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Metro

Bike activists push for harsher penalties after cyclist’s death

The defense attorney offered a simple reason why the garbage truck driver collided with a bicyclist Thursday afternoon: The driver, 41-year-old Ricky Prezioso, didn’t see him.

“Instead of the truck hitting the bike, the bike hit the truck,’’ defense lawyer William Cintolo said in court Friday.

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Prezioso was charged with leaving the scene in the crash that killed a 30-year-old Chelsea bicyclist. But the death in Charlestown, following two similar fatal accidents in the past three years, has spurred bicycle activists to step up their calls for increased punishment for drivers involved in fatal crashes.

Increasing penalties, the activists say, could lead drivers to be more vigilant in looking for bike riders and walkers.

“The duty is not to see them; the duty is to look for them,” said David Watson, executive director of the Massachusetts Bicycle Coalition. “If ‘I didn’t see them’ is an acceptable excuse for killing a bicyclist, then no one will ever be convicted in these cases.”

But critics of such laws say they would absolve bike riders of their responsibility to ride carefully and follow the rules of the road.

The police report from Thursday’s crash in Charlestown suggests that the collision was a right-hook, a type of crash that occurs when a bicyclist headed straight rides along the right side of a vehicle, usually a truck, that turns into the cyclist’s path. It is the same type of crash that killed 23-year-old Christopher Weigl, a Boston University student, in Allston in December 2012, and 23-year-old Phyo N. Kyaw at a Cambridge intersection in December 2011.

The right-hook is illegal under state law, which says, “no person operating a vehicle that overtakes and passes a bicyclist proceeding in the same direction shall make a right turn at an intersection or driveway unless the turn can be made at a safe distance from the bicyclist.”

But no one has been charged in the earlier deaths of the two cyclists. Jake Wark, a spokesman for Suffolk District Attorney Daniel F. Conley, said the investigation into the crash that killed Weigl “is still open but nearing completion.” Weigl’s family has filed suit against the truck driver and the trucking company involved in the crash. On Friday, Valerie A. Yarashus, the lawyer for Weigl’s family, said they were dismayed to hear news of a crash similar to the one that killed their son. “These are completely preventable tragedies,” Yarashus said.

In Thursday’s bicyclist’s death, Prezioso, of Swampscott, was charged with leaving the scene of a crash causing death, a felony, and released on $5,000 bail. If convicted, Prezioso faces as much as 10 years imprisonment and a $5,000 fine. Judge Lawrence McCormick declined to suspend Prezioso’s driver’s license, despite protests from the prosecutor.

Wark said that additional charges could be filed against Prezioso as police continue their investigation, but it is unclear what those charges would be.

According to witnesses interviewed by police Thursday, the cyclist appeared to have crashed into the truck on the front passenger side of the white, rear-loading dump truck as it was turning right from Cambridge Street onto Spice Street. That stretch of Cambridge Street has a bike lane, though the paint has worn off in places and the lane is riddled with potholes. The crash occurred at around 1 p.m.

The bicyclist, whose name has not been released because his family has not been notified, was pronounced dead at the scene, about 10 feet from his mangled bicycle.

Prezioso told Boston police that he did not know he had struck someone — he said he thought he had hit a pothole — and made his last trash pickup a few hundred feet from where the bicyclist’s body was found.

Police found what appeared to be blood stains on the truck and collected GPS information from the vehicle, police said.

Prezioso was involved in an accident in Malden in April 2013 and was ticketed for speeding in Chelsea in 2009, according to the Registry of Motor Vehicles.

Cintolo, Prezioso’s lawyer, said his client was not responsible for the incident Thursday.

“There is a point in any vehicle when you look to see if somebody’s coming, and there is a blind spot,” Cintolo said. “There is not one scintilla of evidence that there was anything negligent about the operation.”

Watson said that creating harsher punishments for drivers involved in fatal crashes with bicycles or pedestrians could help raise awareness among drivers to be vigilant in looking for bike riders and walkers. Legislation pushed by the Massachusetts Bicycle Coalition and WalkBoston, known as “the Act To Protect Vulnerable Road Users,” would allow judges to require that drivers involved in fatal crashes pay a fine up to double what is currently allowed, perform 100 hours of community service, and attend a traffic safety class.

At least eight other states have passed similar laws. The legislation is a more conservative version of laws that exist in other countries, such as the Netherlands, that automatically place legal liability on a motorist, even if a bike rider’s actions caused a crash.

Advocates are also pushing for a law that would require trucks to have protective side guards that would prevent bike riders from sliding beneath a truck’s undercarriage in the event of a crash.

The Massachusetts legislation has languished on Beacon Hill since 2011, but Watson said he is hopeful the “vulnerable road user” bill is gaining traction. On Thursday, bike and pedestrian activists met with a handful of legislators at the State House, in a previously scheduled meeting. Watson said he learned of the Charlestown crash moments before sitting down with House Speaker Robert A. DeLeo.

“This is not an attempt to relieve bicyclists and pedestrians of their own responsibility to act safely,” Watson said. “It is a recognition that because the driver of the larger, heavier vehicle presents the greatest danger to everyone on the road, they have a heightened responsibility.”

Senator William N. Brownsberger, a Democrat from Belmont and sponsor of the bill, said the state’s Joint Transportation Committee continues to discuss the legislation.

“The issue of bike safety generally is one that people do have on their radar, but there’s no magic bullet,” Brownsberger said. “Passing a bill that increases penalties is not something that changes actions right now, at all. . . . It’s a step in the right direction, but there’s a lot of other things we need to do.”

At a June hearing, Representative Steven Howitt, a Seekonk Republican, said he sees the need for better protection of riders and pedestrians, but feels such a law could be unfair to motorists.

“I’m not going to generalize, but I see them [bicyclists] running stop signs, running lights, people jaywalking, people running across the street in a diagonal,” Howitt said. “How does this address the pedestrian or the bicyclist or the skateboarder who is violating the law?”

John R. Ellement of the Globe staff contributed to this report. Martine Powers can be reached at martine.powers@globe.com.

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