Understanding the causes of tragedy

Every year more cyclists take to Boston’s streets, their very number perhaps raising awareness among drivers and, according to the data, reducing the chance a rider will be involved in a crash. But with a doubling in the number of people in Boston who bike to work in the last five years, the total number of crashes inevitably increases as well, albeit at a slower rate of growth than the increase in ridership.

That may be one reason Boston is seeing more cyclist fatalities this year than any year in recent memory. And at some point, the number of injuries and fatalities will begin to focus the emergency response, public health, and transportation communities on bicycle crashes with same intensity given to other causes of death, and that will mean understanding how the crashes happen.

Most recently, Allston Village became the scene of tragedy when 21-year-old Taiwanese Boston University student Chung-Wei Yang http://www.everybicyclistcounts.org/site/detail/chung-wei_yang came into contact with the side of an MBTA bus at Harvard and Brighton Avenue. Earlier this year the city cringed at gruesome accidents that took the lives of 63-year-old Doan Bui on Morrissey Blvd. (hit by a drunk driver) http://www.dotnews.com/2012/local-motorist-charged-motor-vehicle-homicide-oui-death-bicyclist-morr, 37-year-old Irish immigrant Tanya Connolly at A St. and West Broadway (hit by a turning tractor-trailer) http://www.everybicyclistcounts.org/site/detail/tanya_connolly, and 28-year-old Boston College grad student Kelsey Rennebohm http://boston.cbslocal.com/2012/06/04/cyclist-mourned-mayor-vows-serious-look-at-notorious-stretch-of-road/ (came into contact with the side of an MBTA bus).

Some of these crashes, based on eyewitness accounts and other information gathered by the Union and the media, appear to have been caused by the driver, and some by cyclist error. Large vehicles like buses and tractor-trailers appear to be a trend, mirroring a recent London study that found that 43 percent of cyclist deaths between 1992 and 2006 were caused by freight vehicles. Another study of London bike crash casualties showed that motorists were cited for contributory factors more often than cyclists by a factor of more than two to one, so bike “scofflaws” are unlikely to be the primary cause.

Nevertheless, education of drivers and cyclists seems an obvious answer, but universal education on both is a challenge to say the least.

Some bicycle safety information has been added to the state driver’s education manual and MBTA driver training, but both will take years and maybe decades to reach every operator. It’s also not clear MBTA drivers were at fault in any of this year’s crashes.

Boston has implemented a fantastic Youth Cycling Program, but it only reaches a fraction of the student population. The state’s Safe Routes to School program funds bicycle education also, but the students in that program never actually touch a bike and funding is becoming harder to find. Comprehensive safety education for all is clearly a priority, but there are several other things that can be done cheaper and faster.
One relatively cheap way to improve safety efforts—one that has proven itself in every major cycling city in Europe—is to have good data, not only to determine good interventions but also to establish a baseline with which we can evaluate the solutions we implement.

For three years, the Boston Cyclists Union has worked with the Boston Public Health Commission (BPHC) and the Boston Police Department (BPD) to create a database that includes both how the crashes are occurring and the severity of the injuries they cause. Both agencies have shown good faith, interest, and effort, but unfortunately little has ultimately been accomplished toward this goal so far.

Thanks to Union efforts in 2010, BPD and Boston Emergency Medical Services now have a way to mark incidents that are bike related. Around that time, the BPHC created a task force to improve bike and pedestrian crash data improvements—inviting the Bike Union and WalkBoston to take part. But after two years, the task force has produced little more than a better understanding of the challenges of collecting data in Boston and an excellent study of Emergency Room data. That study shows the hundreds of injuries occurring each year, but nothing about how or where they are happening. The task force, despite Union efforts, has become focused on identifying hot spots, but that task that has already been accomplished by the Union’s Interactive Crash Map and other maps produced by BPHC.

The best information about cause is located in the narrative reports collected by the Boston Police Department (BPD). Concerns about privacy prevent their distribution, and the police are taxed with murder and other serious crimes making it difficult to allocate time to redacting personal information. While BPD Superintendent Dan Linskey, Captain Jack Danilecki, and Research Analyst Marjorie Bernadeau have been incredibly helpful, the efforts to collect narrative reports have not been prioritized or given staff time by other city departments.
Good data helps innovate unique solutions. It also helps evaluate bike infrastructure.

On Brighton Avenue for example, right through the site of the most recent fatal crash location, the city has been planning for a year to pilot an experiment involving the city’s first priority sharrow, similar to one on Longwood Avenue in Brookline. The design includes a typical sharrow sandwiched between two dotted lines to show where the cyclist should ride (outside of the door zone). It’s also filled in with a bit of green paint. Crash data will be used in its evaluation, but using a manual, clunky process that would not be easy to repeat on every bikeway in the city, and the city is planning more ambitious infrastructure every year.

“We’ve been picking the low-hanging fruit for a while now,” said interim bike czar Kristopher Carter in a recent phone interview with the Union. “We need to get our ladders out. We’re definitely excited about looking at cycletracks that connect to our existing current low-stress network.”

In addition to the Back Bay connection, Carter cited cycletrack possibilities to consider on Mt. Vernon Street in Dorchester, connecting UMass-Boston to JFK/UMass MBTA Station; one that would connect the Esplanade to the end of the SW Corridor on Dartmouth Street in Back Bay; and one on Malcolm X Boulevard, connecting the SW Corridor to Dudley Square.

With all these new facilities under consideration, and demand for many more from cyclists, a comprehensive look at bike crash data (including cause and severity) could both help figure out where they are needed, and evaluate if they actually provide a safer environment.

5 comments to Understanding the causes of tragedy

  • How about Mass Ave from Everett Square to Melnea Cass Blvd? That’s a huge wide stretch!

  • David G

    First thank you for the very comprehensive and thoughtful update. For me, as a bicycle computer, route guidance through certain intersections would be really helpful. For example, at the bottom of Cambridge Street where it intersects Charles Street and Storrow Drive, I need to cross over to the Longfellow Bridge on my way home. Always scared.

  • Mark

    The FAA does through research and reporting of crashes AND just part failures on planes. Its how aviation got so much safer. A similar attitude is needed for other accidents including those on roads. The last police and analysis report I’ve seen was for Kyaw’s death last December and released by MIT’s paper, The Tech. Almost no redaction. The report lacked criticism that could have made the city liable for damages: permitting the overly bright Bank of America ATM kiosk, and the overly narrowed Vassar Street corner between two truck routes.

    The city deserves to be sued for Yang’s death, so likely making a curb extension too long and lanes too narrow for a busy bus/cycle route won’t be in the report. If Yang ran a red light or any other infraction, the report will just completely blame him.

    There is a rumor that Rennebohm was drunk, standing and not even riding when she fell over in front of the bus. This too might be an unfortunate truth. Nationwide, many pedestrians die this way every year, so without cycling under influence laws, expect them too.

    We all suffer when accident information is missing, hidden, incomplete, and/or ignored in making our daily lives safer. Lawsuits can effect change, but prevent it too. The necessary incentives and protections are needed to encourage accurate and complete reporting AND publishing.

    This is a personal issue for me as last month a driver backed out of a driveway into the side of my car as I was driving slowly approaching a red light. The driver could not see me approaching because a stupid landscaping curb extension blocked his view of me. Bump outs are to enhance visibility, not impair it! Even though he was at fault and his insurance paid for repairs, does “no-fault” Mass still list the accident on my clean record if I report it? I don’t want the risk, so won’t report and help get the danger fixed. If I were a thief and tried to claim personal injuries to make money, I’m always going to report accidents. Wrong government incentive, wrong data.

  • infoferret

    There is a hearing at City Hall at noon
    http://www.cityofboston.gov/cityclerk/docs/SKMBT_42012112223390-e0b49d.pdf

    Thurs., Dec. 6, at Noon
    Boston City Hall
    5th Floor
    Iannella City Council Chambers

  • Rachael Connolly

    Dear Sir/Madam

    I am the sister of Tanya Connolly killed by a huge HCV in fact crushed to death – the truck was in a residential area where the local residents told me as I had to fly from London to go to my sisters funeral that the truck should NOT have been there – I am patiently waiting for the city of bostons police report almost a year later – tanya was crushed on sept 17 2012 – once her year anniversary is over for the sake of my family who are naturally devastated I will do everything in my power to find out exactly what happened and to try to make sure it does not happen again to any family again – Tanya was an extremely responsible person so it could happen to anyone – I hope no family has to go through the pure hell that we have on us every single day.

    We are not out to blame anyone however measures should off been taken for cyclists especially at that time when there were active campaigns at that time to get citizens on bikes like ride your bike to work by the former mayor of boston

    I will be in touch very soon

    yours sincerely

    Rachael Connolly

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