After cycling deaths, a plea for truck safety guards
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Some of Dustin Weigl's fondest memories of his older brother, Christopher, include their long-winded arguments about which to spread first, peanut butter or jelly, on a sandwich.
But that banter between brothers ended in 2012, when Christopher, a 23-year-old Boston University graduate student, was killed by a truck as he rode his bicycle in Boston.
"My world was absolutely shattered in a way that can never really be repaired," Weigl said. His voice cracking at times, he testified before the Legislature's Joint Committee on Transportation Wednesday in support of two bills that would require the installation of protective side guards on certain large vehicles. He said the safety gear could have saved his brother's life.
"My family believes that this whole collision could have been prevented," Weigl said. "If side guards had been installed on this truck, Christopher probably would have survived."
The bills were filed by Representative Daniel Hunt and Senator William Brownsberger, who say bicyclist fatalities often occur when large vehicles take sharp turns and riders fall beneath the vehicles' rear wheels.
Side guards between the front and back wheels help push cyclists away from the vehicle. The guards can be installed on existing trucks or built into new vehicles.
The lawmakers said side guards and convex mirrors, which would give drivers better visibility, could help reduce bicyclist and pedestrian deaths.
"It's the appropriate response to a very real issue that the city and the state is facing," Hunt said.
At least five people died in crashes with trucks in Boston in the past four years, city officials testified at the hearing.
The latest was in August, when Cambridge resident Anita Kurmann was killed while bicycling near the intersection of Massachusetts Avenue and Beacon Street. The truck had neither side guards nor convex mirrors, officials said.
"If you look at communities around the Commonwealth, these tragedies are playing out in Cambridge, Brockton, Malden, Northampton, and Wellesley, just to name a few," said Kris Carter, cochairman of Boston's New Urban Mechanics office. Carter testified while sitting alongside Weigl.
Boston passed a side-guard ordinance in 2014, following a successful pilot program. Billed as a US first, it requires all large city-contracted vehicles to be fitted with side guards.
But Carter said trucks that are not contracted by the city aren't required to have the guards, and the city doesn't have authority to expand the requirement to other trucks.
"That's where we look to your leadership," Carter told the panel. "We look to your leadership in recognizing a simple fix that can greatly improve the streets across the Commonwealth for the people of Massachusetts, and set an example for the rest of the country."
Members of the Boston Cyclists Union and Massachusetts Bicycle Coalition also spoke in favor of the bills.
"We can potentially prevent these incidents from happening," said Barbara Jacobson, program director at the coalition, "rather than dealing with the after-effects of tragedy."
The committee also heard testimony about several other bills designed to keep vulnerable road users safe.
One, also filed by Brownsberger, would make it illegal for a motorist to double-park or to idle in lanes designated specifically for cyclists. A violation of the law would lead to a fine of $100.
Another bill would require at least 3 feet of space between cars passing bicyclists or joggers, and even more distance if the car is traveling faster than 30 miles per hour.
Meghan McGrath, an emergency medical doctor who works at Lahey Hospital and Medical Center in Burlington, said her husband was riding in a bike lane last year when he was cut off by a car, causing him to fall off of the bicycle, split his helmet open, and break his hand.
"I feel strongly that we need better rules to protect vulnerable road users," McGrath said. "Riding a bike or jogging should not mean taking your life in your hands."
Brianna Arnold, a political science major at Stonehill College whose uncle was killed last week while riding his bicycle in Worcester, agreed.
Tears welling in her eyes, Arnold recalled her uncle's love for biking.
"The family feels hopeless after such an accident happens," she said. "Maybe the people . . . listening could hear what happened, and hopefully choose to make those changes that would save someone else's life."