Friday, March 18, 2011

Making our Roads Safer: Data Collection and Bicycle Accidents

Here's a link to an interesting story in the San Francisco Chronicle which identifies the most dangerous roads and intersections for cyclists in the Bay area.

The Chronicle article illustrates why it is important for municipalities to collect and disseminate raw data about bicycle accidents.  It allows government officials and the public to identify and reconfigure bad intersections, and it tells cyclists which areas they may want to avoid (or at least be aware of).  So how is the data collected?  Typically, crash data comes from police departments, whose officers fill out the police reports.  Problems arise when the standard police report forms do not call for information regarding whether a bicycle was involved.

As I noted in an earlier post, the City of Boston updated the software it uses so that reports can now reflect the fact that a bicycle was involved.  Thus, we will soon be able to identify the most dangerous spots to ride within the City.  However, many cities and towns still do not collect data regarding bicycle accidents, preventing a full blown analysis such as that which was done in San Francisco.

Do you know if your town's police department has a way of collecting data pertaining to bicycle accidents?

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Is fixie/no brakes street legal under Massachusetts law?

It was a call from a newspaper reporter that originally got me thinking about whether it is legal to ride a fixie with no brakes in Massachusetts.  For some enlightenment, I went to Mass. Gen.L. c. 85, sec. 11B(7) deals with the issue of "braking systems" for bikes, and reads as follows:

"Every bicycle operated upon a way shall be equipped with a braking system to enable the operator to bring the bicycle traveling at a speed of fifteen miles per hour to a smooth, safe stop within thirty feet on a dry, clean, hard, level surface." 

So that clears that up, right? All the bike needs is a "braking system" that complies with the "15/30 rule". That would seem to rule out the operation of a fixed gear bike with no brakes on a public way in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.  

Not so fast, though.  What constitutes a "braking system" under Massachusetts law?  One would think that a brake lever and caliper would meet the definition.  Similarly a disc brake would seem meet the definition as well.  But must the braking system be friction based such as in these two examples?  Could the drivetrain of the bicycle act as a braking system if enough reverse force is applied to the pedals?  Seemingly, those folks riding a fixie who can lock the rear wheel up and skid to a stop can brake just as effectively as someone using caliper brakes.  So maybe the answer to today's question depends on the rider him or herself.  Perhaps it is legal if the rider has the skills to meet the requirements of the 15/30 rule.

Now let's address a different issue--how does the general public perceive the bike rider who has no brakes?  I bet you've already got an answer for this one: who cares, right?  As long as YOU know you are safe.  However, public perceptions take on a much more important role if there's been an accident.  Let's suppose you get doored while riding your fixie and you sustain serious injuries.  In the hypothetical incident, you have no opportunity to brake (lawyers and accident reconstructionists refer to this as "perception/reaction time"), so technically the fact that you have no brake shouldn't make any difference,  right?

Fat chance.  The ultimate decider of fact is that jury of your peers.  Not just your peers from the morning ride, but your peers from the ice cream aisle at the grocery store or the express line at Dunkin' Donuts.  Chances are nobody on your jury will ride bikes, and they may even be biased against cyclists.  Fact is, no matter what the circumstances are surrounding the accident, the jury is going to have a hard time bending its collective head around the fact that a bike rider was crusising along without brakes.  The defense lawyer will know this and will do his/her best to exploit this to their advantage.  Does this mean you can't get a fair trial?  Absolutely not.  A good plaintiff's attorney who understands cycling can explain the lack of brakes and put it into context, but still, the lack of brakes is still likely to play into the jury's deliberations on some level no matter how well your lawyer handles the issue. 

Thus, even if fixie/no brake is ultimately deemed to be legal in a court of law, the rider still runs the risk of juror bias, even if the rider is not at fault.