DA’s findings rejected: Porter Square design contributed to death, not lack of hand signal
From Ken Carlson, of Somerville, on April 4, 2018: Middlesex District Attorney Marian Ryan has completed the investigation into the fatal crash that took the life of Bernard “Joe” Lavins. (“Report out on death of bicyclist Lavins, turning eyes to earlier fatality in Inman,” April 2, 2018) As you may remember, Joe was riding his bicycle through Porter Square in Cambridge on the morning of Oct. 5, 2016, when he was struck and killed by a tractor-trailer. The DA’s report concluded that there would be no criminal charges brought against the driver and that the design of the intersection at Porter Square had nothing to do with the crash.
After reading carefully the publicly available information about the crash, I feel compelled to comment on the conclusions of the investigation as someone who knew and worked with Joe and knew what kind of bicyclist he was. As a local bicyclist, I am also very familiar with the Porter Square intersection where Joe lost his life. Joe had just turned 60 in the fall of 2016 and had taken up bike commuting several years before. His commute took him from his home in Lexington to his work in Kendall Square, where he worked as a scientist for a biotech company. On the bike, Joe was all about safety: he wore bright clothes, used lights, obeyed all the rules of the road (including stopping at every red light) and preached safe biking to anyone who would listen at work. So why did Joe die on that bright sunny October day? The report concludes that Joe was killed because he was in the blind spot in front of the truck, which prevented the driver from seeing him. It also asserts that Joe didn’t signal when he changed lanes from the bike lane to the travel lane. So did Joe die because of a blind spot and the lack of a hand signal? I would submit that this is not the case.
Central to the investigation was a collision analysis and reconstruction section report that provided much-awaited details of the crash. There was only one video camera that captured Joe and the truck as they were traveling on Massachusetts Avenue, on the Porter Square Hotel building at Porter Road. Images from the video indicate that Joe was already in the left travel lane (having moved over from the bike lane at some point before that) as he entered the video’s viewpoint. At this point on Massachusetts Avenue, there are only two travel lanes and Joe was properly positioned to approach the intersection where the two lanes split into three. According to witness accounts, Joe reportedly did not signal when he switched lanes from the bike lane. Massachusetts law exempts cyclists from using hand signals when not safe to do so, and I would submit if indeed Joe did not signal, he was doing so to keep control of his bike. Whether or not Joe signaled, Joe and the truck traveled together in the left lane for at least 50 feet, according to the video. The point is that Joe did not suddenly swerve into the truck’s lane and that whether Joe made a hand signal or not was irrelevant to the crash.
The video shows that the truck was only 7 feet from Joe at the moment of the still image. It’s not clear what the distance was between them before or after this moment. Again, I can assure you that Joe knew enough not to cut in front of a tractor-trailer. He attended many safe bike commuting classes at work stressing the importance of keeping your distance from trucks, and he preached that same gospel to others. But the fact that the truck was only 7 feet behind Joe around the time of the crash led the author of the collision report to conclude that Joe was in the blind spot of the truck. But since Joe and the truck were moving together for at least 50 feet before the crash, shouldn’t the driver have noticed that there was a bicycle in front of him? Furthermore, the report raises the important point that the blind spots in front of the truck would have been reduced had it been equipped with correctly aligned hood-mounted mirrors, which are now required by the cities of Cambridge and Somerville for all their fleet vehicles.
I would submit that Joe was not killed by a blind spot and the lack of a hand signal. Joe was killed by a truck whose driver had at least 50 feet to notice the bicyclist in front of him and by the fact that the truck was not equipped with hood-mounted mirrors. Nor was Joe killed by the lack of a hand signal, which did not factor into this crash. Joe was killed by a poorly designed intersection that requires bicyclists to cross at least one travel lane while competing with car and truck traffic. Ask any bicyclist what they think of the Porter Square intersection and they will tell you it’s one of the most dangerous intersections in the Boston metro region. This intersection needs to be fundamentally rethought, and its redesign should include protected bike lanes and bicycle boxes at the intersection with Somerville Avenue. The city made some minor changes to the intersection after Joe died, but those are a far cry from what is needed to ensure safety of the hundreds of bicyclists who move through this intersection every day.
Of course, for those who knew Joe, this is all very sad. He was a terrific human being and his life was cut short abruptly. And he was doing exactly what the City of Cambridge and other municipalities have been promoting: partaking in an active commuting lifestyle. Joe, like many, rode his bicycle as an alternative form of transportation to decrease the number of cars on the road, to improve air quality and to live a healthier life. It’s up to municipalities to provide safe bicycle facilities for the lifestyles they promote, especially those, like Cambridge, who have signed on to Vision Zero. Clearly, this intersection was not designed to those standards.
Reading this report brought back the painful memory of the moment when we first heard that Joe was killed. But we take heart in Joe’s memory and the important medicines he helped develop, the lives he touched, and the legacy he leaves. We hope his death will not be in vain, and that important safety changes to the Porter Square intersection will soon be made. We have to demand more of our streets and our public officials, especially in municipalities that subscribe to Vision Zero.
Ken Carlson is chairman of community representatives on the Somerville Bicycle Advisory Committee.