Cycling Like Your Life Depends On It

Chester A. Kojro
Chester Kojro

Everyone wants safe cycling but until we address the actual causes of crashes, all the post-crash pontification, proposals and demands for new laws and changes to infrastructure, especially bike lanes, are just wasted time and effort.

Chicago’s WGN News reported on 23 June, “Bicyclist critically injured after being run over by city truck on NW Side”. Summary: The crash occurred at 8:30 a.m. at a busy intersection of Milwaukee and Belmont. [Milwaukee runs diagonally so it’s a sharp 135 degree turn.] Both the bicycle and the truck were heading NW and both turned E. [Unclear if they were in separate traffic lanes but since the truck was turning, it was likely in the right lane and the bicycle was slipping past between the truck and the curb.] According to police and witnesses, the truck went over a woman on a bike and she was trapped underneath and dragged until bystanders stopped the truck. The driver was completely unaware of the cyclist until after he stopped. Witnesses agree that the truck driver could not have seen the cyclist. The cyclist was transported by ambulance in critical condition.

The reporter dutifully quoted witnesses:

“Neighbors said the intersection is dangerous because of the sharp corners and the heavy traffic.”

“She was small, … he could not have seen her. She was in the blind angle, there is no way he could have seen the lady, it just was an accident,” he said.”

“[A witness] says a light pole and garbage cans on the corner could have blocked the view of the truck driver – and he says it’s a reminder that drivers, cyclists and pedestrians all need to be more conscious cautious of traffic.”

The reporter then mentioned two previous nearby crashes:

“In November, a bicyclist died in a crash with a dump truck at Milwaukee and Kilbourn avenues [about a mile away].”

“Four years ago, there was a fatal accident at Damen Avenue and Addison Street [about three miles away], very similar to Tuesday’s incident, with both a cyclist and a truck turning right at the same time.”

I looked up both previous crashes.

In the more recent crash, a truck crossed a painted bike lane when turning right onto a highway entrance ramp. It struck and killed the cyclist pedaling alongside. In the older crash, a truck turned right and struck and killed a cyclist who was pedaling alongside between the truck and the curb. Both crash stories included subsequent protests demanding safer bike lanes and increased whatever, you know, the usual redesigning of streets and intersections “to make them safer”.

Okay, so what really happened? All three crashes are commonly called “Right Hooks” where the vehicle turns right while the cyclist alongside goes straight. They are the most common type of bicycle/vehicle crash. Doesn’t matter which one is passing the other or if both are maintaining tempo. Whether the vehicle hits the bike or the bike hits the vehicle, it’s always bad for the bike.

Another problem is “blind spots." A cyclist in traffic sees above car roofs and typically has an excellent view of surrounding traffic. Drivers sit lower down and enclosed, seeing only the vehicles closest to them, and pay attention mostly on those in front. Rear and side view mirrors are useful for detecting the presence of other vehicles but cyclists are small and often unexpected. Remember, too that the right side mirror is usually a wide-angle with the warning, “OBJECTS ARE CLOSER THAN THEY APPEAR.” That’s the side where most bicycles appear but yet remain unseen, literally. Worse still, trucks are tall and while drivers may see well above surrounding cars, they have very limited vision immediately around the truck, especially to the right and rear, again just where cyclists tend to appear.

Back in 2016, I wrote a column titled, “Don’t Get Squeezed, Ever!” Long vehicles and trailers are especially dangerous when turning. The front axle goes where steered but then the trailing axles follow to the inside of the turn. That’s why you find tire scuff marks on so many curbs and traffic islands. It is why tractor-trailers often have signs, “WARNING! Vehicle Makes Wide Turns!” At a right turn, the driver usually first swings out to the left to get extra clearance because the rear axle then cuts to the inside. If caught alongside a long right-turning vehicle, even if on a sidewalk, you can be struck by the overhanging side of the vehicle and knocked down. The rear wheels, trailing to the right, can then roll right over you.

“Getting squeezed” occurs not only at turns but also during simple lane changes and even on a gently winding road. The truck’s rear end swings to the inside so always, “Stay Away!”

In each of the above three Chicago crashes, regardless of whether the truck driver was charged, it was the cyclist who made the tragic mistake of pedaling alongside a large vehicle and who then suffered the horrible consequences.

Final irony: At the end of the first news story, while the reporter was on the sidewalk and warning about the dangers of cycling in traffic, two cars behind him slowed and stopped but then a bicyclist zipped right by, squeezing in between them.

Cycle smart! Pay Attention! Don’t Get Squeezed, EVER!

I hope that I’ve dispelled some concerns and encouraged others to give bicycle riding a try. Perhaps we’ll meet soon. I’ll ring my bell!