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March 2018

Lessons of the Kurmann crash

By John S. Allen

January 2018 saw the release of a report, and horrifying video, of the fatal collision in September, 2015 of a semitrailer truck with Dr. Anita Kurmann, a 38 year old medical researcher, at the intersection of Massachusetts Avenue and Beacon Street in Boston. The truckís driver turned right from the second lane and the truckís rear wheels ran over Kurmann.

CRW member Joel Feingold, along with Massbike Executive Director Richard Fries and others, was the author of the report, which disputed District Attorney Daniel F. Conleyís conclusion that Kurmann was at fault.

The Feingold teamís report is online at . I agree with Feingold that the trucker was at fault. Kurmann was legally riding in the middle of the right lane when the traffic light changed and the truck quickly turned right onto Beacon Street.

As described in the report, the trucker had passed Kurmann some 25 seconds earlier. There was no excuse for his failure to recognize that a bicyclist could be next to his truck in the open travel lane to his right. His right-turn signals were on, but signaling does not make an illegal maneuver or reckless driving legal.

The Feingold teamís reportís thrust was to make a case against the truck driver. The report said nothing at all about how Kurmann also could have prevented the collision. Before I address that issue, let me make it very clear that that I do not engage in victim blaming. My goal is to draw the only possible good from this tragedy: to prevent additional tragedies.

So, letís look into what bicyclists need to know about trucks. This is proactive, crash prevention. Pointing the finger of blame after a crash is only reactive, no matter how well justified. It may bring financial compensation through an insurance claim or lawsuit but it does not revive the dead.

OK, now: there are two main issues with large trucks: they have huge blindspots, and their rear wheels off-track to the inside of corners. So, to be safe, donít move up next to a truck, and if the truck starts passing you but then slows down, you slow down too to stay behind it. These issues are covered so well in an infographic that Iím not going to describe them in detail. Click on the link here and have a look.

The four buttons at the lower left in the infographic show or hide overlays illustrating issues with trucks. The three pointer arrows launch animations illustrating different scenarios.

For some reason which we cannot know, Kurmann rode into the off-tracking zone to the right of the truck. Perhaps she was distracted, or perhaps she expected that the truck driver would notice her and avoid her. I do wonder whether, as a visitor from Switzerland, she was used to safer driving practices and expected that the trucker would yield to her, turn signals notwithstanding.

She might also have avoided the collision in the last few seconds with a quick swerve to the right,. Instead, she braked, but kept going straight ahead, too fast to stop in time.

Kurmannís having better real-world bicycling skills could have saved her. In that context, I have a disclaimer, and an offer to make: I am an instructor in two programs which teach bicycling skills, the League of American Bicyclists Smart Cycling program and the American Bicycling Education Association CyclingSavvy program. I expect to have a CyclingSavvy course in the Boston area this spring, and there is also an online CyclingSavvy course.

Much of what people need to do to be safe on a bicycle is totally counterintuitive, and so this course is helpful for cyclists at any level of experience. Just for example, consider a maneuver I mentioned earlier: to turn quickly turn right, you must first turn the handlebars to the left. Describing this action, and others, isnít enough. Instruction and practice are needed. If you place yourself on the notification list at, Iíll let you know by e-mail of when the course is scheduled. Or you can start out with the online version.

Cyclist education isnít the only answer. Stricter licensing and better education of truckers Ė of all motorists Ė would certainly help. The much greater difficulty of obtaining a driverís license in the Netherlands or Germany, compared with the USA, is well-known.

There are technical solutionss. The most promising, in my opinion, is electronic sensing, to alert the driver to potential conflicts and perhaps to stop a truck automatically. This is already practical Ė installed on many new cars, and easily affordable in the context of large trucks. In my opinion, a conflict warning system should become required equipment like turn signals, seat belts and air bags, and the sooner, the better. This can happen now, unlike fully robotic vehicles, which are a decade, maybe several decades, away.

Additional mirrors have also been suggested, and they can help, but sensors are more promising, as they can provide a warning without increasing a truck driverís already daunting task burden.

Side skirts to keep bicyclists from going under trucks have been suggested. These can sometimes be helpful, but they are a last resort Ė injury mitigation rather than crash prevention. Most Iíve seen donít win my confidence. Dana Laird died in Cambridge in 2002 when she went under an MBTA bus, which is effectively one very long side skirt Ė with an opening for the rear wheels Ė see Side skirts can improve aerodynamics and save fuel too, but no standards are in place for them. I have written about them, here:

It has been suggested that large trucks be prohibited from traveling in cities, or restricted to certain hours. These proposals have been implemented in some cities, notably in Europe, but they are a hard sell, as they increase the cost of everything that travels by truck.

Any measure which involves expense or inconvenience to truckers will require the co-operation of the trucking industry. Hostility to truckers, seen among many comments on the Kurmann crash, does not advance this cooperation.

Infrastructure also can help. I have suggested infrastructure to provide alternate routes that avoid the intersection of Mass and Beacon, see . Infrastructure changes can, however, be ineffective or downright counterproductive if they are based on a false premise. The Cityís response to the Kurmann crash, supported by advocates, was to install a barrier which now forces all motorists to turn right from the next lane over, same as the trucker who killed Anita Kurmann. To see how well this works, check out Paul Schimekís video here: .

A prevalent fantasy is that bicycling can be made safe without bicyclistsí having to do anything to make it safe for ourselves. This is generally framed as a desire to make bicycling accessible to everybody, or that children should be able to ride safely everywhere in the city. A common slogan is that people ages 8 to 80 should be safe and feel safe.

This is reasonably possible on paths which are truly separate from motor traffic, and which are signalized where they cross streets with multiple lanes or heavy traffic. Most of the Minuteman Bikeway offers good examples of this. On the other hand, where the Kurmann fatality occurred, fear of motorists led to the installation of the separate bikeway which requires bicyclists to place their complete trust in those same motorists. Truly child-safe, separate infrastructure, if it is ever achieved in Boston, will take decades to complete. Todayís bicyclists need to be safe now.

Anita Kurmann was 38 years old, not 8 years old, when she died. Similarly, other bicyclists who have been killed in Boston and nearby recently have been adults, many with a college or university affiliation.

Bicyclistsí defensive driving, actively avoiding and preventing crashes, greatly increases safety, though, like the quick-turn technique, its fundamental premise is counterintuitive: bicyclists often mixing safely in motor traffic, rather than to trying to avoid it. In that light, I find the Feingold teamís avoiding saying how Kurmann could have prevented the crash, and more generally, advocacy which promotes piecemeal infrastructure solutions and avoids teaching defensive driving, to be highly unfortunate; same with collegesí and universitiesí avoiding the topic.

To get a look at the style of riding which has kept me safe through 40 years of cycling in Boston, please have a look at the video here. . It shows a ride through the same intersection where Kurmann died, and in the same direction. Counterintuitive? Yes, it was for me, too until I tried it.

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