Wednesday, June 19, 2024

A “ghost bike” memorial to Dr. Bernard “Joe” Lavins stands in Porter Square, as it has since his death Oct. 5, 2016, when he was struck by an 18-wheeler. (Photo: Marc Levy)

Bicyclist Dr. Bernard “Joe” Lavins died by entering the blind spot of a tractor-trailer, with “no indication that mechanical failure, conditions of the roadway or the roadway design contributed,” according to a report released Monday by the office of Middlesex District Attorney Marian Ryan, closing a nearly 18-month investigation.

From such techniques as reconstructing the collision, a visibility study, a review of surveillance footage and witness interviews, investigators found that Lavins and the tractor-trailer truck that hit him were traveling south together on Massachusetts Avenue at 8:08 a.m. Oct. 5, 2016, when Lavins left the bike lane – continuing along Massachusetts Avenue to the intersection for Somerville Avenue – intending to turn left about 36 feet before the crosswalk.

Lavins was fatally struck by the tractor-trailer truck in the center of the middle lane of Massachusetts Avenue, with the impact occurring in the center of the truck, and then by a sedan in the same lane, investigators said.

“It was very likely that the driver of the truck could not perceive the cyclist, as the cyclist entered the lane of the travel without signaling, and based on the cyclist’s speed and location,” according to a press release summing up the report.

“The operator of the truck was not speeding, impaired or districted by cellphone or other objects at the time of the crash,” and stayed at the scene of the death afterward, according to the report.

Lavins, a 60 year-old Lexington resident who rode often to his job as a research scientist at Ironwood Pharmaceuticals in Cambridge, was the second cyclist killed in traffic in Cambridge in a little over three months; Amanda Phillips, 27, died shortly before 12:30 p.m. June 23, 2016, in Inman Square.

The final step in releasing the official findings of Lavins’ death was meeting with the people who might be affected by the report, said Meghan Kelly, director of communications for the District Attorney’s Office. Lavins left behind a wife and a teenage daughter.

A final report on Phillips’ death will follow, but Kelly did not know when:

“The investigation into crash that resulted in the death of Amanda Phillips remains open and ongoing. Motor vehicle reconstructions are complex investigations that rely on a number of outside reports, including medical examiner’s reports, crash reconstruction reports and mechanical reports for vehicles involved. We review these reports along with any available witness statements and surveillance video as part of our investigation. In this case we are still waiting on the completion of outside reports to reach a complete and accurate assessment of what happened.”

Infrastructure changes

The two deaths helped speed improvements to bicycle infrastructure citywide, but particularly in Porter and Inman squares, where the city’s Traffic, Parking & Transportation Department have come up with improvement plans bringing varying degrees of controversy. Inman Square residents have expressed dissatisfaction with a proposal that would divide the open space of Vellucci Plaza and result in the removal of several mature trees.

Bicycle lanes added to Brattle Street in Harvard Square and Cambridge Street into Inman Square have been particularly disputed, with people unhappy over the loss of some parking spots, the relocation of spots that remain (between car traffic and bike lanes), lane configurations they deem confusing and added complication for drivers trying to get to businesses as bikes travel between their cars and the sidewalk.

Critics of the new infrastructure have complained to city councillors at length that bicyclists behave unsafely; bicyclists say that the new infrastructure encourages safer behavior.

“All that has happened since”

Amanda Phillips, in a portrait posted in June 2016 by Diesel Cafe, where she worked as a barista.

And though bicycle infrastructure was in the planning stages before the deaths of Phillips and Lavins, some residents critical of the lanes or the speed of their rollout have accused the bicyclists of “exploiting these deaths to advance their own agenda.”

Mike Reppucci, owner of Inman Pharmacy at 1414 Cambridge St., said he was among the first people on the scene when Phillips was killed near his shop, and ran the block to the square’s fire station to flag down a returning firetruck for help. “It was a horrible sight,” he said of Phillips’ death, and his own children bicycle throughout the city – yet he feels Cambridge is rushing to a bad solution for Inman Square’s convoluted traffic patterns and not listening to widespread unrest or proposed practical alternatives.

That’s because “all that has happened since then, it’s all predicated on this poor woman losing her life,” Reppucci said of Phillips.

The 27-year-old Phillips was an Inman Square resident studying at the Massachusetts General Hospital Institute of Health Professions and a longtime barista at Diesel Cafe in Somerville’s Davis Square. The district attorney and Cambridge Police explained at the time of her death that when a car door opened ahead of her bicycle near Hampshire and Cambridge streets, she was forced into traffic and hit by a landscaping truck.

Riding on the sidewalk

Reppucci said security camera video that was copied and given to police shows Phillips riding on the sidewalk before heading to the street behind a parked car. The driver is getting out at that moment, and Phillips veers to avoid the opening door, riding into the path of a truck.

“There can be one, two or three unusual things, and most of the time no more than one happens at a time and you never see an accident. And once in a while the things converge and the results are awful,” Reppucci said. “She could do what she did every day and never have been harmed. All of these things had to happen together for this outcome.”

Inman Pharmacy no longer has a copy of the video, Reppucci said. It was not viewed in the writing of this story.

In the 21 months since Phillips died, a few people have also wondered if the cause of the death from the awaited official report would change the narrative behind the city’s speedy infrastructure changes, and Reppucci agreed that it’s “become politically incorrect to suspect the cause of the accident wasn’t the bicyclist.”

Yet he also agreed that if there had been a bike lane on Cambridge Street, Phillips might have been in it instead of on the sidewalk, leaving it unclear what the video changes about the infrastructure debate that’s ensued.

A call for protected bike lanes

When the video was described to Nathanael Fillmore, of the Cambridge Bike Safety group, he said he’d heard that Phillips may have been riding on a sidewalk before being killed and “I don’t understand how that changes anything.” (Even reporting on the day of the death said that a preliminary crash reconstruction by state police suggested she “had entered Cambridge Street from the sidewalk,” and it remained part of the narrative six days later as Phillips’ “ghost bike” memorial was dedicated. Some reporting suggested she had struck a car door or been struck by one, rather than veered to avoid one.)

“To me, that sounds like the perfect scenario for protected bike lanes like the ones the city has installed – unfortunately, not right where Amanda died, but further up on Cambridge Street. If those had been in place, [the dooring Phillips tried to avoid] is one of the scenarios that protected bike lanes make completely impossible,” Fillmore said. “I struggle to understand the relevance.”

Fillmore said he knew little about Lavins’ death and would be interested to see the district attorney’s report, since the traffic changes proposed to Porter Square are “minimal” and don’t include requested protected bike lanes. “Whereas with Amanda Phillips, the city has actually implemented changes on Cambridge Street that would have prevented this, and not everyone is happy with the tradeoff it implies,” he said.