Tag Archives: fatality

Alice Swanson fatality, a right hook

Here is the intersection in Washington, DC, where cyclist Alice Swanson was killed by a right-turning garbage truck.

The Street View is from 2009, as close as Google gets to the year of the crash (2008). The big cross street is Connecticut Avenue. The little one before it is 20th Street NW. My recollection is that the garbage truck turned right into 20th Street, and Swanson probably assumed she could pass it safely because it would turn right onto Connecticut Avenue and the traffic signal was red. If you open the Street View in Google Maps and click on the clock at the upper left, you can go to Street Views from different times and see the intersection without a bike lane (2007) and with green paint (2014). The dashed bike lane stripes indicate that motorists are supposed to merge into the bike lane, but many do not and it may not even be possible with a large truck. Note also that parking extends close to the intersection — the last 20 feet or so are no parking, with a fire hydrant.

Fatality on Montreal cycle track

As reported in a Montreal Gazette article, a Montreal cyclist was killed on July 24, 2012 when traveling in a two-way cycle track at the location shown in the Google Street View image below. The cyclist entered the intersection from the same direction as the red-shirted cyclist shown in the Street View. A large box truck turned right from the location of the gray car in the foreground. According to witnesses, both had the green light. The trucker was required to yield to the cyclist.

Location of fatal truck-bicycle crash in Montreal

Location of fatal truck-bicycle crash in Montreal

Responses were diverse. A commenter on a Montreal blog identifying himself as BrunoG posted one (here in my translation from the French) which I think especially hits the mark:

I don’t want to sound like a chronic complainer, but I think that bidirectional cycle tracks on one side of the street add a particular element of danger. Because the path was bidirectional, the cyclist was riding opposite the direction of the truck, on the right (from the trucker’s point of view) — that is, opposite the direction of traffic (again, as seen from the truck). Like anyone who turns right, the trucker had to have the automatic reflex to shift his attention between right and left, close to the truck: to the left to be sure that he would not run over a pedestrian who might be crossing against the red light; to the left ahead to be sure not to collide with a car or truck coming from the opposite direction and possibly turning left and cutting across in front of him; and on the right next to his truck so as not to run over a pedestrian who might be crossing on the green light. But he probably didn’t look ahead and to the right, because he didn’t expect that a cyclist would arrive traveling opposite traffic. (He nonetheless had the duty to do that, as the path is bidirectional, but he didn’t do that because intersections with bidirectional cycle tracks probably represent less than one intersection in 10,000 in Montreal.)

Personally, I feel safer in the street, riding in the same direction as traffic, than on a bidirectional cycle track where I risk death at every intersection (the path on Rue Rachel being an off-the-charts example of the danger of these paths).

What I find especially distressing is that someone has died because of the inherent danger of an urban accommodation which was thought to be safe. I extend my greatest sympathy to those who were close to the victim.

Another cyclist, YULavélo, posting in the same thread, merely expressed sadness:

This accident affects me unlike those in earlier months and years, because this is a location I pass through every week at the same hour of the day. Because it could have been me, or I could have learned, on returning from work, that it was my partner. That’s what I think about. That someone, somewhere, might have learned of this through the media: that a son, brother, friend, boyfriend died riding on a cycle track, on the green light, wearing a helmet, going to work. A great sadness overcomes me when I think about this. That life is such a fragile thing, so horribly fragile, that it can end, tomorrow, on the corner of Christophe Colomb and Mistral, on a route which he may have known by heart, as he accelerated, on the green light, in the cool air of an early July morning, with light traffic.

The question of the responsibility of the trucker doesn’t come up, as we now have a no-fault system whose only purpose is to empty the courtrooms, a no fault system which is a reflection of the vast, great era of impunity in which we live, an era of every man for himself and winner takes all.

And even if he was responsible and is recognized as such, this does not put back the cyclist, this brother, boyfriend, friend, lover, worker, on his mount, in the morning light, in his little pleasure of going to work by bicycle.

I am sad, and the stupid commentaries on the Web sites where the news was posted– whether on the right or on the left, are only background noise which doesn’t even touch on that sadness.

The “stupid commentaries” referred to here are on the right, hatred of cyclists and on the left, recriminations against motorists.

Ian Brett Cooper, in a comment on the Gazette article, pointed out some factors which may have contributed to the crash:

At the time of the accident, the sun had just risen and was directly in front of the driver. The cyclist was in the sun’s glare and as he approached the intersection, he was shielded from the driver’s view by signs on the traffic light [pole].

[Update August 11, 2012: If you click on the Google Street View image to enlarge it, you’ll see that the compass rose has the trucker heading southeast; in July, the sun rises north of east. The signs could easily have hidden the cyclist, though. If the trucker was steering left to clear the corner, the signs would have produced a blindspot moving forward along the cycle track. Another oddity of this “protected” cycle track is the wide driveway entrance which crosses it after the intersection. A vehicle entering or leaving the driveway at the right time could have concealed the cyclist, and so could another vehicle proceeding through the intersection ahead of the truck.]

My friend Khalil Spencer commented in an e-mail:

To a significant degree, cycletracks operate similarly to sidewalk cycling, and have many of the inherent risks vis a vis motor vehicle traffic. If done correctly, the thru bicyclist and turning truck driver would probably have separate green light cycles similar to a protected pedestrian crossing. Sadly, both the cyclist and truck driver apparently had the green. Cyclists are supposed to be “protected” from motorists by the cycletracks. But the only way to protect at an intersection is to either design so there are not conflicts (not sure how to do that) or with the intervention of an administrative device such as a protected light cycle.

I replied:

Conflict points in intersections can’t be eliminated, but they can be reduced in number and in difficulty. That is what the conventional rules of the road are designed to achieve. Designs which send traffic into an intersection from unusual and unexpected directions at unexpectedly high speeds have the opposite effect.

The number of conflict points is lower on a street with fewer lines of traffic. Actually, this works to bicyclists’ benefit because a travel lane which can only accommodate one line of motor traffic can accommodate two or three of bicyclists. In that way, narrow local streets which aren’t suitable for through travel by motorists can serve well as through bicycle routes.

Conflicts can be managed by controlling the type, volume and speed of traffic. That’s why we have main streets, Interstate highways, bypasses and truck routes as opposed to in-town shopping streets, residential streets, bicycle boulevards and preferred bicycle touring routes…

I think that Montreal will begin to get a handle on its problem when it decides to convert one of the narrower east-west avenues through downtown (I’d vote for the Boulevard de Maisonneuve) into a bicycle boulevard where bicyclists and slow, local motor traffic operate according to the standard, uncomplicated rules of the road. A bidirectional cycle track is the antithesis of this approach, because it adds conflicts, complexity and confusion. The fundamental assumption underlying it is that motorists can be subjected to and held responsible for new and unusual task burdens in order to protect the bicyclist, who is a helpless victim incapable of operating according to the rules of the road. To be sure, this correctly describes children, and part of the problem is the idealistic but unrealistic concept that children should be able to travel all around urban areas safely by bicycle. Adding to the appeal of the bicyclists-as-children approach is that the typical Canadian or U.S. adult is stuck in a state of arrested development, never having cycled since childhood.

There are some protected signal phases in Montreal. The bicycle phase of the signals is so short that they are widely ignored. The person who described this situation to me was on a group ride to inspect those facilities, and told me that he learned some new and unpleasant words in French when his waiting for the light blocked the other cyclists from proceeding.