As Chuck so nicely posted, what happened on Walnut Street on Tuesday, when a driver struck and seriously injured a teen on a bike, is gut-wrenching. I hope that the young man’s injuries are not severe and that he recovers completely.

We obviously don’t know enough to speculate about the details of the crash and who is responsible. But, a few themes are emerging that can be addressed now, independent of whether or not they apply to this crash:

  • Site-specific conditions — almost a moral certainty that the specifics of the particular stretch of Walnut Street are not the issue, we need safe bike infrastructure all over Newton
  • Solar glare — should never be an excuse
  • Wrong-way riding — shouldn’t excuse a driver hitting a cyclist, but a really bad idea

Site-specific conditions

After I learned about the crash, I happened to be driving around the south of Newton, as the sun went down. And, I was struck by just how many people on bikes there were on various streets. And, it struck me just how vulnerable riders continue to be. We may learn that Tuesday’s accident was freakishly related to site-specific conditions and that fixing them will eliminate any possibility of a future crash at that location. Doubt it. More likely, we’ll learn that what happened on Walnut Street could have happened just about anywhere in Newton.

We want more bikes on the streets, not fewer. But, independent of the best efforts of bike advocates or detractors, there are going to be bikes on our streets. Unless we do more to protect cyclists — with infrastructure changes, not just education — we’re going to have incidents of serious injury and death.

Let’s make sure that the response to this crash is not to focus just on Walnut Street, but on the city as a whole.

Solar glare

Again, we don’t know specifics, yet, but there is some suggestion that solar glare might have been an issue in this crash. Stepping outside the particulars, solar glare should almost never be an excuse for any driver not staying in her lane or not being able to see things in the roadway.

If you are driving into the sun in the morning or the afternoon, the sun creating visibility problems should not be a surprise. You should be prepared for it. You should immediately take steps — like wearing sunglasses and/or pulling down the sun visor — to ensure that you retain adequate vision to perform the potentially dangerous (especially to others) of piloting a multi-ton vehicle at potentially fatal speeds (say, above 15 MPH). If you cannot ensure that you will have complete, continuous visibility in the event of the relentlessly foreseeable occasion of sun in your eyes, GET OFF THE ROAD UNTIL THE SUN SETS OR RISES. 

It’s really that simple. 

Again, we don’t know whether or not solar glare was an issue in Tuesday’s crash. But, if it was …

Wrong-way riding

If a driver crosses into a bike path and hits somebody or something, it’s the driver’s fault. Cars do not belong in the bike lane. That a cyclist (or other) was riding the right way, was stopped, or was riding the wrong way, ought not to matter. It’s the driver’s responsibility, by law, to keep the aforementioned multi-ton vehicle out of the marked bike lane. 

And, again, we don’t know what direction the teen was riding on Tuesday.

But, for the love of all that is good and kind in our world, cyclists, DO NOT RIDE AGAINST TRAFFIC (except in very specific, well-marked contraflow bike lanes). It’s simple physics: riding against traffic reduces reaction time and increases the force of any impact.

Two objects heading in opposite directions will meet at a time equal to the distance divided by the sum of their speeds. Less reaction time. Two objects heading in opposite directions meet with the sum of their kinetic forces. Greater impact. Two objects heading in the same direction will meet at a time equal to the distance between them divided by the difference of their speeds. Greater reaction time. Two objects heading in the same direction meet with the difference of their kinetic forces. Less impact.

Don’t think this matters? Assume a car going 35 and a bike going 10. Their combined speed going in opposition directions is 45, in the same direction it’s 25. The reaction time of the car overtaking the bike will be almost double the reaction time of the car and bike approaching in opposite directions. Since the force of the collision is a function of the square of the velocity, the force of a head-on collision is over three times the force of a hit from behind. That’s the difference between treated-and-released and admitted or dead.

For another post: what we can do to stem wrong-way riding.

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