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.