Tag Archives: collision

Truck side skirts: reliable way to prevent cyclist fatalities?

No, not reliable. And they are also supposed to confer an aerodynamic advantage. Some do, some don’t.

Some have a smooth surface which can deflect a cyclist. That is still no guarantee that the cyclist will escape serious injury or death. Other side guards are only open frameworks which can catch and drag a bicycle. A lot of what I have seen is little more than window dressing.

The side guard in the image below from a post on the Treehugger blog has no aerodynamic advantage and could easily guide a cyclist into the rear wheel of the truck.

Photo of truck side with guard from Treehugger blog.

Photo of truck side with guard from Treehugger blog.

A cyclist can easily go under the side guard shown in the image below, from a Portland, Oregon blog post. A cyclist who is leaning against the side guard is guided into the sharp edge of the fender bracket and fender, and the front of the turning wheel, which can pull the cyclist down. There is another wheel behind the one in the photo.

Side guard on City of Portland, Oregon water transport truck

Side guard on City of Portland, Oregon water transport truck

The side guard on a Boston garbage truck in the photo below — my own screen shot from the 2013 Boston Bikes annual update presentation — is only an open framework which could easily catch and drag a bicycle.

Side skirt on City of Boston garbage truck

Side skirt on City of Boston garbage truck

A truck which is turning right off-tracks to the right. A cyclist can be pushed onto his/her right side, and goes under, feet to the left, head to the right. On the other hand, if an overtaking truck contacts the left handlebar end, or if the right handlebar end contacts a slower or stopped vehicle or other obstruction, the handlebar turns to the right and the cyclist slumps to the left, headfirst.

To be as effective as possible for either aerodynamics or injury prevention, side guards must cover the wheels. Though that is practical, none of the ones shown do.

But no practical side guard can go low enough to prevent a cyclist from going underneath. The side guard would drag  at raised railroad crossings, driveway aprons, speed tables etc. Even if the side guard did go low enough, it would sweep the fallen cyclist across the road surface, possibly to be crushed against a parked car or a curb.

Fatalities have occurred when cyclists went under buses, which have low side panels — but the wheels are uncovered. The Dana Laird fatality in Cambridge, Massachusetts is one example. Ms. Laird’s right handlebar end is reported to have struck the opening door of a parked vehicle, steering her front wheel to the right and toppling her to the left.

Dana Laird fatality, Cambridge, Massacchusetts, 2002

Dana Laird fatality, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 2002

The bicycling advocacy community, as shown in the blog posts I’ve cited, mostly offers praise and promotion of sub-optimal versions of side guards, a measure which, even if executed as well as possible, offers only a weak, last-resort solution to the problem of bus and truck underruns.

Most of the comments I see on the blogs I linked to consider it perfectly normal for motor traffic to turn right from the left side of cyclists, and to design infrastructure — bike lanes in particular — to formalize this conflict. The commenters also would like to give cyclists carte blanche to overtake close to the right side of large trucks, and place all the responsibility on truck drivers to avoid off-tracking over the cyclists.

Cyclists are vulnerable road users, but vulnerability is not the same as defenselessness. It is rarely heard from today’s crop of bicycling advocates, but a cyclist can prevent collisions with trucks and buses by not riding close to the side of them. There’s a wild contradiction in playing on the vulnerability, naiveté and defenselessness of novice cyclists to promote bicycle use with measures — particularly, bike lanes striped up to intersections — which lure cyclists into a deathtrap. Regardless of whoever may be held legally at fault in underrun collisions, cyclists have the ability to prevent them, and preventing them is the first order of business.

Want to learn how to defend yourself against going under a truck? Detailed advice on avoiding bicycle/truck conflicts may be found on the Commute Orlando Web site.

Additional comments about the political situation which promotes underrun collisions may also be found on that site.

The Photoshop School of Traffic Engineering strikes again!

The Photoshop School of Traffic Engineering strikes again, this time in Minneapolis.

For background, please read the Minneapolis blog post: http://www.ouruptown.com/2012/08/potential-cycle-track-coming-to-36th-street

Also please read John Schubert’s comment on that post.

I’ve added a comment too — still in moderation as I write this, and I repeat the comment here, slightly edited and with this introduction.

The location described in the blog post, 36th Street at Dupont Avenue, is shown in the Google map below. If the full image doesn’t appear, clicking to refresh the page will probably fix that. The image is zoomable and draggable, but by clicking on “View Larger Map”, you may enlarge it, look down from different overhead angles, and switch in and out of Google Street View.


View Larger Map

36th Street is part of a grid system. Smaller, lightly-traveled 35th Street is one of several that could instead be configured as a bicycle boulevard (also called neighborhood greenway) like those in Berkeley, Eugene, Portland and Seattle, so bicyclists use the street as a through route while only slow, local motor traffic uses it. That is popular with residents and avoids the problems with sight lines which John Schubert has described.

Now for some comments on the pictures in the Minneapolis blog post. They are examples of of what I call the “Photoshop School of Traffic Engineering”, Or the “Anything Goes” school. Well, anything goes in a Photoshopped picture but not necessarily in reality.

Here’s the first picture from the blog post:

Photoshopped illustration of proposed "cycle track" on 36th Street in Minneapolis

Photoshopped illustration of proposed “cycle track” on 36th Street in Minneapolis

The caption for this photo in the blog post reads “[a] possible cycle track is being considered for 36th Street in Minneapolis.” As we’ll see though, the rendering in the picture is hardly possible.

In the picture, there’s already a sidewalk on both sides but now also a special lane so pedestrians can walk in the street. To make room for this and the bikeway, the blue car in the right-hand travel lane is squished to about 3 feet wide and that lane is about 8 feet wide. The text describes the bikeway as 10 feet wide, but it measures as about 12 feet wide based on the size of the bicycle wheels. 36th Street has a cross street every 300 feet, also entrances to back alleys and driveways in almost every block, but the picture shows maybe one intersection (note crosswalk lines) in the distant background. That is unreal. There’s some need for people to get in and out of all those cross streets, alleys and driveways.

Now, the other picture:

Another Photoshopped illustration of the proposed bikeway

Another Photoshopped illustration of the proposed bikeway

The caption in the blog post reads “[a] rendering of how a cycle track on 36th Street could look east of Dupont Avenue in Minneapolis.” Again, no, it couldn’t.

The bikeway is shown at a more realistic width. I’m not sure though how three travel lanes, a parking lane, 3-foot buffer and 10-foot-wide bikeway fit into a street which now has only two travel lanes and two parking lanes. Also note the car about to turn right across a lane of traffic and then across the bikeway at the one intersection shown. The lane with the closest car in it is shown as a lane of traffic, not a parking lane, or there would be signs and markings to indicate that. Assuming though that it is a parking lane and the turning car isn’t cutting off the closer one, then the closer one is still hiding approaching bicyclists from the turning one, whose driver must look to the right rear to see them as they get closer — remember, they may be traveling at speeds up to 25 miles per hour. The bikeway is outside the field of view of the turning driver’s right-hand rear view mirror. Some vehicles have no windows behind the front seat, and so the bikeway would be in a complete blind spot. I just got back from Montreal where I rode bikeways like this and it’s hair-raising with heavy two-way bicycle traffic in such a narrow space. I also had repeated conflicts with motorists turning across my path, using intimidation to try to make a gap for themselves in the stream of bicyclists. It’s safer to ride on 36th street just as it is now, and a bicycle boulevard would be better choice yet, especially for slower and more timid bicyclists. As John Schubert says in his comment on the blog post, there are better ways to make bicycling inviting.

The proposed design isn’t about improving traffic conditions, for bicyclists or anyone else. It’s about a social agenda: creating the appearance of safety for naive bicyclists to increase bicycle mode share, and making motoring more difficult. Actually, motorists would instead use the smaller parallel streets. Elimination of parking on one side of the street to create the bikeway is unlikely to be popular with residents. Snow clearance also is difficult with barrier posts and parked cars in the middle of the street.

The Montreal bikeways are the subject of a widely-publicized research study claiming a safety advantage, but the study has been demolished, see http://john-s-allen.com/reports/montreal-kary.htm

A Cyclist Signs Up for Advanced Driver Training

What was an avid cyclist doing in a place like this?

I like to ride my bicycle but sometimes I have to drive.

Over 40 years ago on dirt roads and snow in Vermont, I learned to steer into a turn; to manage the situation when a car loses traction, rather than to blank out or panic.

I shot the video above recently, in a class with hands-on driver training which goes well beyond that. All of the instructors are racers. They test the limits of traction at every turn on the racecourse. But here, they are teaching skills for crash avoidance on the road.

My son took the class with me. He had taken a conventional driver training course and already had his driver’s license, but he had no experience handling a car at the limits of traction.

The InControl course begins with a classroom lecture. Our instructor, Jeremy, explained that driver training is broken in the USA: that over 40% of new drivers have a crash within the first two years; 93% of crashes result from driver error and so, are preventable. He also explained that he would be teaching about steering, braking, hazard perception and avoidance.

Jeremy handed a quiz sheet with 16 questions to check off, true or false. We were told to hold onto our quiz sheets because we would review them later.

The most compelling part of the course is the hands-on practice. It is conducted under safe conditions on a closed course, in a huge, empty parking lot, in cars with a low center of gravity; an instructor is always in the car. As shown in the video, we did the slalom — at first with an instructor driving; then each student took a turn driving. We learned how great the effect of small increases in speed can be on the ability to maneuver. We practiced emergency stops, then swerving while braking; we had the backing demonstration and the tailgating test, as shown in the video.

To learn how to anticipate potential hazards takes time, and experience. The InControl class can discuss this but not teach this. A driving simulator like the ones used to train airline pilots would help to build that experience under risk-free conditions. Video gaming technology is approaching the level that it could do this at a relatively low price. Computers are up to the task, but they would need multiple visual displays and a special “driver’s seat” controller. Lacking that technology, I have traveled many miles with my son, both as a driver and as a passenger, coaching him. His many more miles of experience stoking our tandem bicycle were a fine lead-in.

What did I learn in this class, with my nearly 50 years of experience as a licensed driver? Several things of importance — among them:

  • Despite my decades of experience, I answered several questions on the quiz incorrectly. I’m not going to provide a crib sheet– go take the course.
  • There is a very significant advantage to having different tires for summer and winter use, due not only to snow but also to temperature difference. Winter tires have “sipes” — small grooves –to develop a “snowball effect” — actually picking up snow so it will adhere to other snow, and improving traction. Tires should be replaced when tread is still twice the height of the wear bars.
  • Side-view mirrors should be adjusted wider than I had been accustomed to — so their field of view starts where the windshield mirror’s field of view ends.
  • The National Highway Transportation Safety Administration’s standards for a 5-star safety rating are lower for SUVs than for passenger cars, as a result of industry lobbying (Any surprise?)
  • Importantly, that antilock brakes do more than allow shorter stops. They allow steering during emergency braking, and we practiced this as shown in the video.
  • Most importantly, to me as a cycling instructor, that learning to manage risks is essentially the same for bicycling as for driving a car. The attitude is the same, and hazard recognition and avoidance are similar. One important difference is that a well-trained cyclist’s brain is the antilock braking controller on a bicycle.

As I write this today, my son has driven himself to his classes at the local community college 12 miles away. Like any parent, I cross my fingers every time he goes out the driveway, but I am pleased to report that he has is cautious and calm as a driver and that his driving inspires confidence, with exceptions at a very few times.

I wish he didn’t have to drive. I don’t like the environmental burden it imposes, and I don’t like the risk. If public transportation were at all reasonable, he would be using it. If the college were half as far away, he’d be riding his bicycle at least on days with good weather. For now, his getting a college education wins out over those concerns…

Scaling up and scaling down

New York bicycling advocate Steve Faust has stated that some ways of accommodating bicycling do not “scale up” — that is, they work with small numbers of cyclists, but less well with larger numbers.

His central complaint is that use of roadways with no special bicycle facilities, according to the conventional rules of the road, does not scale up well.

I might put that a bit differently. After all, more cyclists need more room. Mass rides such as New York’s own 5-Borough Tour avoid special bicycle facilities and occupy the entire width of Manhattan’s multi-lane avenues. Motor vehicles are excluded while these rides pass through. Interaction within the group of many thousands of cyclists is for the most part according to the conventional rules of the road, and falls short only in that many of the participants are inexperienced.

On roadways carrying both cyclists and motorists, cyclists inconvenience motorists when the motor traffic could go faster — that is, when there are many cyclists and few enough motorists that they could travel unimpeded, if not for the cyclists. Motorists inconvenience cyclists when motor traffic is congested, and stopped or traveling slower than cyclists might want to go. Level of service always declines as a road becomes more congested, and it declines faster when vehicles have differing speed capabilities.

On the other hand, there also are situations in which operation as intended does not scale down to smaller numbers.

Motorists are more likely, for example, to yield to a crowd of pedestrians than to a single pedestrian.

Another example is the leading pedestrian interval: the walk signal goes on a couple of seconds before motorists get the green light. The leading pedestrian interval is intended to get pedestrians moving out into the intersection before motor traffic can begin to turn across a crosswalk, encouraging motorists to yield to the pedestrians. The same approach is used sometimes on bicycle facilities, for example on the Boulevard de Maisonneuve bicycle sidepath in Montréal, Québec, Canada. But a leading interval only works if there is someone waiting to cross when the signal changes. With smaller numbers, so the first pedestrian or bicyclist reaches the crossing after the motorists get their green light, the leading interval’s only achievement is slightly to reduce the capacity of the intersection.

The same issue can occur with any “conflict zone” with poor visibility as users approach, including the “bike box” or bicycle waiting area ahead of the stop line for motorists at an intersection. Once one cyclist is in a “bike box”, a motorist is unlikely to move forward, because that would require running over the cyclist. Therefore, the bike box is then safe for the entry of other cyclists, at least into the same lane in which the first cyclist is waiting.

The”bike box” works as intended when there are large numbers of cyclists so the first one arrives well before the traffic signal turns green.

If there are few cyclists, so the first one is likely to arrive just as the traffic signal turns green, then there is the potential for a right-hook collision, or a motorist’s colliding with a cyclist swerving into the bike box.

Safety requires that there be enough cyclists that early-arriving ones block the way of motorists, or at least alert the motorists that others may arrive. This safety factor does not scale down to small numbers.

Research in Portland, Oregon shows that only 5% of bicyclists swerve into the bike box when they are first to arrive; about 35% if they arrive later. The reluctance of the first-arriving cyclist reflects risk avoidance to some extent, due to not knowing when the traffic signal will change, but also that the swerve lengthens the cyclist’s trip — none of the Portland bike boxes are designated for left turns. The later-arriving cyclists are to some degree protected by the arrival of the first one, but also they either have to wait behind or move over to the left of that cyclist, into the bike box.

“Safety in numbers” claims become rather interesting when such issues are considered.

The design challenge is to achieve efficiency and safety of all travelers, regardless of whether numbers are large or small.

Six categories of bicyclist/motorist interaction

Let me propose six different categories of cyclist and motorist interaction. This is a first try, so it’s open to modification.

1) Vehicular — to quote John Forester, who developed the concept of vehicular cycling, “bicyclists fare best when they act and are treated as drivers of vehicles.” In vehicular interactions, bicyclists and motorists alike use lane positions as described in the traffic law for vehicles, and reach those positions by merging. Purely vehicular operation  is, however,  to an extent a red herring category, because nobody, Forester included, has ever claimed that bicyclists can merge across heavy, high speed motor traffic.

2) Mostly vehicular, but with greater recognition that high-speed motoring is more compatible with bicycling if there is width for motorists to overtake without having to merge, and that bicyclists (including operators of motorized bicycles and mopeds) can’t manage to merge on roadways with high speeds and heavy traffic, making special treatments appropriate in some cases.

3) Motorists may merge across designated bike lanes. Bicyclists travel these lanes, stop for traffic lights and stop signs, but are  are (in theory) not required to merge into or across motor traffic.  In theory, because double-parked vehicles, people getting out of parked cars, slower bicyclists etc. often require bicyclists to merge out of a bike lane anyway.

4)  Neither bicyclists nor motorists merge. They only cross each other’s paths by making crossing and turning movements at designated locations. Essentially, bicyclists are treated as pedestrians. Motorists must yield to bicyclists as they do to pedestrians, and bicyclists must slow and stop as needed so motorists have time to yield. This is the typical treatment where a designated multi-use path crosses a road.

5)  Motorists must drive at pedestrian speed or come to a complete stop to avoid collisions with bicyclists they can not see, but there are special signs or markings to make motorists “aware of bicyclists”. — meaning, “aware that there might be a bicyclist.” Examples: bike lanes to the right of right turn lanes, bike boxes, blind entrances from driveways where conflict zones are indicated by colored paint, signs etc.

6) ) Motorists are required to drive at pedestrian speed or come to a complete stop to avoid collisions with bicyclists they can not see, but there are no special signs or markings to make motorists “aware of bicyclists”. Example: “shared space” plazas where direction of travel is not defined by curbs or lane lines, and traffic may travel in any direction.

These categories are in order of decreasing demands placed on bicyclists until we get to the last two, where the demands placed on motorists become excessive and so bicyclists must anticipate more motorist mistakes.

These categories also are in order of decreased efficiency of use of roadway space and of increased travel time.

As to safety, that depends on behavior, but  there is a tradeoff of safety against efficiency with all of these.

Traffic theory: improving traffic signals to reduce pointless delay

A real-world time-space diagram, from Wikimedia commons.

A real-world time-space diagram

In theory, there’s no difference between theory and practice, but it practice, there is.

attributed to:
Yogi Berra
Jan L. A. van de Snepscheut
Albert Einstein

An optimal traffic-signal system would never present anyone with a red light or a don’t walk signal unless there actually is interfering traffic. In theory.

In practice, though, it may be desirable to introduce some delay in order to smooth the flow of traffic — to get vehicles on board a “green wave.” Traffic engineers think in sophisticated ways about this issue, but do not have the real-world tools to resolve it. While synchronized traffic-signal systems and sensor-actuated signals already improve the situation over uncoordinated timed signals, better sensing and more sophisticated software could, at least in theory, achieve much more.

Probably the most difficult part of the problem is in sensing approaching vehicles and pedestrians far enough ahead of an intersection so signals will change as they reach the intersection. Sensors are expensive, and many more would be needed. On the other hand, in a city dotted with security cameras, the sensor data may be easier to obtain, especially if traffic control is a goal when installing the equipment.

I am emphatically not describing so-called intelligent highway systems, intended to automate driving by taking control of vehicles. The driver then supposedly becomes a passenger, free to dial the cell phone, read the newspaper, watch TV or apply makeup without concern. For automated control to work, the system must exert at least as reliable control over vehicles as attentive drivers do. More yet: car makers have huge legal problems resulting from defects that injure only a small number of customers.

Automated control presently is applied only under very restricted conditions, on airport shuttle trains and the like. Even with a great increase in sophistication, it’s hard to conceive of how automated control (other than in collision-avoidance systems) would work on any roads except limited-access highways restricted to vehicles equipped for it.

Even under these conditions, there are difficult technical problems. Collision-avoidance systems to prevent collision with large objects ahead are just beginning to be common. Avoiding debris in the road, potholes and other smaller obstacles requires sophisticated sensing which a driver routinely performs — but well beyond the abilities of automated systems.

So, I am describing not a system to take over control of vehicles, but one to improve control of traffic signals. Humans would retain the ability to prevent collisions, and malfunctioning of the system would lead only to delay, not to crashes. The system would make little difference to anyone — motorist, bicyclist or pedestrian — except to reduce pointless delay.

Will this happen? If so, when and where? One promising thought is that it can happen bit by bit, at one intersection and another, rather than all at once along an entire highway.

Street Traffic Regulations: classic book online

My friend Bob Shanteau writes:

Another reason scofflaws give [to justify their behavior] is that traffic laws are intended only for motorists, reflecting a total ignorance of the origins of those laws.

Google has made the 1909 book “Street Traffic Regulation” by William Phelps Eno available online.

This book makes it clear that the first rules of the road preceded the dominance of the streets by motor vehicles. The behavior of … scofflaw cyclists now closely mirrors the behavior by all road users that Eno observed in the early 1900′s, leading to the need for street traffic regulation in the first place. He focused his efforts on education about his proposed rules of the road. That education is what the bicycle scofflaws of today sorely lack.

Alleycat racers

A British cyclist who goes by the online name gaz545 on YouTube has posted a version of one of Lucas Brunelle’s “alleycat race” videos, with voice-over commentary. Bravo gaz545!

Lucas Brunelle is, or was, a bicycle courier, but he distinguishes himself by shooting videos of the alleycat races — anything-goes races through cities, in urban traffic. The racers are mostly from the bicycle courier community. A Brunelle video is now making the rounds of 40 cities in a bicycle film festival.

Brunelle’s colleague Kevin Porter, who appears in some of his videos, served with me on the massbiek Board for a ocuple of years, something of an attempt to draw the courier community into mainstream advocacy.

Allow me to describe the fundamental difference between alleycat racing and responsible, sane cycling (or responsible, sane driving a car, for that matter — it’s the same idea).

The rules of the road establish who may go and who must yield right of way, so road users know what to expect of each other — but also, beyond that, in every situation where it is possible, both the road user who may go and the one who must yield are in full view of each other and able to avoid a collision if the other makes a mistake. Where sight lines are obstructed, traffic signs and signals direct road users to slow or stop, and allow them to take turns where flows of traffic cross.

Alleycat racers flout all this. They rely on their wits, and on guessing what other road users will do. They ride as if they were invisible. Much of the time, they are invisible, hidden behind sight obstructions where they can only guess what is around the corner. They ride opposite the direction of traffic, between lanes, where one driver’s slight change of direction will result in a head-on collision. They ride in extremely close quarters with vehicles which, if the driver doesn’t do as the alleycat has guessed, will sideswipe them, collide with them or run them over.

Alleycat racing is an extreme sport: a sport that involves a serious risk of severe injury or death — but more than that. Most so-called extreme sports, for example motorcycle jumping, involve only self-imposed risks. Participants in extreme fighting sports impose serious risks on their opponents, but by consent. Alleycat racers, on the other hand, impose serious risks on other people without obtaining consent and without warning. There’s an expression to describe this: breaking the social contract.

Brunelle’s videos are of high technical quality. Also, I’ll admit to some admiration for the skill of the alleycat racers. It is a level and type of skill normally required of a soldier in combat, a police officer confronted with an armed and violent offender, a cyclist or motorist facing an imminent threat of a collision. Skill is good. Any cyclist, any driver will face emergency situations occasionally. I’d think that perhaps the most skillful cyclist imaginable would be a reformed alleycat racer, if such a character exists.

Tamer motorists and cyclists can learn anticipation of hazards, braking, swerving — through training, and practice in the controlled environment of the skid pad or empty parking lot. My Bicycling Street Smarts turorial is one of a number of resources that teach these skills. But to put these skills intentionally to the test in the public streets is to court unnecessary risks, and to put other people at risk as well. The crash types and crash rate described in the Dennerlein-Meeker study of Boston bicycle couriers reveal the risks that couriers take — and the couriers aren’t even riding at nearly the extreme level seen in alleycat races.

Gaz545 doesn’t know of any injury that occurred during the London alleycat race, though I saw a number of very close calls in his video. However, in an alleycat race in Philadelphia which passed through the campus of the University of Pennsylvania, a participant came racing down off an overpass on a campus walkway — going from right to left here –


View Larger Map

(The break in the image of the overpass is due to the boundary between photos used in the satellite view)

The alleycat racer collided with a pedestrian — a student’s mother who was visiting the campus — knocked her down, injuring her seriously, and raced off. Other racers witnessed the incident. Police interrogated several but were unable to obtain identification of the hit-and-run racer from any of them.

Let’s describe the alleycat racers for what they are: outlaws who pump each other up to ever more extreme conduct in traffic, endangering others, not only themselves, and then when that danger results in injury to an innocent bystander, they adhere to a code of silence.

The pedestrian in the Philadelphia incident filed a lawsuit against the University for allowing the race to take place on its property, though the University had no idea that there would be a race. Suing the University was the only way that she could hope for any recourse.

It isn’t too far-fetched also to ask whether police might infiltrate the alleycat community to find out where a race is scheduled and perform an effective sweep-up. Alleycat racers are not “silly cyclists” (gaz545′s term, describing the cyclists in his other videos) making dumb mistakes in traffic because they don’t know any better. Alleycat racers act in wanton disregard for public safety. They do serious damage to the reputation of other cyclists as well, and I have very little sympathy for them.

(And here’s a link to Lucas Brunelle’s Web site, now that you have read what I have to say about it. There is no mention on it of the Philadelphia race, for whatever reason.)

Bob Mionske on “Driver Sues Family of Deceased Cyclist”

In a Bicycling Magazine blog posting, Bicycling attorney Bob Mionske describes an appalling situation: a motorist driving over 80 mph in a 45 mph zone struck and killed a teenage bicyclist in Connecticut. The bicyclist’s family sued the driver — but then, the driver countersued the family, claiming that the bicyclist was negligent in not wearing a helmet.

Connecticut law excludes such claims. Mionske says that the Connecticut legislature, in its wisdom, excluded the claims because bicycle helmets cannot protect bicyclists in high-speed collisions with motor vehicles.

I seriously question Mionske’s explanation. The same exclusion exists in laws requiring seat belts and automotive child seats, which usually do protect their users in collisions. Also, bicycle helmets do protect bicyclists in many if not most car-bike collisions. Only a small percentage involve high-speed impacts. The bicyclist cut off by a crossing or turning vehicle, or sideswiped, may only be dumped onto the road or onto the hood of a car, and head injury may be survivable or even completely avoided if the bicyclist is wearing a helmet.

Any passive safety equipment — seatbelt, child seat, helmet — can sometimes prevent injury, but cannot prevent a crash. To allow the victim to sue the perpetrator, and to prevent the perpetrator from suing the victim, is a moral issue, not a technical one. This is even more important when a law is poorly understood and weakly enforced, as with bicycle helmet laws. Children often ride bicycles where parents can not monitor them. Distribution of helmets also is an issue, when a helmet can cost as much as a cheap bicycle. In states with contributory negligence statutes, it’s worse yet: a finding of 1% negligence on the part of the victim results in dismissal of a lawsuit against the perpetrator.

To my knowledge, I was first to raise the issue of the liability exclusion. Back in the 1980s, well-meaning safety advocates, most importantly Safe Kids USA, had begun promoting bicycle helmet laws. A law was enacted in Massachusetts, where I live, without a liability exclusion. As a member of the League of American Wheelmen State Legislative Committee, I campaigned for a better law, and it was enacted. The League’s Consumer Affairs Committee, on which I served, publicized the issue of the liability exclusion, and it was written into the laws of many states, including Connecticut.

The League remained neutral on the issue of helmet laws, as its members’ opinion on them was divided — also realizing that fighting helmet laws could look bad and might not succeed; but the League insisted that such laws include the same liability exclusion as other safety-equipment laws. To their credit, safety advocates responded positively, supporting laws with the liability exclusion and innovative penalty structures. Examples:

  • no penalty, but only a warning;
  • penalty waived if the violator purchased a helmet;
  • positive incentive, such as coupon for a free serving at an ice cream shop for a kid seen wearing a helmet.

The safety advocates also initiated helmet distribution campaigns for disadvantaged children. With time, the awareness became widespread that educational and promotional campaigns, more than laws, would be effective in increasing the rate of helmet use in the USA.

Helmets sometimes prevent injury and sometimes don’t — but that wasn’t the issue that propelled the campaign for liability exclusions. That a helmet would not have prevented injury could, quite to the contrary, point out the seriousness of a crash and make a persuasive argument that a bicyclist should recover damages!

About bicycle lighting and onions

A chance meeting can lead to unexpected discoveries.

I met and spoke with Kurt Cibulski following a reading from a new book by its author, a mutual friend. I had arrived at the reading by bicycle; Kurt and I were talking bicycling. Kurt explained that he has a seizure disorder. The bright, rapidly-flashing LED headlights that bicyclists are increasingly using can initiate a seizure for him. “Who’d ‘a’ thunk it.” thought I.

Who? A proper, national standards-setting body, because someone, somewhere, would have brought the issue to its attention. On second thought, it’s obvious. Flashing lights are well-known to trigger seizures.

It’s also a truism that flashing lights draw attention. Many bicyclists ride in urban areas with overhead lighting, and don’t need a steady headlight beam to guide their way. But on the other hand…there’s the seizure problem.

Without careful standards setting, issues like this slip through the cracks. Designs get based on whim, commercial appeal, economies of production and avoidance of liability risk.

In the USA, individual cyclists are held responsible under state laws for using lights at night, but law enforcement is near-nonexistent, and many cyclists don’t use lights. The USA does have a Consumer Product Safety Commission, which, under pressure from the bicycle industry, has set standards — weak standards — only for retroreflectors on bicycles, never for lights. Retroreflectors only work for drivers whose headlights are pointed at them, and do not light up for the pedestrian stepping off the curb, the motorist in the cross street ahead, two bicyclists on a path approaching each other head-on. Bicycle manufacturers can point to Federal regulations and say that they are doing something for nighttime safety, while not being held responsible for these deficiencies.

This situation holds some ironies and unintended consequences beyond the obvious one that cyclists are being injured and killed for want of lights. The lack of standardization in the USA has given lighting manufacturers free rein to innovate, and has led to the availability of some very fine bicycle lighting systems. In the USA, when you see a cyclist with a light, you will probably see that cyclist from a good, long distance, because the light is a very good light.

In Germany, by way of contrast, lights are required on new bicycles. Manufacturer pressure comes to bear in a different way. To keep expense down, most lights only meet the letter of the law and are are less bright, and much less reliable, than the good ones sold in the USA. Bureaucratic inertia has compounded the problem: Germany requires bicycle lights to be powered by a generator. That made sense 40 years ago when battery lights were weak and battery replacement was expensive. Today’s efficient light-emitting diodes and high-capacity rechargeable batteries make battery lights economical and practical.

Generator lights also have improved, thanks to advances in technology and to discerning European cyclists’ demand for better lights that also meet the requirements of their laws — but a good generator lighting system can cost half as much as the bicycle on which it is installed.

A restrictive legal climate leads to this kind of market distortion; contrast this with the wider scope of innovation and slip-through-the-cracks issues in the US market.

I can’t help noticing that kiosk “bike share” (actually rental) bicycles that are becoming popular in American cities all are equipped with LED headlights and taillights, powered by a generator in the front hub. It only makes sense. The rental agencies have a more direct liability exposure than bicycle manufacturers who sell to individuals. But — the lights on the rental bicycles flash, because the generators produce alternating current and the output is not smoothed. Possibly also because flashing lights are popular and nobody though of the seizure-disorder issue.

Where are we heading with all this? I think that we’re approaching a political tipping point where regulations requiring lights on at least some kinds of new bicycles might be possible in the USA: both because of an increase in interest in utility cycling, and because improving technology had made bicycle lights much less expensive, more reliable and more compact. I mean, if little children can have flashing LEDs in the soles of their shoes, just to look cool, it isn’t much of a leap to think that every new utility bicycle could be equipped with lights.

But we also need to be smart, and look forward as technology improves, so regulations don’t box us in with outdated technology and inferior products, as in Germany.

Now, about those onions:

To give Kurt proper credit in this article, I asked his name and came up with another unexpected discovery. He spelled his name, and then volunteered, “Cibulski means ‘onion man’ in Polish. It’s a pan-European word.” Yes! Again, who’d ‘a’ thunk it? German, Zwiebel. Spanish, cibolla. I looked it up, and found variants in languages as diverse as Basque, Czech, Gaelic, Norwegian, Romanian…

I suppose that there’s another parallel, besides the two unexpected discoveries. Bicycle lighting issues, with all the political and technological complications, peel apart in layers like an onion, too.

Thanks, Kurt!