Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Something doesn't add up

Thinking about yesterday's fatal bike crash in Newton, it doesn't make sense. When a biker runs a just-turned red light, he generally does it because he thinks he can make it through the intersection before traffic that's getting the green across his path starts. If he's cutting it close, he's putting himself in the position to get hit or -- if timing is really poor -- maybe hit the front of the car moving across. When there's a near miss, typically the biker swerves to the front of the car and the car stops short.

But, the report is that the biker hit the rear of the SUV.

He could have been trying to squeeze between the SUV and the car behind. But, riding through the gap is not something bikers do early in the light cycle. It's usually something bikers try when crossing traffic is thinned out.

According to the car behind the SUV involved, they had just gotten the light, so it's not likely that the SUV had entered the intersection to go left and had to stop for traffic in the opposite direction. That particular light delays the green for southbound traffic and gives a green left arrow to northbound traffic crossing from Homer to Lowell.

The only possible explanation that I can think of is that the biker saw that he'd just gotten a red, but saw that the light for southbound traffic was still red, figured he could shoot the intersection before crossing traffic got the green, and was totally unprepared for northbound traffic getting the early green. But, even if that were the case, it's tough to imagine the biker hitting the rear of the crossing car.


dr2chase said...

I agree, this sounds very peculiar.

Maybe he completely misread the light or intersection, and entered it at some very high speed?

Or, perhaps, he was planning to run it, the SUV pulled out, and the cyclist swerved towards the rear rather than the front, and the SUV, seeing the cyclist approaching, simultaneously stopped short (which is completely reasonable), leaving the cyclist aimed at the back of the SUV and unable to recover.

It would be interesting to know if the SUV was waiting at the stop line before the light turned, or was instead stopped well forward of the line. If traffic was cutting close around the front of the SUV, this might have influenced the cyclist to ride behind instead of in front.

Stealth said...

That sounds likely. The SUV may have been jumping the green a bit too.

I have enough close calls wearing my helmet and obeying traffic signals. I can't believe how reckless people are to save a couple of minutes.

Fixed Grip said...

Most likely the rider simply wasn't paying enough attention. It's tempting to run that light because it's on a gentle slope, and I, like most riders I dare say, try to maintain my speed whether going up or down.

More generally, we've had 2 fatalities in the metro area recently, and neither rider was wearing a helmet. The lesson for us cyclists, I think, is to be aware and ride defensively, I believe.

Anonymous said...

It's a nightmare that I hope never to see, let alone be involved in. I'd agree that the kid was either planning to run the light, and/or forgot about the early green for cars turning or going north. He might have just misjudged it, but after realizing what was happening, wouldn't he have slammed his brakes so hard that he would flip over, as opposed to running into the SUV? Obviously just another guess. Maybe he was the type of kid to always ride recklessly, and he probably didn't read these blogs, but I don't believe it helps to have folks talking about "special obligations" of the motorists to avoid bicyclists. It also doesn't help to see a healthy majority of bicyclists go through red lights, stop signs, etc. There just aren't enough cyclists paying attention to the rules, and the old rule of "do what I say, not what I do" just never seems to work. If there was more peer pressure to obey the rules, I think at least some riders would fall in line. This kid had some very bad luck, a good chunk of which seemed to be his own doing. It's tragic that his life was cut short due to a single misjudgement. But still, people are ready to analyze it in every detail (not necessarily a bad thing.. but), without looking at the big picture and saying "Hey, why don't we pay attention to the rules of the road and provide a very clear role model to everyone else that is riding." Instead, I have to take my kids out riding and constantly point out a slew of other bicyclists, saying "and don't do it that way, and don't ride like that, and don't cross like that..." I point out things drivers do wrong as well, but percentage wise, there are a lot more bicyclists going through red lights than there are cars. No matter how someone rides, I don't believe they deserve to get killed or maimed, but what I hear still sounds more like instances of "when a biker runs a red light, he's doing it carefully" as opposed to emphasizing they should be obeying the rules.

mgwa said...

The recklessness of many bike riders around here has me driving scared. No matter how careful I am, I won't be able to keep from hitting someone who goes diagonally across a major intersection against the light, who comes up against the left side of my car and then crosses right in front of me as the light changes, etc. I drive each day where the biker was hit by a bus in Mission Hill, and many of the kids biking in that neighborhood ride incredibly dangerously (and without helmets).

dr2chase said...

mgwa, if you are worried about hurting someone with your car, why don't you ride a bike instead? That will reduce your chances of hurting someone else down to approximately zero, especially if you follow traffic laws and are careful about crosswalks and sidewalks.

Anonymous said...

If the story is accurate then the rider has no one to blame but himself. I feel bad for his family but riding stupid usually ends badly. I am a rider and I love to ride and occasionally have even "pulled a wheelie" for fun. Regardless I still wear a helmet and try to be careful and do my little stunts in places that are safer. Bikes can be fun and they provide great transportation at low cost and you get some exercise to boot. I remember riding off road on a dirt bike as a kid and building ramps in the street so we could jump things...no helmets back in those days and yet our biggest injury was a scrape or a broken bone. The streets are busier now than back then so we as bikers and car drivers need to be even more careful than ever.

Anonymous said...

Or, it's entirely possible that the sun was in his eyes and he didnt see the light (a favorite excuse for when a driver hits a bike). Or maybe he had a bad day and was zoned out?

Anonymous said...

"Always bike as if you are invisible."

Always good advice.

May God have mercy on his soul and comfort his grieving family and friends, and may this driver come to understand what culpability s/he had, atone, and know, in the right time, forgiveness.

Anonymous said...

dr2chase said...
"mgwa, if you are worried about hurting someone with your car, why don't you ride a bike instead? That will reduce your chances of hurting someone else down to approximately zero, especially if you follow traffic laws and are careful about crosswalks and sidewalks."

Oh, your chances of hurting someone will be near zero? What about the bike that struck me while I was (legally) crossing the street a few years ago and left me bleeding on the pavement with two broken bones in my leg?

Just saying, a bike can be just as dangerous to a pedestrian as a car can be to a bike and "share the road" applies to EVERYONE.

Steve R said...


"Just saying, a bike can be just as dangerous to a pedestrian as a car can be to a bike."

No. If that had been a car that had hit you, you'd probably be dead. Bikes can injure, but a bike killing a pedestrian is quite rare. Yes, that biker shouldn't have hit you, and yes, you have every right to be angry at reckless cyclists running into pedestrians. There's no excuse for that. But to say that bikes can be just as dangerous to a pedestrian as a car is patently false. Cars kill thousands of pedestrians every year. Bikes kill zero to few.

Unlikely the sun was in his eyes. He was traveling eastbound at 5pm. I think dr2chase's scenario sounds like the most likely. More generally, risk-taking combined with poor judgment, and an ambiguous and quickly developing situation that was beyond the skill of the biker to read.

Part of the trouble may just be the age and gender. Just as with driving, 16-24 year old males are a high-risk, low experience group. The trouble with taking risks is that you need good judgment, which comes with experience, and riders in that age group often don't have a sufficient base of experience to take the risks they're willing to take.

It's also possible his perceptions or reactions were impaired in some way.

Its worthwhile speculating about causes, because as causes become clearer they can become part of the dialogue of how we proceed with education, enforcement, and perhaps engineering decisions. At this point, the situation is information-poor, so it's hard to know what to make of it.

The police and journalists were quick to say he wasn't wearing a helmet. Would a helmet have saved his life? Possibly, but we don't know. They weren't as quick to speculate how this bike-car conflict developed, and what might be done differently with education and enforcement efforts in the future.

I'd like to remind everyone that although wearing a helmet is a good last line of defense against head injuries becoming lethal, it's far more effective to avoid accidents in the first place. The easiest way to do that is to avoid car-bike conflicts altogether. Spend a few extra minutes on your bike ride, and stop at red lights.

I invite all red-light runners to do an experiment. Do your customary ride once without running a single light. How much time did you lose? 5 minutes? 10? What's the calculus of risk for you? At what amount of saved time are the risks worth it?

dr2chase said...


"Especially if you follow traffic laws and are careful about crosswalks and sidewalks". Was the cyclist who hit you being careful about crosswalks and sidewalks?

About zero is not zero; bikes are not perfectly safe for other people. I've seen comparative statistics (nationmaster,com) for bikes, pedestrians, cars, trucks, etc, and where cars and light trucks kill thousands of pedestrians in a year, bikes kill ONE. Even accounting for the differences in ride share, in that year, it's still a factor of about 30.

The accident stats at nationmaster don't assign fault; they count collisions of what with what, which is an interesting way to put it. Given that we report on helmet use (or lack of) even without solid information that it would have helped, we might also ask, "did that SUV need to be there? was it necessary to use a car for that particular errand? couldn't it have been better done on a bicycle, scooter, or motorcycle?" The mere use of a larger vehicle increases risk for everyone else, given the inevitability of human error. I know of at least one deadly accident (a relative) involving three or four "mistakes" occurring in combination, but what made the accident possible was a big SUV obstructing everyone's vision. In this accident, it's possible that a smaller vehicle (so that he collided slightly over, not directly against) might have saved the cyclist's life; just a slightly gentler impact to the head makes the difference between dead and dazed.

And I ask again, if you are so worried about hurting other people (a legitimate concern), why aren't you riding a bicycle? It really is much safer for other people, even if it isn't perfect. Surely, you're not scared of the traffic? Aren't car drivers all law-abiding, helmet-wearing, and responsible, unlike cyclists? (By-the-way, it turns out that cycling is safer for you, too. Those airbags and seatbelts don't do jack for heart disease, diabetes, and stroke.)

joy von guerard said...

I can assure you all that he was taught to ride well as our father is an avid cyclist and although he did not always wear his helmet he was a very intelligent kid and can only think that he either had brake failure or was trying to get through the light between cars but i dont think he did that much though i haven't ridden with him for a while this just isnt right and it would be great if no one pointed fingers and everyone just paid more attention
joy voun guerard

Sean Roche said...


I am terribly sorry for your loss. As I wrote in another post, 21 is just too young to die. Following your facebook link to your brother's made that even more clear.

Please understand that the folks commenting here and elsewhere on the circumstances of your brother's death are motivated by a desire to avoid a similar tragedy in the future.