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Harvard Study: Better Police Reports On Bike Crashes Could Save Lives

A "ghost bike" is placed in memory of Marcia Deihl, who was killed in a crash in Cambridge, Massachusetts, on March 11. (Rachel Zimmerman/WBUR)

A “ghost bike” is placed in memory of Marcia Deihl, who was killed in a crash in Cambridge, Massachusetts, on March 11. (Rachel Zimmerman/WBUR)

Last month, Marcia Deihl, a songwriter and community activist out for a bike ride on the first warm day after a brutal winter, was struck and killed by a dump truck outside a Whole Foods in Cambridge, Massachusetts. A white “ghost bike” now memorializes her death.

Aspiring photojournalist Christopher Weigl, just 23, was also killed in a bike accident: Wearing a helmet, and traveling in the bike lane near Boston University, Weigl collided with a 16-wheel tractor trailer when the truck made a wide right turn in the winter of 2012.

And less than a year before that, MIT graduate student Phyo N. Kyaw sustained fatal injuries when his bike collided with a truck in a busy Cambridge intersection.

These deaths happened close to home: where I work, shop, ride with my kids. And they underscore two truths: There are more cyclists on the road, and more of them are getting hurt in accidents, some fatal. The number of commuters who bike to and from work rose about 62 percent nationwide from 2000 to 2013, one report found. With those numbers comes added risk: 726 bicyclists were killed and 49,000 bicyclists injured in 2012, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

As a driver, you don’t need a research study to tell you that bikes are everywhere, whether you’re in Boston, New York or Seattle. But you do need research, and data, to help fix the problem — that is, reduce the number of accidents and deaths.

(Source: National Highway Traffic Safety Administration)

(Source: National Highway Traffic Safety Administration)

Cities, towns, planners and private businesses can’t move forward building safer cars and safer bike environments until they learn more precisely how bike accidents happen. Is a truck’s wide turn to blame? A taxi door opening at the wrong time? These seemingly small details of crashes are critical, says Anne Lusk, a research scientist in the Department of Nutrition at the Harvard School of Public Health.

That’s why Lusk and her colleagues have issued a blueprint of sorts for improving bike-vehicle crash reports produced by the police; their findings are published this week in the journal Injury Prevention.

After studying hundreds of hopelessly low-tech police reports used to record bike accidents, Lusk and her colleagues are making a nationwide plea: They’re calling on police in all states to step into the modern era and improve reports on crashes involving vehicles and bicycles. Currently, Lusk said in an interview, the details on crashes are handwritten and drawn by police on paper, with few bicycle-specific codes or diagrams.

Lusk offered one example: Currently, a crash report from Massachusetts shows “two vehicles” drawn. One of the “vehicles” is then coded as a “pedal cyclist” but there is no drawing on the template of a bicycle to show which side of the bike was hit.

Police have been recording bike crashes since the introduction of the bicycle in 1890, researchers note.

Now it’s time for a major upgrade. Lusk says police should “use electronic tablets with dropdown menus that have specific vehicle/bicycle codes, for instance, whether the bicyclist was riding inside a painted bike lane when hit, or whether the cyclist crashed into a driver’s open car door. The dropdown menu would also include other specific data like a coded vehicle picture and a coded bicycle picture. This information could then be automatically loaded onto spreadsheets for later analysis, Lusk said. Continue reading

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