Riding a bicycle in Boston should be safe. Right now, it’s not. The death of MIT scientist Kanako Miuri, who was hit by a truck near Kenmore Square on Sunday afternoon, was only the latest tragedy on Boston’s streets. Over the last three years the city has suffered nine fatalities, according to a new city survey of accident data, and more than a thousand incidents recorded in police or emergency-medical dispatch records. With cycling’s growing popularity — fueled in part by the city’s successful Hubway bike-sharing program — those are ominous numbers.
Fortunately, the city survey itself is an important step toward a more productive, fact-based discussion of how to make the roads safer for everyone. Too often, discussions over bicycle safety have been framed by personal anecdotes of lawless cyclists recklessly endangering themselves and others, or piggish drivers acting as if they own the road. But the new data provide a way to get beyond those unhelpful stereotypes.
Bikers, as it turns out, are not responsible for the majority of bicycle accidents in Boston. Of the 891 crashes in Boston where a cause was listed, cyclists ran a red light or stop sign before colliding with a car 12 percent of the time, and 12 percent occurred when a cyclist rode into oncoming traffic.
Blaming the problems mainly on drivers’ lack of awareness doesn’t quite hold up either. Only 18 percent of the incidents occured when a motorist didn’t see a cyclist. Many crashes were caused by car doors opening in the way of cyclists, but a disproportionate share of them involved passengers exiting taxis.
The study results point to the need for better education for everyone. The city is now issuing stickers to taxis to put on the inside, reminding riders to look out for cyclists; cab drivers must help, too, by checking their side mirrors before a passenger throws open a door. Acknowledging the threat from larger vehicles, the city plans to add protective side guards to its trucks in hopes that private operators will follow suit. And with the new data showing that a large share of the cyclists involved in accidents are young men, the city is reaching out to younger cyclists through Boston Public Schools and local universities.
In the wake of the study, the city has also announced it will begin issuing $20 tickets to bikers who run red lights, and that it is considering a helmet law. Talk of a helmet law has provoked grumbling from cyclists, who say the city should be focused on accident prevention. But while prevention efforts are crucial, they’ll never be foolproof. In the same way the law requires seat belts because accidents still happen, despite the best efforts to stop them, a helmet law would be a justified safety measure.
Cyclists are correct, though, that many accidents can be prevented with better infrastructure. The city should hasten efforts to build bicycle tracks that completely separate drivers and cyclists. Along with better public transit and more pedestrian-friendly streets, a safer environment for bikers must be a key goal for the city as it prepares for a future in which fewer residents own cars. The survey will help focus the city’s efforts in the right directions.