What the Boston Cyclist Safety Report actually found

When the City’s Boston Bikes program released its much-anticipated safety report last month, reports immediately focused on an unbelievable finding: cyclists running red lights were the most common cause of crashes in Boston. No doubt guilt-ridden drivers were relieved to learn that scofflaw cyclists were the problem all along.

Within a few hours, however, reporters were correcting their stories. The most common behavior actually cited in bicycle crashes was the ambiguous “Driver did not see bicyclist,” whatever that means.

So what happened? The Boston Cyclist Safety Report combines two crash data research efforts: one summarizing police reports and one revealing EMS data. These studies make up the second and third chapters, respectively, of the Report. Chapter 1 is essentially an executive report written by the city’s Bicycle Director, Nicole Freedman.

Freedman is responsible for erroneously reporting that red-light running was the most common crash contributor, despite that the claim is contradicted within the same report. And despite the fact that it flies in the face of every other bicycle safety study. Transportation professionals are well aware that right-hook crashes and “doorings” are far and away the most common bicycle crash types. How our city’s Bike Director could have overlooked this is truly puzzling.

But the research does point to some useful findings:

  1. Crash data are woefully inadequate – police are not trained on reporting bicycle crashes and only indicated a “potentially influential behavioral factors” about a quarter of the time. Even then, “Driver did not see bicyclist” does not provide useful insight. Better training, updated technology, and more robust data collection measures can help improve our ability to understand and address safety issues.
  2. Specific locations in Boston are dangerous for bicyclists – Commonwealth Avenue in Allston had a disproportionate number of bicycle crashes. So, too, did portions of Brighton Ave, Beacon Street, and Mass Ave in Brighton, Fenway, and Back Bay. Let’s focus on building safer infrastructure where crashes are occurring.
  3. Too many people are being killed and injured – on average, three people are killed and 450 injured every year. That’s more than one Boston Marathon Bombing a year, but we continue to carry on business as usual. Let’s take some important next steps to save lives and reduce injuries.

This article is the first in a series studying the Boston Cyclist Safety Report. Next, we explore the city’s recommendations for improving bicycle safety in Boston.

8 thoughts on “What the Boston Cyclist Safety Report actually found

  1. June 7, 2013 at 10:45 am

    As they say, liars, damn liars and statisticians…

    That said, just the fact that this report exists is a huge move in the right direction– so hopefully it will improve every year.

    One of the things I see missing in many cases is normalizing the data in to crash rates. For example graphs: they have incidents by age implying that certain age groups are more at risk than others– well perhaps more of those age groups are riding than others! What percent of each age group rides? What percent of those are injured.

    Granted for some of the data, the authors may not know the total cyclists riding– but in some cases it seems to be laziness. A dead (no pun intended) easy one they failed to do creating a crash rate chart which is simply a accidents divided by total ridership. They have both data points, but they don’t show it.

    I’m a little suspect about the helmet data when there will be a huge likelihood that lack of helmet use will be reported as lay-people will focus on that. Yet helmet use may not be reported as they will focus on something else like, oh this helmet riding person was doored… I’ll report the dooring.

    The last thought is that they talk about 1000 total accidents in both databases. If the addresses exist for each of these cyclists, they could be fairly easily interviewed. Get 20 grad students and have them call 50 of the injured each. Then you’d get a fairly accurate picture. Or another way to do it would be to have an intern gather and interview the injured cyclists every week during the year. That would be about 20 interviews a week. Definitely doable.

  2. June 7, 2013 at 10:54 am

    Agreed that this is a step in the right direction. But it’s worrisome to see the city focusing on the wrong findings.

    Also, they should normalize data to paint a fuller picture. But when looking at safety, it’s important to know where the biggest problems/opportunities are. Addressing the greatest number of crashes is still the highest priority, whether or not they are over- or under-represented statistically.

  3. MacCruiskeen
    June 7, 2013 at 12:32 pm

    I haven’t looked at the actual report yet, but presumably it accounts for the fact that causes aren’t mutually exclusive. But yes, “didn’t see cyclist” is not very helpful: is that because the cyclist was going the wrong way, or because the driver was paying more attention to their cell phone than the street? (Is “driver was on cell phone at time of accident” a checkbox on the report? It probably should be)

  4. ADN
    June 7, 2013 at 2:00 pm

    Someone needs to call Nicole Freedman and ask her how in the world she could have possibly looked at this study and come to these conclusions. Frankly, this is a huge embarrassment and loss of credibility for her and the City of Boston. This study had the potential to contribute substantially to a greater understanding of what needs to be done to make Boston’s streets safer for the most vulnerable users. Instead, we got blame-the-victim headlines about bike helmets and running red lights. How in the world did that happen? Is anyone in Boston’s bike advocacy community going to try to hold Nicole to account for this? Will anyone ask her to explain how and why she came to her conclusions?

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