 33% of vehicle-related deaths are speeding-related. Of those, around 40% occur in urban areas. A person hit by a car going 40 miles per hour (mph) has an 85% chance of being killed. Reducing the speed to 30 mph cuts the odds of death in half; reducing speed to 20 mph drops the fatality rate by an astounding 94%. Even more dramatically, at 5 or so mph cars (and very cautious trucks), bikes, and pedestrians can all safely share the same street space. Unfortunately, the typical default speed limit for residential and commercial areas – set by state law rather than local preference – is 30 or 35mph and given the defacto grace-space of 10 mph it means drivers have to be flagrantly zooming before police will stop them.

Furthermore, we all know from our own experience that it is the physical structure of a road, rather than the official speed limit, that actually determines how we drive. And most of our streets are laid out in ways that make it feel comfortable to go a lot faster than the 20 mph that would make the streets safely inviting for non-motorists to use.

Part of NYC’s Vision Zero campaign is an effort to give the City power to determine the placement of speed and red-light cameras, the power to reduce the default citywide speed limit to 25mph and specific streets to 20mph, and to increase the penalties associated with dangerous driver behavior.

If we are serious about safety, the Massachusetts Legislature has to empower municipalities to similarly lower the default speed limit and to create special 20mph “safety zones” (or “slow zones”) around senior residences, playgrounds, medical areas, busy commercial areas as well as schools. And we have to get serious about implementing our Complete Streets policy in a way that fosters the physical redesign of residential and commercial roads to discourage driving over 20mph.

As for distracted driving – it is just as deadly as drunk driving and should be treated no less seriously.

SEPARATED BIKE FACILITIES: Off-road Paths and Road-side Cycletracks

One strategy for increasing safety in high traffic volume and high car speed areas is to create more physically separated bicycle facilities, the way we already create (or are supposed to create) physically separate pedestrian lanes (aka “sidewalks”). Whenever possible, we need to demand distinct “bicycle highways” and multi-use paths that run in their own corridors – preferably enhanced by trees and other plantings. (Full disclosure: I’m active in a Green Routes Coalition that is pushing for exactly this!) When necessary, we have to re-assign our limited road space from cars to non-motorized use in the form of traffic-separated cycle tracks.

Too often, traffic engineers still interpret the requirement to include pedestrian and bicycle accommodations as a burdensome diversion from their main responsibility of improving car flow. We need to go beyond minimal concessions to make optimal design the norm, with anything less requiring an “exception request” – exactly the opposite of current practice.

Two bills now pending in the state Legislature would also help. The Vulnerable Road Users Bill (Senate 1639) reflects the principle that those who can do the most harm have the greatest responsibility to prevent it. And the Act To Protect Bicyclists In Bicycle Lanes (Senate 1640) would make it illegal state-wide (as it currently is illegal in Boston) to park in a bicycle facility and force riders to serve into traffic. Call your state representatives today!


First of all, it’s no secret that some cyclists act not only rudely but dangerously – to themselves and others. However, the typical public comments about the number of cyclists without helmets is utterly off-base – except as a surrogate for the empty-headed person’s supposed lack of common sense and responsibility. There is simply no evidence that wearing a helmet reduces the rate of accidents in any way, and there is some evidence that requiring helmet use may even have the opposite effect by making some people less willing to bike and thereby lowering the “safety in numbers” effect. (There is a strong correlation between the number of cyclists and the awareness of car drivers of their presence, with a resulting improvement in driver behavior.)

Of course, as with all vehicles, the lower your speed, the less likely you will get in an accident, and the less likely you will be injured in accident. This in part explains why Hubway (average speed 6MPH) has had such low injury rates.   So, helmet use is more prudent the faster you cycle. At the same time, the evidence is traumatically clear that if you do have an accident and if you are one of the small percentage of people whose accident leads to a head injury, you are enormously better off if you have a helmet on – which is why I always wear one and always urge others to do so as a voluntary act of self-preservation!

Similarly, from a safety perspective, running through a red light is not inherently dangerous. Sometimes there simply isn’t any crossing traffic. And, from a safety perspective, it is most important for the cyclist to get visibly into an intersection before turning cars (and trucks) cut in front of them, which – when streets are poorly laid out – can sometimes be best accomplished by going on red. But this is never an excuse for anyone to speed into the intersection without slowing down to check for crossing traffic and stopping if there is any — regardless if there is a traffic light, stop/yield sign, or nothing at all. Unfortunately, this type of dangerous behavior doesn’t only happen when the cyclist is running through a red light. The bicycling community has to make it clear that this kind of behavior is socially unacceptable. Those of us waiting for traffic to clear should be vocal and angry towards those who set us all up for future difficulties – no matter what signalization is there.

Going the wrong way on a one-way street is a bit more complicated. When traffic is heavy or lighting is poor, it’s an enormous safety risk. But sometimes going the wrong way is a rational response to a poorly designed road pattern: one-way streets are usually created in an effort to control car traffic, but when Traffic Planners are only thinking mono-modally – only thinking of cars – they sometimes end up blocking off obvious bicycling desire lines as well. For example, as dangerous as it is to go the wrong way on Charles Street below Beacon Hill, some cyclists will continue doing it until the city creates a proper route from the downtown and Commons areas to the Longfellow Bridge.


Peter Norton’s wonderful Fighting Traffic book talks about the early twentieth century when roads were a truly public space used for playing, walking, vending, socializing, and horses. The arrival of increasingly fast and very deadly motorized machines sparked a nationwide war to preserve the public way for pedestrians and kids.   People were furious at the intrusion of this space-monopolizing newcomer to their midst. Cars were invaders, disruptors of the tenuous status quo that people felt they were already barely able to deal with. But cars won, amazingly quickly – both because of their usefulness and their deadliness – and walking across the street was redefined as illegal jaywalking, playing was moved to playgrounds, and horses (along with their mountains of poop) were simply eliminated.

Today, bicycles are the newcomer, the invader, the unwanted aliens. Their presence is understandably upsetting to pedestrians who suddenly have yet another moving obstacle to deal with, and to car drivers who feel they already have enough problems weaving around the crazy hot-rodders and arm-waving phone-users. Bikes become a visible trigger for anger and anxiety about the congested and barely functional street system we have to deal with to survive every day.

But bikes are efficient, inexpensive and healthy means to get around the City. They are an essential and necessary part of how our transportation systems will adapt to the needs of increased density, economic growth, and energy/environmental challenges. Thankfully cities are building more infrastructure, making it safer and easier for *normal* people to cycle.   Bikes are not going away. In fact, their popularity is happily growing every day!

What should we say to those who don’t want us here? Cartoonist Bikeyface says it graphically in her wonderful recent post. As for what I ended up saying to the anti-cyclist complainer, I’m afraid that instead of politely smiling and saying, “Some people do unsafe things. But just because a percentage of car drivers act dangerously or rudely, and a percentage of pedestrians cross without looking, we don’t condemn everyone who uses a car or walks,” I said “And how many people do you know who’ve been killed by getting run over by a bicycle?” It got tense; he moved away. I left.


Thanks to Alex Epstein and Mark Chase for comments on earlier drafts. As always, all opinions and mistakes remain my own responsibility.


Previous related posts:


BICYCLING SAFETY: Preventing Injury Requires Multiple Strategies

NON-MOTORIZED HIGHWAYS: A Regional Green Routes System To Connect Municipal Bike Networks, Sidewalks, and Parks

ENOUGH KILLING: How to Make Bike-Car Collisions Less Deadly

VULNERABLE ROAD USERS (VRU) PROTECTION LAWS: “Whoever Can Do The Most Damage Has To Be The Most Careful”

MOTIVATING HELMETS: How Convince People To Buckle Up

THE RIGHT TO BE ON THE ROAD: When Bicyclists Have To Pull Over, When Cars Can Pass


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