Bikers (and Drivers) in Boston: Stop Being So Reckless [UPDATED]

New city data shows the causes of the city’s bike accidents.

Update, 5:31 p.m.:

This afternoon, Pete Stidman (of the Boston Cyclists Union) and Aaron Naparstek (of MIT’s City Design and Development group) pointed out to me that the city’s Boston Cyclist Safety Report contained some conflicting data, including some that I cited in my original story below. For example: According to the city’s report released this morning, in 28 percent of crashes, the Boston Police Department had noted that a cyclist had run a red light or stop sign (page 17 of the report). However, later in the report, the raw data showed that figure to be 6 percent—a police officer noted that it occurred 107 times in 1790 crashes. (Note: Police did not report factors in all accidents.)

When I contacted the city’s press department, they forward me a note from Nicole Freedman, the director of Boston Bikes, saying “This is indeed an error.” Freedman said she was working on uploading the updated report.

The raw BPD data paint a different picture of the factors behind the city’s crashes—and make it clear that cars are behind a lot of the accidents. That includes doorings (reported in 11 percent of incidents) and drivers not seeing cyclists (8.7 percent). Bikers come off looking better than previously, including only running red lights/stop signs in 6 percent of the cases and riding into oncoming traffic (also 6 percent). But neither remain advised behavior. I’ve updated the statistics—as well as the headline and subhead of this story—to reflect the more current data.

Despite some of the early statistical problems in the report, Boston Cyclists Union executive director Stidman remains excited about it: “We’ve been trying to get this [report] for years,” he says. “It will help the Boston bike scene on the back end,” pointing to much-needed improvements in increasing helmet usage, working on bike infrastructure on major thoroughfares, and educating taxicabs, who are causing a disproportionate share of crashes. He also said the Boston’s speed limit in residential areas (30 mph) is higher than many other cities (25 mph)—and faster cars cause worse bike accidents. Says Stidman, “Cyclists are not exclusively responsible for the crashes that we are having.”

Earlier version, updated:

The City of Boston released the long-awaited results of a detailed survey on bike crash data this morning. The short version: Many accidents involve young male bikers not wearing helmets and running stop lights or signs. The long version: Biking in Boston is better than ever, but the city still has a long way to go.

The entire study is worth reading if you’re into biking or liveable streets, and it’s all based on data from the Boston Police Department, Boston Emergency Medical Services, and Boston Bikes. There are some easy conclusions we can draw:

Male cyclists are involved in the majority of accidents. Somewhere between 70 and 77 percent, depending on the data source. Men bike at a higher rate then women, but are also probably more reckless.

Young people need to be safer. College-aged kids (19-22) and Generation Y (23-35) are involved in the most accidents.

Wear your helmet. In accidents in which the EMS responded, 52 percent of bicyclists involved in a crash were not wearing helmets. That’s substantially lower than the 72 percent of city riders who wear helmets when riding. So, people not wearing helmets are more likely to injured (which seems like a given), people who don’t wear helmets are more reckless (seems reasonable) or both. (Update: Stidman has pointed out that the 72 percent figure comes mostly from busy bike thoroughfares, like the Southwest Corridor and Mass. Ave., and is not a citywide statistic. Still: “I think it’s important to wear a helmet,” he says.)

Bikers need to obey traffic laws, if only for their own safety. According to the BPD reports, 6 28 percent of all crashes were caused by bikers running a stop sign or a red light. Another 6 10 percent were caused by bikers riding into oncoming traffic. Overall, the police attributed 54 percent of the crashes to bikers, but 98 percent of the injuries.

Drivers need to pay more attention. Also from the BPD: 8.7 14 percent of crashes were caused by drivers not seeing the bicyclist, and another 11 18 percent were “doorings” (a driver opening a car door directly in front of a bicyclist). Overall, 45 percent of crashes were caused by drivers.

The city came up with a list of pretty straight-forward conclusions: upgrade and add new bicycling infrastructure, increase helmet usage, consider a mandatory helmet law, continue educational campaign for both bikers and drivers, and increase police enforcement. All are pretty reasonable, with the exception of the mandatory helmet law—an Australian study showed that drivers actually behaved more aggressively around bicyclists wearing helmets, and mandatory helmet laws tend to drive down the number of people actually biking.

But really, the message here is a pretty simple one: Both car drivers and bicyclists need to behave less recklessly on the road. Drivers can rail all they want about bikers acting like jerks on the road, but even when they’re involved in an accident, they’re surrounded by several tons of metal. In only 2 percent of crashes were vehicle drivers or passengers injured, while 98 percent of the time, it was the biker who was hurt.

And bicyclists, if they value their health, need to start following traffic laws. Think we should have more bike lanes and cycletracks? Think we should institute an Idaho stop—in which bikers can treat a stop sign like a yield—in the city or state? Fine. Call your representative, show up at city meetings, and advocate for a change. But that’s not the law yet—so follow the laws we have. As Sarah Goodyear of the Atlantic Cities wrote earlier this week:

I am truly sick, at this late date, of people wanting to have it both ways: calling for protected bike lanes and a bike-share system, demanding that cops step up enforcement when it comes to cars, and then blithely salmoning up a major thoroughfare and expecting everyone look the other way.

It makes all of us look terrible and it’s a real hazard. Same goes for blowing through a stop sign or red light, or blocking the crosswalk when you’re impatiently waiting for the light to change. Not to mention shouting at pedestrians to get out of the way when they are crossing legally. I saw someone yell at an old lady the other day. Seriously?

I couldn’t have said it better myself. We shouldn’t let car drivers off the hook for their behavior—but it’s also time for all bikers to start taking some responsibility, too.

  • BornAgainBicyclist

    We can’t conclude much of anything except that you’re making a bunch of assumptions about cause and effect without putting the data in a bigger context. Such as: what is the bicycling infrastructure at the location of the crash, if any? If so, how did that affect crash rates, injury rates, and time of injury? Knowing this would tell us if we could reasonably attribute some of the cause to street design (and whether it is reasonable to generalize that somehow *all* bicyclists are currently reckless and therefore must be less reckless). Were injuries head injuries or to other parts of the body that are not armored? That would tell us if wearing helmets is as important as we often assume. Why do Boston’s stats say that only 45 percent of bike-car crashes are caused by drivers when other studies show that 70 percent are caused by drivers? That would tell us that we would need to look at how Boston collects the data and assesses cause relative to other cities. Until you provide better context, this is not much more useful that a list of numbers with some words placed between for your readers to try to make sense of.

  • Mikael

    Want to improve bicycle user behaviour? Calm the traffic. Create a city-wide network of protected cycle tracks. Install traffic lights for bicycles. Lower car speed limits. You can’t seriously expect bicycle users to use a car-centric traffic culture and traffic laws invented to serve only the automobile. It’s like expecting the Red Sox to play baseball using the rules of cricket. Your streets are last-century relics. Time to modernise and make the streets safe for pedestrians and bicycle users, like so many other cities around the world. You’ll save lives, reduce injuries and improve behaviour. This TEDx talk covers this topic:

  • Pedestrianite

    When cyclists are “reckless” they mostly harm themselves, as the numbers show. When drivers are reckless they almost always harm someone else. So who should watch out more?

    52% of those injured had helmets. 48% did not. So it’s evenly split and hardly conclusive. Additionally, people who don’t wear helmets may engage in riskier behavior overall than people who do, so the advice — “Wear your helmet” — is meaningless. A helmet plopped on a reckless person’s head does not alone make them behave.

    On the other hand, it should be noted that “Not wearing a helmet” is not the cause of an accident. It can cause an injury, but it can not typically cause the events that cause the injury. Your language here matters.

    And maybe more young people get injured because more young people ride? I don’t see a lot of elderly people on my rides through Boston. So that stat is also more or less meaningless. It’s like saying the majority of drivers involved in car accidents between 7 and 9 AM were on their way to work. That’s because the majority of drivers at that hour are headed to work!

    Very flawed piece and a misinterpretation of the data to suit an anti-cycling, pro-status-quo agenda.

    • Richard Something

      You’re 6x more likely to suffer a TBI if you’re not wearing a helmet.

      • Pedestrianite

        I don’t dispute the efficacy of helmets in preventing some injuries, but the whole point is that most people want to avoid the events that lead them to being hurt in the first place. I mean, I’ll wear a bullet proof vest, but I’d rather not get shot either way, right?

        The way to protect cyclists is with infrastructure, not helmets. No helmet is going to stop a speeding driver from ramming into a law-abiding cyclists. It’s not a talisman.

        How do people square helmet advocacy with the fact that in the best and safest cities for cycling, Amsterdam and Copenhagen, helmet use is almost non-existent, even among children?

  • Robert Wright

    This really is a profoundly silly piece of writing. Whenever there was any doubt or lack of clarity, you’ve come down on the side that crashes are cyclists’ own fault.

    There’s an inherent improbability in this. Which group are more likely to pay attention and try to avoid a crash – those in the open air atop a bicycle or those encased in a ton of metal? It seems improbable that those with the most to lose are most reckless.

    It doesn’t seem a very fair reading of the report. The report listed as the most common cause of crashes that motorists didn’t look properly. By my count, the report lists 220 cases of motorist misbehavior as common causes of crashes and 293 of cyclist misbehavior.

    The report also looks problematic, to say the least. It attributes more crashes to cyclists’ speeding (57) than motorists (24). So more than twice as many crashes were a result of cyclists’ exceeding the 30mph speed limit in the city as were a result of motorists’ doing so. Really?

    Much the most detailed report I’ve ever seen on the causes of vehicle/bike crashes – – also found that motorists’ failure to look was the biggest single cause of crashes. It went on, however, to look in very significant detail at the causes of fatal and serious injury crashes in London. It concluded that three-quarters of the crashes two-thirds to three-quarters of the crashes were mainly motorists’ fault. I blogged about that report’s implications (among other things) here:

    There is nothing in the report or your article to suggest that, properly examined, the causes of crashes in Boston are much different from those in London. Much the biggest safety problem on most big cities’ streets relates to motorists’ behavior. It’s dispiriting to see you blaming the victims.

  • Sean Roche

    Writing as a year-round bike commuter and recovered light-ignorer, persistent non-compliance with the signal suggest at least a little bit that the law does not make sense as applied to one class of road users.

    There are intersections that I cross as a pedestrian, cyclist, and driver. It is a no-brainer to wait for the light as a driver, regardless of traffic. It is equally a no-brainer, as a pedestrian, to cross against the light when traffic permits. Sitting on a bike seems a lot closer to the pedestrian case than the car case.

  • DRAWarch

    “(men)…are also probably more reckless,” “people who don’t wear helmets are more reckless (seems reasonable).” I agree that bikers should be responsible, but so should journalists. This article is the equivalent of a MALE bike rider crossing the highway without looking and without a helmet. A survey in Portland taken not too far back found that about 10% of bike wrecks are reported. Basically, reports are only filed if someone is injured (usually the biker), or if a car is damaged and it is not the car owner’s fault (usually the biker’s). That “seems reasonable,” but it also has been shown to be true in at least one city.

  • Chris Mcnally

    I completely disagree with the statement that “people who don’t wear helmets are more reckless”. They may be less fearful of traffic. They may feel helmets excuse drivers from behaving responsibly around cyclists. They may just not want to be covered with sweat in the Boston humidity. It certainly does not mean they are more reckless. I would think that, actually, when you have a false sense of safety from wearing a helmet you act more reckless. There is no data in the report to support the statement: “people who don’t wear helmets are more reckless”

  • Pedestrianite

    Even with the update, this is still problematic.

    Try this. Present some of the data BEFORE the bold headers and see how it works.

    For example…

    “According to the BPD reports, 6 percent of all crashes were caused by bikers running a stop sign or a red light. Another 6 percent were caused by bikers riding into oncoming traffic.

    That’s a big jump down from 28% and 10%, respectively. You go from cyclists being responsible for 38% of all crashes to just 12%. So is the lesson still “Bikers need to obey traffic laws, if only for their own safety” in this case?

  • Dorian Keibler

    IMO – it should be mandatory for large vehicles (buses, construction vehicles, tractor trailers, etc…) to have wheel deflectors installed (at least on the right side) if they are driven in places where there are cyclists and pedestrians. This simple piece of plastic could have potentially prevented 6 cycling related deaths in the Boston area over the past year.

  • Pia Thakore Miller

    Rather than edit this article, Patrick Doyle should have scrapped the whole thing and rewritten it because the initial conclusion that bicyclists are primarily at fault is incorrect. It is the drivers – the majority of the time – driving aggressively, not looking out for bicyclists that results in injuring the cyclists and not themselves.

    If we hope to be a modern city without smog and car congestion, this is something both drivers and cyclists need to figure out to make our city safe. Every year a new set of students will arrive so the onus cannot be entirely on the bicyclists – they are young, new to Boston streets and we will constantly need to fight the uphill education battle of “teaching” the cyclists the rules. It lies mainly with drivers who are surrounded by steel to protect their careless ways.
    This article supports the notion of bicyclists being the problem – as if we are organ donors by even getting on our bicycles to commute. It is an archaic way of thinking.
    The number of cyclists (and students) being killed every year is tragic and unacceptable. We have a responsibility as a city to do better.