Saturday, June 5, 2010

The run-over cyclist's damning statement

When news broke of the 5/27 accident on Comm. Ave., where a biker was literally run over when a driver made an abrupt right turn, the police reported that "[t]he cyclist’s actions, which were confirmed by his own statements, contributed to the crash" and, therefore, the driver was not cited. What were the statements? What were those actions? What unusual behavior brought this on himself?

Now that the police report is public, we know. Here is the full text of the relevant portion of the police report:


His contribution to the crash -- the contribution that let the driver "in a hurry" who "unexpectedly swerved," "abruptly swerve[d]," made "a sudden move to the right" off the hook -- was to exercise his right under MGL ch. 85, sec 11B to pass slower moving traffic on the right. It appears there's nothing more or less to the story. According to the off-duty police officer who witnessed the incident then helped lift the car off of the cyclist "the bicyclist appeared to be travelling at a reasonable rate of speed, and also in a straight line." (Quotations are from the police report and may or may not be direct quotations from the witnesses.)

It boils down to is this: can a cyclist passing slower traffic to the right expect that motorists will look for him before turning across his path? Or, as bike advocate John Allen suggests, does MGL ch. 85, sec. 11B simply make it legal to pass on the right, but you do so at your own risk?

In the end, as I wrote earlier, legal liability is probably a minor factor in actual decision-making. Drivers are not going to take more care to avoid a ticket, but to avoid inadvertently killing someone.

But, the law ought to reflect what policy we want to promote and the values that we hold. We want to encourage people to ride, particularly those who are not as comfortable riding in traffic. The blah-blah litany: fossil fuel-independent, less-polluting, less-carbon generating, quieter, healthier, more neighborhood-friendly. We want to encourage people who drive to make it safe and comfortable to ride on our streets. It's really not that much to ask those piloting ton-plus* vehicles to recognize that even the basic action of turning into a driveway has potentially lethal consequence.

Ultimately, the best cure is more bikes on the road. In the meantime, it would send an important message that it is not reasonable and prudent to drive without looking for cyclists.

*Fortunately, the car involved in this accident was a Toyota Corolla, way down on the lighter-end of the spectrum at about 2,400 lbs. Many popular cars are closer to or over two tons: Toyota Camry -- 3,200 lbs., Honda Odyssey -- 4,300 lbs., Chevy Equinox -- 3,700 lbs.


dr2chase said...

It's hard to say, actually. From a public policy point of view, absolutely, you want people to realize that their cars are dangerous in many ways, but in practice, people don't look behind much. Consider dooring, which until recently had no legal consequences for the person opening the door. But, similar to the new dooring law, we might require that drivers activate their blinker before any change of lane at all.

And if I think about how I approach this problem, and whether my approach is conducive to more people cycling, it's clear that we have to fix the law. I think, ideally, that we would change the rules to always make a default (lacking contrary evidence) assignment of fault to the heavier vehicle. Not only does this favor bicyclists, it also favors Smart Cars, MiniCoopers, and Corollas. And if people think they will be disadvantaged by this change in the law, video cameras are cheap, and getting cheaper, they can collect their own evidence.

Anonymous said...

Well, that's taking Sean's special obligation rule to a new height. You can assign blame all you want. Think about how you'd teach your children to ride their bicycle in the street. Are you going to tell them "the law is with you, ride like the wind" or are you going to teach them how to ride defensively? Moving at that kind of speed past moving cars going through intersections could easily put in the driver's blind spot, even if they were specifically looking for bicyclists. If you're a driver, or a bicyclist, you have an obligation to understand if you're putting yourself in a spot where another driver or bicyclist doesn't expect you to be. That's just defensive driving 101. It's dumb if you drive like that, and if you bicycle like that through narrow spaces, it's even dumber. I'm sorry the guy got hurt, but it's very easy to understand why the police officer wrote what he did.

dr2chase said...

Other countries have the larger-vehicle law. Laws that assign blame like that don't eliminate bad outcomes, but they reduce them, by creating incentives both on the drivers directly, and through their insurance companies. Are you arguing in favor of more bad outcomes?

And oddly enough, the signalling law already exists, and applies here (turned, no signal, affected another vehicle). Why wasn't the driver cited? It seems like this action by the police will not enhance cyclists' respect for traffic laws (not enforced on cars, even when a cyclist is hurt, and clearly did not protect a cyclist. What good are they, then?)

What I don't understand, is how you misinterpreted my intention that drivers of cars, especially large cars, should be more careful, as "cyclists should be really really careless".

I think you misuse the word "obligation", in the same way that people in these discussions get all confused about "responsibility", and that may be the root of the misunderstanding. I have an obligation not to hurt other people. As a cyclist, that's an easy standard to meet, much easier than when I drive a car. I don't usually think of myself as having an obligation not to get hurt, that's just common sense and self-preservation, and within reasonable bounds, even my choice. (Do I have an "obligation" not to get a sunburn? A sore butt? Blisters where my shoe wears funny?) "Obligation" usually refers to what you owe to other people. If I give myself a bruise, that's my problem. If you give me a bruise, that's battery.

Anonymous said...

Did anyone definitively say that the driver put the signal on? What's the rule for how far in advance of the turn does the signal have to be turned on? Given what the cyclist said, it sounded as if the turn signal was not an issue one way or another. I think drivers should be more careful, but even after I re-read the posts, it still sounds like you and Sean are saying the driver should be ticketed because he/she wasn't careful enough and someone got hurt. The bicyclist wasn't careful either, they put themselves in a bad situation, and the police officer recognized that. If the driver did nothing wrong, why should he be ticketed? I hate SUVs with a passion, they're big and ridiculously unnecessary, and I'd love to get them off the road, but you can't give the drivers tickets just "because". Yes, since they're bigger, and can do more damage, they're generally more expensive to insure. Same diff. between a car and a motorcycle. And that's reasonable in my mind. However, I don't see anything in the posts that indicate the driver was any more at fault than the cyclist. I don't believe it's correct to assign blame based on vehicle size. And every time someone says the driver has a special obligation to be careful because they're driving a large vehicle, it seems to be followed up with a conciliatory view of how careful the cyclist has to be.

dr2chase said...

There are three reasons to believe that the driver did not use their signal:

1) No witness said they saw a signal.

2) The cyclist rode into the danger. Turning cars are a known hazard, you look for signals (Personally, I also look for tell-tale variations in speed and lane position.) The fact that he didn't stop for the turning car suggests that there was no signal, despite his uncertainty now (you think perhaps getting run over might have unsettled him a little?).

3) In practice, drivers often do not use their signals, especially when turning out of slow traffic.

There is a law, it applies here, it should be applied here. The driver should get a ticket. The fine is a token, but a token is better than nothing.

Without a signal from the driver, the cyclist cannot be "careful enough".

Anonymous said...

What you've said is very plausible, but I still would say that you can't give a ticket based on what might be likely. Unless the driver said he didn't put the signal on, or the bicyclist or witnesses say they know for a fact that the signal wasn't on, you can't conclude that since there was an accident and most cyclists look for signals that the signal had to be off. Also, the law that was cited stated that either signals or brake lights were sufficient to show intent. A bit weak, but nevertheless, that's what the link said, if I read it correctly. So if the driver even tapped his brakes at some point, he wasn't braking the law.
In regards to the last statement, the cyclist could still have been more careful. You shouldn't be flying by moving cars past intersections. I know it's tempting, and it's a great feeling to think you're going faster than the bozos in the cars, but it's not safe. Here's a situation where the slow speed and uncertainty of the cars should be slowing the cyclists. If it's okay for a cyclist to slow car traffic down once in a while, the bicyclist should have enough sense to go slower when auto traffic dictates it. If a cyclist is going to survive, they better not be waiting for drivers to obey all the traffic rules. And if the guy tapped his brakes, he technically satisfied the rules. Strange, but true.

dr2chase said...

You misread the law:

"...before stopping said vehicle or making any turning movement which would affect the operation of any other vehicle, shall give a plainly visible signal by activating the brake lights or directional lights or signal as provided on said vehicle..."

It's "stopping or turning" parallel to "brake lights or directional lights". Not the way I would have worded it, but your reading of the law suggests that one could indicate an intention to stop, by signaling a left turn, or indicate an intention to turn right, by signaling left (the explicit encoding of turn intention is provided for hand signals, but not for the electrical signals).

And I gave three reasons why I believe there was no turn signal -- nobody saw it, most drivers don't in that situation, and normally the cyclist would have stopped if he had seen a signal. There has to be some limit to the "prudence" required of the cyclist, and I don't think it has even been established that he was going very fast. In particular, he was run over, not thrown. I would normally expect that to result from a cyclist not moving very fast, and an abrupt decision to turn and go.

All I get from what you say is that you are extremely reluctant to give a driver a ticket, that by all accounts was deserved, and think that cyclists should pass traffic very slowly. Your evidence to support your view is extremely weak -- that the cyclist, who was hit and very rattled, was not sure what he saw; and a creative reading of the law; and the assumption that the cyclist was not careful, when the nature of the accident suggests that he was not going that fast, which is consistent with careful.

The driver of the car appears (from accounts read) to have broken a traffic law, and doing so led to the injury of a cyclist. If you have any hope of getting cyclists to obey actual, objectively enforceable traffic laws (not riding on sidewalks in business districts; not running red lights), then that ticket should be issued. If the law is not what makes us safe on the road, why should any cyclist care about the law?