Bicycle Safety Forum — Take Aways?

Last week we had a great forum on bike safety at Suffolk University.  Thanks to Suffolk and to all the organizations that participated in putting it together.  See the event website for details on the event itself.

There was a huge volume of information exchanged during the two hours of the forum and it will take a few weeks to digest.  We started with a plenary session with 6 speakers and roughly 200 in the audience.  The audience seemed to consist mostly of people who cycle, but the speakers represented institutions — the trucker’s association, the MBTA, and the cities of Cambridge and Boston.  That session offered a lot of information on things institutions are already doing to improve safety and seemed to set a positive tone.

Then we broke into groups focused on the different ideas currently pending in the legislature to improve bike safety.  People could move freely from group to group.  That’s where a lot of the information exchange happened.  We’ll be convening the group leaders to try to extract as much as possible from those conversations.  For the list of ideas considered, click here.

Finally, we reconvened for a summary discussion.  Each of the groups reported back and the audience was asked to vote on which proposal they felt was most important.  Almost 400 people voted (although it’s possible that some people came through more than once and we wouldn’t know that).  You can view the results here.

The choice was a little artificial, but I think a few things emerged.

  • Road design changes to create safety rose to the top of the list getting 32.6% of the vote.  That makes sense — ultimately, safer roads are more important than any particular new rule.
  • On the other hand, 2/3 of the people picked rule changes or education suggesting that many people feel behavior change is possible without road design changes.
  • Perhaps not surprising, given that the audience consisted mostly of cyclists, the behavior modifications that garnered the highest votes applied to motorists, not cyclists:
    • 14.8% picked increased fines for blocking bikelanes.
    • 14.5% picked driver’s education as a priority, while only 1.3% picked cyclist education.
    • 12% picked traffic enforcement, but this question was a little vague — not clear whether it applied to enforcement against drivers or against cyclists.  Based on the  split on education, it seems likely that people were urging driver enforcement.
    • 8.4% picked a proposed rule that would require motorists to pass vulnerable road users (cyclists, pedestrians, road workers) at a safe distance.
    • 8.1% picked lower automotive speed limits.
    • 3.6% picked a clarification of the rights of cyclists in crosswalks.
  • Perhaps surprising given all the attention to recent truck crashes, the bill requiring installation of truck sideguards only got 8 votes (2%).
  • Better crash data got 9 votes (2.3%) and requiring better lighting/reflective gear got 2 votes (0.5%).

I’m a little relieved that the truck sideguard concept didn’t rise to the top.  The more we study it, the more practical problems we identify in implementation, the biggest problem being that many trucks move in interstate commerce and our practical and legal ability as one state to regulate their design appears limited.  Additionally, many kinds of trucks don’t easily accommodate the installation of sideguards, for example tanker trucks (with an oval cross-section) and dump trucks.

Moving forward over the last few months of the legislative session, we’ll absolutely ask how we can legislatively support safer road design and also try to move forward on the feasible rule changes that got the most votes.  I do think we have to keep on the table a direction which didn’t draw support in the cyclists’ forum — increased enforcement capacity against cyclists who ignore road rules.  Right or wrong, as a political matter, I don’t think we can get anything done if it is entirely one-sided and focused only on drivers.

Would welcome your further comments here!

Published by Will Brownsberger

Will Brownsberger is State Senator from the Second Suffolk and Middlesex District.

31 replies on “Bicycle Safety Forum — Take Aways?”

  1. Not to be too funny, but this is a two way street. Drivers need to be cognizant of biker safety. A vehicle can do serious damage to a biker. At the same time, bikers need to be aware that it’s sometimes difficult to keep track of pedestrians, bikers, skate-boarders, people riding mopeds in the bike lanes, etc. I’m certain that raising driver awareness will help, but getting bikers to obey simple traffic signals would also help. The bikers only want the cars to obey the rules. Bikers ignore traffic lights, ride up one way streets the wrong way, etc.

    To conclude, both sides need to obey the rules.!

  2. The title of the forum skewed the attendees… so I am not surprised at the results. While I agree that cyclists must have better safety on our roads, and that we need to calm traffic and educate drivers to be more aware of cyclists, pedestrian needs were not among the concerns here. Walkers need to be in the mix. Cyclists need to follow road rules so that their movements can be predicted both by drivers and pedestrians. This is a 3 pronged issue with all participants needing to address their own contribution to the problems of safety on our streets: drivers, cyclists and pedestrians.

    I was glad to hear presentations from a variety of interested groups. I also liked the format of the event.

    1. Thanks, Kris. Agreed that the focus was on cyclists, but many of the groups involved are also very concerned about pedestrian safety and pedestrian concerns will very much remain high in the process.

  3. So you have half the input. I suggest you seek out the other half. I personally see more people on bikes who do not know the laws or just disobey them.

  4. Will, thank you for organizing the forum.

    I think it would be helpful to distinguish between short term and long term actions. The short term actions include the bills now before the legislature on safe passing distance and crosswalks, which I hope are passed quickly. In my experience, many motorists are already obeying them.

    Longer term actions include road design (where Massachusetts already has a good start) and education. For education, I would encourage a holistic approach to pedestrian, bike and car safety. For example:
    • In elementary school, focus on the basics of safe walking (avoid distraction, check for traffic before stepping into the street) and bike handling
    • By middle school, teach about traffic laws and safe biking on the road
    • By high school, teach about safe driving and sharing the road with non-motorized users.

  5. I’d still like you to look into what sideguards are possible. The interstate issue is a pain, but safety is also statistical — if 75% of the trucks have sideguards, that’s a 75% reduction in a particular lethal risk.

    As far as issues of peculiar truck design, there are European countries where this has been done, so maybe we can copy from them.

    I think the reluctance to push on cyclist education comes from three things.

    First, in terms of the harm done by someone who makes mistakes, the harm from drivers is far larger, and anyone who bikes much knows that the roads are full of flaky drivers.

    Second, “cyclist education” that works is not “cyclists should obey the traffic laws”. As an example, painted bike lanes are pretty much lies, unless you know to position yourself pretty close to the left line (to stay out of the door zone). Another important thing to learn is that drivers very often won’t stop at stop signs or at right-on-red, and therefore you must take steps to ensure that you are seen (to reduce that risk) and be prepared for drivers not stopping anyway. Another important thing to watch out for is right-turning vehicles that don’t signal, or that only signal after it is far too late to be of any use — so learn how to read driver intent, learn light timings so that you know you’ll have time to fully past stopped cars that you are passing on the right, learn where to position yourself so that you have options if someone does turn right suddenly.

    Proposed cyclist education is also a little weak on doing pedestrian responsibility and politeness properly, too. There are rules (not laws, but rules I made for myself) about how to behave around pedestrians that seem to help a lot. For example, if there are 3 or more dogs or small children near where you’re about to be riding, go *very* slowly, perhaps 5mph or less. When passing pedestrians crossing a street not in a crosswalk, try to pass behind their direction of travel, not in front, so that they are not inconvenienced in the least. (Doesn’t matter if they’re “jaywalking”, you’re on a bicycle and perfectly capable of not hitting them, unlike a driver.) In all cases when passing pedestrians, be aware of any cars behind you, because they might be focused on you, not the pedestrian, and could follow you right into the pedestrian (since cars are so much wider). When stopping for a pedestrian, always signal the stop, both for the cars possibly behind, and so that the pedestrian can see your intent if they care (if they care, they’re looking at you, so they’ll see).

    Third, historically, “education” has been the answer to this problem for decades, and look where it’s gotten us.

    1. We’ll absolutely keep the sideguards issue in play — we are working on that.

      And I agree that cyclist education should include coaching on defensive cycling, just like we coach defensive driving.

  6. Thank you Will and John for organizing this forum. Here are my thoughts about the topic covered:
    > there needs to be both a short and long term approach to bicycle safety. for example, design standards are clearly longer term as they will take time to design and implement. And, are clearly critical and must be work on. Many other items are much more short term – bike lane enforcement, vulnerable users, the Idaho stop (which wasn’t mentioned but should have been), motorist traffic enforcement, and crash data (this should not be a difficult one).
    > the truck sideguard is important since that’s what kills so many cyclist. I hear the problems with interstate commerce but perhaps that not the best way to approach this. What if we instead changed the law to say that any truck that doesn’t have them is presumed to be at fault if it’s involved in an accident? Doesn’t make it required and the state makes the rules about how traffic laws will be enforced.
    > cyclist enforcement does have a role but not in the way many people think. First, there’s no training on how to ride in traffic and how to stay safe. Second, the current and laws are not in place to make cycling safe. If we followed all road rules for motor vehicles, our safety would not be improved and in fact, we would be more likely to be in accidents, injured, or killed. It makes no sense to enforce rules that end up hurting or killing cyclists. I would support enforcement if the results were about getting cyclists to have lights and helmets and teaching people how to ride more safely. Otherwise, enforcement makes no sense.

  7. “Right or wrong, as a political matter, I don’t think we can get anything done if it is entirely one-sided and focused only on drivers.”

    For the last 60 years, motorists have killed on average 100 or more people a day, every day in the USA ( 86 of those people are in cars, 12 on foot, and 2 on a bike ( Therefore, when you make people drive better, the population that benefits – by a massive degree – are people in cars. So it’s OK if road safety is one-sided focused on drivers. Drivers are the population that kills the most, and people in cars are the population that are by a vast majority the victim.

    In other words, stop making this about bicycle safety. Make it about ROAD SAFETY. Once you do that, you can legitimately focus on the one category of road user that kills people the most: drivers.

    Thank you.

    1. Those statistics sound right. But here’s the other question we need to ask. In cases where cyclists die, in what percentage of the cases was it attributable to cyclist error as opposed to driver error. The answer will vary by geography, but in Boston and Cambridge, a lot of the fatalities are due to cyclist error (according the police). So, we have to think about that.

  8. Thanks for putting this on, and for the follow up. A few thoughts I have on this:

    – State law should be changed to allow cities and towns to use automated traffic enforcement, such as speed and red-light cameras. Other than alcohol, speed is the #1 factor in traffic crash fatalities involving all modes, and the cities and towns should have the flexibility to deal with this with automated enforcement if they want to.

    – How do we deal with truly dangerous drivers who are repeat offenders? We should make sure that 1. Their license is revoked for life. 2. Any vehicles they own are impounded. 3. Establish severe penalties for anyone who allows an unlicensed person to operate their vehicle. What informs my own thinking on this, is that a few years ago, I sat on a jury where we convicted someone of OUI, and turned out afterwards this it was his EIGHTH one. How in the world was this even possible!?

    – Lower the BAC level and demand that any alcohol-serving establishment develop a plan to demonstrate how 100% of their drivers will be able to get home sober. This would require some creative legislative thinking.

    – Please continue to work towards a solution on truck side guards. I know it’s complicated, but let’s figure out how to keeping pushing things in the right direction.

    – Education for drivers needs to be framed as a a Vision Zero initiative, something which is good for everyone, not as a bikers vs. drivers issue. Education efforts should focus on driver’s licensing. Getting and keeping a drivers license in Massachusetts, and indeed in any US state, is terrifyingly easy. Drivers Ed should be completely redone to be more comprehensive and train people to drive cautiously at all times, while training them specifically on how to drive around vulnerable road users. I would look at international best practices from places like Germany and the Netherlands for ideas. Anyone who moves to the state should have to go through the same classes, and all residents should have to re-apply for their drivers license periodically, for example, every 3-5 years. That’s a pipe dream, I know, but that’s what we should be working towards, not just for bicyclists sake, but for everyone’s – far too many people meet their end while driving.

    – Focus on bicycling education by integrate bicycling into the physical education curriculum of every school in the Commonwealth. There is simply not enough money in Safe Routes to School to educate every child. Philadelphia and DC have made some big strides in this area which we should look into. This shouldn’t be merely a week-long safety class, but a continuing and comprehensive program at every grade level to promote bicycling as a healthy, life-long habit. Ball sports are on the decline, and bicycling should be positioned to pick up the slack from that. By the time kids take their first drivers license exam, they would already be in the right frame of mind.

    Thanks again for your continued attention to bicycling, I’m eager to see what happens this legislative session.

    1. Thanks, Eric! Not sure we can make our drunk and reckless driving laws any tougher — they really are pretty tough already. Not sure how someone had 8 OUIs, but it’s hard to do under current law. After five you lose license for life.

      But the points on education are very well taken.

  9. I want to thank all of you for your ongoing hard work on all of theses complex issues. The forum was very informative on a number of fronts. I would like to make a confession here. Late last summer, I was pulled over by the Cambridge police, and ticketed, for running a red light. I was on my bike. Of course, I was pissed at the time, but upon further reflection, realized that this is an important step in the right direction. Same roads, same rules, same fines.

    1. Hi Conrad,
      I appreciate your “realization” that recognizing enforcement is an important step. One idea I might offer though is that both the roads and the rules that govern them were made almost entirely with cars in mind. The Idaho Stop came about because people realized that the idea of coming to a full stop for bicyclists didn’t make as much sense as it did for cars. I’m 100% positive that there are other rules of the road that make great sense when applied to cars, but little or none when applied to bikes. I see it as a question of risk assessment. It’s a simple physics problem. Force = Mass x Acceleration. A bicycle traveling at 10 MPH and weighing in at 250 lbs (bike and rider included) will do FAR less damage than a car traveling at 10 MPH weighing in at 3,000+ lbs. The bicycle is also FAR less likely to be moving at speeds in excess of 25 MPH than a car, leading to greater likelihood that the bike can avoid the crash. If my scientific assumptions are incorrect (I am not a trained scientist), some please point that out. Regardless, I believe that the point is still valid. Rules made for cars should not necessarily apply to other modes of transportation (walking/biking) simply because the risks are different. As Mr. Brownsberger pointed out, this is why most people (myself included) indicated that road design is believed to have much greater impact than most other solutions.
      Having said all that, I want to thank you for thinking about how to ride smart and safe.


  10. Some bike lanes are absolutely STUPID. Example is N. Beacon St. beside the Arsenal. During rush hours, west bound traffic backs up from the School St. light the whole way with not a bike in sight and a whole lane going to waste.
    I drive in it every time I need to. A waste of paint on the road and signs that read “Share….” Whatever happened to Common Sense?

  11. I was frankly pretty disappointed with the forum. I didn’t feel like there was a whole lot of “discussion” going on. I mostly felt like I was being talked at by representatives of N different institutions, most of which were just there to make themselves known. It felt more like a show and tell than a forum, and I don’t think I got anything out of attending that I wouldn’t have just reading the proposals on this website beforehand.

    On the enforcement issue, I do have a couple points:

    1. As others have noted, fatal traffic accidents overwhelmingly involve motor vehicles. It’s hard to even find statistics about crashes not involving cars. I haven’t seen any real evidence to suggest that enforcement against cyclists will actually make anyone safer.

    2. Many of the reasons enforcement is difficult are logistical things like:

    * You don’t need a license to ride a bike.
    * You’re not required to identify yourself to police (or even carry ID) if you’re riding a bicycle.

    The reasons why these make enforcement hard are obvious. Anyone who doesn’t want to pay a ticket can probably get away with just not doing so; it’s not as if there’s any way to find you. It seems evident to me that you won’t be able to make enforcement against cyclists possible without changing these things, and doing so brings up a whole host of issues that ought to require a serious argument as to why it will help, not a flimsy “oh but that’s so one-sided” argument. Examples:

    * Folks commonly (typically?) start riding bicycles when they are small children. It seems patently absurd, and frighteneningly Orwellian to ask 7 year olds to carry around a government issued ID whenever they go out on their bikes. If we’re not going to do that, at what age do we expect them to *start* carrying ID? Can we take ourselves seriously asking them to go get licensed for something they’ve been doing their whole lives?
    * Adding another case where the 5th amendment doesn’t apply, if massachusetts is even able to do so, is a serious enough decision, and introduces a precedent. As much as I care about bike safety as someone whose primary mode of transit is a bike, I’d rather keep being at risk on the road than establish a precendent that we can let up on core constitutional values because of a “political matter” around the issue.

    If the push on enforcement is one sided, it’s because the need is one sided.

    1. Thanks for weighing in, Ian.

      The point of the forum (with the break out sessions) was to give people multiple channels to give us feedback. The presentations were only table setting for that.

      So, keep the comments coming — the forum was just one facet of a listening process.

      Your points about the fundamental problems with enforcement of rules against cyclist are extremely well taken. Education may be the most productive strategy — see Eric Papetti’s comment further below. And you are right that cyclists who violate laws are mostly endangering themselves. This is the conversation we need to have.

  12. I am a constituent and neighbor of yours who attended the bicycle safety forum. Thank you for convening it. At one of the break-out sessions, I made this point: as a bike rider, I think I am typical, i.e. I have a drivers license, have driven for almost 50 years, have done so in most US states and some foreign countries, and this includes driving trucks and cabs. Well, maybe not completely “typical.” Still, the “typical” driver has most likely not been on a bike since they were 12. Your summary posits a false division between bikers and drivers, whereas there is quite a bit of overlap, mostly from the bike riders side and not the other way around. Please consider this in your deliberations.

  13. In order for roadways to be safe for all road users – bicyclists, pedestrians, transit users, motorists – the roads must be designed with all users in mind.

    The Complete Streets funding through the Dept. of Transportation is a great start for engaging communities in the conversation about better streets designed for everyone. However, the concern arises in the maintenance component.

    Designing & maintaining sustainable and active transportation networks year-round must be a priority in order to improve the health and vitality of cities and towns in Massachusetts and meet mode-shift and mode-share goals.

  14. I don’t see this mentioned much: more and more cars seem to be equipped with heavily tinted windows on both the driver’s and passenger’s sides — making it very difficult to ride up behind and know if someone is sitting in the car (perhaps readying to open their door). Bad enough that the rear windows are tinted, the driver’s window is now often obscured so there’s no reflection in the side mirror. That’s dangerous, wish there were a way to get this better regulated.

  15. I hope it is possible to correct a technical misrepresentation in this summary, which implies that side guards cannot be installed on common truck types such as dump and tanker. Side guards can–and indeed globally are–installed on all but the most exotic truck types. Since 2014, the USDOT Volpe Center has surveyed thousands of trucks in the NYC, Boston/Cambridge, and SF fleets, along with European and Asian models, and found very few examples of infeasible vehicles. Therefore from a technical standpoint, side guard installation is not a significant barrier to widespread deployment. Exemptions can furthermore be provided for the exotic cases, as is done in the European Union and Japan. For many examples of side guard solutions on diverse truck types, please see the appendices of Volpe’s side guard study for the City of New York:

  16. Thanks so much for holding the forum event and putting this online forum together as well. I was disappointed to not be able to attend with some of the youth members from Bikes Not Bombs, ironically because I was recovering from being struck by a car on my bike. Also thanks to all the organizers, participants and attendees for the thought put into these topics and solutions.

    In general a lot of the topics covered in the summary seemed to come to conclusions we would say are consistent with what we hear from the youth cyclist community that Bikes Not Bombs works with, but I did think it was important to highlight one safety aspect that I didn’t see represented in the summary or comments thus far.

    When we talk about enforcement of laws for/on cyclists, we have to be very careful about the implementation. Everyone may be ‘equal under the law’, but not everyone has the same experience with or receives the same treatment from law enforcement in their communities, schools, housing, transit and streets. While as an organization we don’t actively oppose any current laws around cycling (on the flip we actively teach them in our youth and adult programs), the youth community here justifiably fears increased enforcement efforts will lead to even more inequitable and discriminatory harassment of young people — especially young people of color — on bikes. This actually could make our communities decidedly less safe, while further poisoning the already strained relationship between youth and law enforcement.

    I post this without ill will or finger pointing, but rather in the hopes we can keep the dialogue (and action!) rolling forward while committing to hold any and all efforts around cyclist safety accountable to the best interests of the entire breadth and depth of the cycling community. And we know that Sen. Brownsberger has stood in support of a number of youth driven policies and reforms on other issues, so we have faith there’s a receptive ear! Thanks again everyone for the time and space.

    1. Got it! I share your expressed concern that new rules and enforcement priorities might backfire and generate more community tension.

      I feel that concern strongly and it does limit our options.

  17. I am not an expert in any way, but just from reading the papers I think that 3 or 4 cyclist have been killed in the metro Boston area by right turning trucks without side guards. If true, this need to be a top priority. At a minimum all trucks registered in Mass. No point in passing a law unless it is enforced with a large fine. I suggest at least $5000 dollars.

    1. At the very least the state can do what Boston and Cambridge does… Require all state owned trucks, and trucking companies that the state contracts with, have the side guards.

      It’s a really easy place to start.

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