Death by Harassment
Another bicyclist has tragically and needlessly died in the Boston area. Not because bicycling is dangerous, but because harassment by motorists is — when it makes bicyclists politely stay out of the way, always leaving room for others to pass — even when this means riding in the door zone.
On June 23, 2016, Amanda Phillips was bicycling on Cambridge Street northbound just north of Inman Square (the intersection with Hampshire Street) in Cambridge, Mass. A door on the red car below opened suddenly, causing her to fall left into the roadway — just as a landscaping truck was passing. This image of police checking the door and the bicycle was tweeted by a reporter a few hours after the crash:
— Christina Hager (@HagerWBZ) June 23, 2016
The crash mechanism seems likely to be exactly the same as in the death of Dana Laird in Central Square, Cambridge, in 2002. In that case, catching just the edge of the handlebar against the suddenly opened door was enough to turn the bicycle wheel to the right, quickly launching the bicyclist to the left — into the path of an overtaking bus, resulting also in fatal injuries.
Despite what is said in the news articles, this crash is not about a dangerous intersection or about a reckless driver. The problem is that bicyclists feel pressured to keep out of the way of traffic, even if it means riding in a dangerous place — too close to parked cars and doors that can suddenly open. Yes, motorists (and passengers too!) are supposed to look before opening a door. But too often they don’t. Therefore bicyclists need to keep out of range at all times. If there is parking, that means no part of the bike should be closer than 11 feet from the curb.
When there is a 12 foot travel lane next to a 7 foot parking lane (as in this case on Cambridge Street–see Street View image below), the bicyclist needs to be at least 4 feet into the travel lane–leaving no room for motorists to pass. Blocking traffic. An easy target for honks and yells. Either because they don’t want to be taunted, or because they feel it is impolite to block traffic, many bicyclists ride too close to parked cars. But doing so can be a tragic mistake.
If good is to come from tragedy, we need to take this moment of heightened publicity about bicycling (and its dangers) to make sure motorists know that bicyclists have every right to use as much of the road as needed to be safe–even if this means “blocking” traffic. (In many cases the bicyclist is not actually causing any real delay–which you can tell because bicyclists in Cambridge so often can keep pace with motorists, including waiting at traffic signals.) Generic messages such as “be careful” or “share the road with bicyclists” completely miss the point.
A lot of advocates are saying that tragedies like this mean that we must get bicyclists off the road, into “protected” bike lanes where cars can’t go. Really?
- If the point is to keep bicyclists out of the ‘door zone’ by reconfiguring the road, the way to do it is to either eliminate parking or design in a striped buffer zone, or, if it is not possible to gain more width, use Shared Lane Markings (sharrows) centered in the travel lane and May Use Full Lane signs. If there is room to put in a protected bike lane with a proper buffer from parked cars, there is room to put in a buffer from an ordinary bike lane.
- Protected bike lanes do not protect bicyclists at intersections and driveways — which is where most urban car-bike collisions occur (other than doorings). In fact the risk of intersection collisions increases when bicyclists are operating in something that is functionally like a sidewalk, outside the field of vision of turning and entering motorists. Bicyclists can compensate for the increased danger by riding extra slowly and stopping at every intersection and driveway — but they won’t.
- Even with “infrastructure” everywhere there will always be times when bicyclists need to ‘get in the way’ of traffic – either to stay out of the door zone, to overtake slow or double-parked cars, to prepare a left turn, or to avoid hazards at the edge of the road. Motorists need to know that it is perfectly okay for bicyclists to use as much of the road as they need, and is completely NOT okay to honk and yell.
Although there was no marked bike lane at the site of this recent crash, there are many, many bike lanes in the region that are mostly or completely in the door zone. These should all be removed. They only reinforce the mistaken belief that staying out of the way of moving traffic is the safest place to be. And woe to the cyclist who deliberately avoids riding in a bike lane to stay out of the door zone. It’s open season on such miscreants (in the current view of many motorists).
We also need stronger anti-harassment and assault statutes, and we need to take enforcement seriously. If we try it, we could change motorists’ behavior. Drivers would not be so quick to use their vehicle as a weapon of intimidation if they knew that a) the bicyclist might have a camera which could provide video evidence in court; b) some bicyclists are plainclothes police officers and c) the punishment for a first offense is the loss of driver’s license for 6 months and a $1,000 fine. Let’s put this on the advocacy agenda.
*The Cambridge crash data shows “angle” crashes as the largest category (32%) and dooring as second (20%). However if you separate angle crashes into the PBCAT categories of bicyclist signal violation, bicyclist stop sign violation, motorist signal violation, motorist stop sign violation, dooring would almost certainly be the largest.