Perhaps It Is Time To Do A ‘Lessons Not Learned’ Interview

Background Reading

Summary

The intersection of Halsted and Fullerton streets and Lincoln Avenue, where a cyclist was struck Thursday DNAinfo/Mina Bloom

The intersection of Halsted and Fullerton streets and Lincoln Avenue, where a cyclist was struck Thursday DNAinfo/Mina Bloom


TakeAways

I came across a blog entry not long ago that seems to resonate with this story:

[Note: This post was originally written in 2013 but never completed until now.]

I first came across the tragic story of Alice Swanson when reading this letter to the Boston Globe:

“MY DAUGHTER was killed by a truck while riding her bicycle to work in Washington in July 2008. You reported this at the time. She was in a bike lane, had a green light, and was wearing a helmet. It was not enough.

The laws may say bicyclists have equal rights and responsibilities (“Boston’s unruly riders,’’ Aug. 7), but when a multi-ton vehicle collides with human flesh, the damage is not equal.

Before goading the police to enforce traffic laws against bicycle riders, consider that your readers could submit accounts of bicyclists being “doored’’ by parked cars, being struck by hit-and-run drivers, or reporting an accident to the police who then take no action against the driver. Let’s first make the streets safe for bicyclists.”

I was curious about the circumstances of her daughter’s death, and found this Washington Post account:

“Alice Swanson was uneasy about riding her bike through city streets to work every morning, so a colleague told her to always wear a helmet for the trip, which was just over two miles.

The helmet was not enough yesterday morning. Swanson, 22, was hit by a trash truck during rush hour near Dupont Circle and killed.

The accident took place at 7:40 a.m. in the 1900 block of R Street NW, just north of Dupont Circle. Police said Swanson was riding in or next to a designated bike lane. She and the truck driver were traveling west on R Street when the truck driver turned right onto 20th Street, hitting her, police said.”

This case was also cited as an example of outrageous motorist behavior:

 “Both Alice and the truck had a green light, the driver hit her by what cyclists call ‘a right hook’ meaning that the truck took a right without yielding to her; an illegal act in most jurisdictions. No charges have yet been filed against the driver.” (from GhostBikes.org)

And from a comment posted on the WashCycle: “Folks — realize that they can run you right over when you are riding perfectly legally — and they will suffer no consequences. Please ride very defensively — and note that for bicyclists that has very little to do with riding legally.”

What happened?

All the witnesses cited in the police report say that the garbage truck was at the intersection first and the bicyclist attempted to overtake on the right of the truck in the bike lane. At least one of the witnesses interviewed by police saw the truck’s right turn signal illuminated. The police found that on that particular model of truck there are four separate lamps illuminated on the right side when the right-turn signal is activated. One witness said the bicyclist was attempting to male an “unsafe pass.” Another “blamed the collision on the city constructing bicycle lanes alongside vehicular travel lanes with both vehicles operating on the same green signal.”

The police report concludes that “it was the duty of the bicyclist as with any other operator of a vehicle on a public roadway to reduce her speed to avoid the collision and yield right of way to the truck.” The police cite the general speed rule (“reasonable and prudent under the conditions then existing”) but don’t give any evidence that the bicyclist was traveling faster than a reasonable and prudent speed, except that she was going faster than the truck. They do not cite any regulation for the requirement to “yield right of way” under these circumstances.

What does the law say?

DC law says that “Both the approach for a right turn and a right turn shall be made as close as practicable to the right-hand curb or edge or the roadway.” The police reconstruction showed that the truck was “close to” but “not encroaching upon” the bicycle lane. Drivers of motor vehicles are specifically authorized by 2220.2 to enter a “restricted lane” (including a bike lane) to make a right turn. The police may have thought the truck driver should not be in the bike lane. In any case, a garbage truck cannot make a tight turn, and in fact a witness mentioned that the truck was making a wide turn to avoid a car parked and pedestrians near the corner on the side street.

Shouldn’t the truck driver have looked to the right and yielded before starting on a new green? The police reconstruction determined that only the uppermost portion of the bicyclist’s head would have been visible in the in the small lower mirror and “only for a split second as the bicyclist continued forward and the truck continued turning.” Drivers do not expect to look for traffic passing on the right, and are not required to. They are only required to signal and to begin the turn from as far right as “practicable.” On the contrary, it is the duty of the overtaking driver (or bicyclist) to avoid the collision: DC law says that “A person operating a bicycle may overtake and pass another vehicle only under conditions which permit the movement to be made with safety.” (Section 2202.6 has the identical working for drivers.)

The police report concludes that “it is unknown what had transpired to cause the decedent not to see the truck or  recognize it as a hazard before it was too late.” It is on the contrary painfully apparent that too many bicyclists expect that it is safe to continue moving straight a head in a bicycle lane, regardless of what other traffic might do. Thus it is not surprising that the truck’s right turn took her by surprise.

Responses 

Following this collision, DDOT extended the bicycle lane markings through the intersection, but did not otherwise change them. WABA proposed and the DC Council adopted the “Bicycle Safety Enhancement Act.” This law includes the following items:

  • A requirement that municipal heavy duty vehicles be equipped with “blind spot mirrors, reflective blind spot warning signs, and side-underrun guards to prevent bicyclists, other vehicles, or pedestrians from sliding under rear wheels” and a requirement that their operators “receive bicycle and pedestrian safety training.”
  • A new statute the motorists must pass a bicyclist at a distance of at least 3 feet.
  • An increase in the penalty for improper use of a restricted lane (such as a bike lane) to $100.

However, to my knowledge, no one has attempted to spread the message that bicyclists need to pay attention to what is happening in the travel lanes, and not go past a vehicle that is on their left anywhere near an intersection, and especially not a truck. Unfortunately, since Alice Swanson’s tragic death in 2008, there have been many more bicyclists killed in collisions with right-turning trucks, including four in Boston, all involving bicycle lanes. In response to the latest (August 2015) fatality, I prepared this brief video.

Getting Past The Anger

Sometimes I read forum threads and wonder at all the pent up anger. I wonder because in between these outbursts of anger and anxiety we often find people who are adamant about just how wonderful riding a bicycle really is. And then there are the frequent attempts to frame bicycling as something that is so very safe that you do not need a helmet or to dress to be seen or much of anything else. Cycling to some is a spiritual gift that can heal entire communities.

But for me bicycling is a way to get back and forth to breakfast on the weekends, to often go shopping for small stuff and a wonderful way to unwind. It is in short a stress reliever. I am fond of trails and paths and side streets.

I do not identify with the ‘angry cyclist mime‘. It seems inconsistent with the beauty that cycling brings into the world. But I realize that by not subjecting myself to the daily grind of the mean streets of the city, I am missing out on the chance to learn to be an angry, frustrated cyclist who wants to ‘make a statement‘.

But when someone we thought was dead is found to be very much alive, it offers the opportunity to get past all the speculation and the blather to the reality of what actually happened. And more importantly, why.

We Are The Source Of Most Of Our Troubles

Cyclists who are part of the ‘making a statement tribe‘ are going to hate me even more for owning the troubles we get ourselves into. I read through some recent threads and found that besides not knowing the actual laws we think others are breaking, we are woefully ignorant of how to conduct ourselves when in traffic in the most useful ways.

Many of us have adopted the ‘I shoulder no responsibility‘ stance when it comes to our suffering. It can be loosely translate into ‘they are all idiots‘. The ‘they‘ is either motorists, truck drivers, motorcyclists or pedestrians. We are essentially ‘passive victims‘ in this view of things.

We fight back by dressing in all black outfits, riding without lights or reflective clothing and finding any and every excuse to avoid ‘losing our momentum‘. We signal to the rest of the Urban Cycling Community our bravado by refusing to wear a helmet.

We are scofflaws who take chances whenever possible and if we are relatively safe riders and feel compelled to ‘protect the community‘ we strike a blow against the Unbelievers by doubting that any more than a mere handful of riders are true scofflaws. We are as a class of riders all about safety is what we tell ‘the others‘.

We know this not to be true, but letting our hair down would mean having to own some if not all of the responsibility for our woes.

Two Cases In Point

© urbanistdispatch.com

© urbanistdispatch.com

I watch daily as bicycle riders hurry down Jackson Blvdriding no-handed in the Door Zone‘. And many of those riding this way are either texting or otherwise reading their favorite blogs while moving. Their heads are generally down and they are absorbed in their content. Getting into a collision with a car door is totally avoidable. It is not something to which I am subject in the same way getting wet during a rainstorm might be. I can control the situation.

SF Bicycle Coalition Right Turn Diagram

SF Bicycle Coalition Right Turn Diagram

But the other situation which his most obviously a problem of our own making is the ‘Right Hook‘. For some reason we have adopted this nothing the the Bike Lane is a sacrosanct zone. It is as if everything happening just to the left of it (assuming it is on the right-hand side of the street) is somebody else’s business. My job as a cyclist is to put my head down and pedal. Wrong.

We need to take ownership of the manner in which we control a ‘right hook‘. Never let the driver to your left get alongside you. This is especially true if that driver is guiding a bus or a truck. Both are deadly and their rear wheels have a smaller turning radius than the front ones.

But most important is that rear view mirrors are useless when attached to a vehicle like a truck or bus. Once the driver begins the turn he cannot see you. Knowing this can save your life. Ignoring this and grinding forward in the bike lane could lose it.

Having Someone To Deconstruct A ‘Right Hook’ Experience Is Invaluable

Most of the time when I find myself in a pickle in traffic I know at what point I let my attention lapse. Let’s face it. Riding in the city is not a ‘pleasant and relaxing‘ experience. It is the transportation equivalent of being a juggler who is handling hand grenades. Lose your concentration and you could find yourself chatting with St. Peter.

You should be vigilant on the Chicago Lakefront Trail but unless you are riding home from the Air and Water Show along the trail you have a lot more time to reflect on the beauty all around you before having to concentrate very hard.

And Goodness knows that those among us who have managed to hit and kill a pedestrian are the most bewildered of all when it happens. We have all been lulled into believing the lie that Cars Kill, Bicycles Don’t. And when you realize that the little old lady that you knocked down took two days to die you are even more bewildered. Meanwhile the Urban Cycling Community has gone into overdrive to manufacture excuses for why you had this tragedy befall you.

It is difficult to turn the killer into the victim but that happens routinely whenever a cyclist ‘screws the pooch‘. On the Chicago Lakefront Trail we merely try and build a ‘separate but equal‘ trail for ourselves and point the finger at the pedestrians for making this necessary. But the fact is that when a cyclist and a pedestrian are traveling along, it is the cyclist who has the full view of the roadway ahead. The poor pedestrian is ahead of us and does not have eyes in the rear of his head. So, guess what! We are the party with the greatest responsibility for keep both of us safe. Bummer!