NEWS: Year’s First Cyclist Death A Preventable Tragedy

Marcia DeihlThe Ghost Bike dedicated to Cambridge activist Marcia Deihl, who was struck and killed by a container truck as she rode her bike on Putnam Avenue. Photo by Emily Cassel.

A matte white ghost bike, adorned with flowers scattered over time by the city’s winds and replenished by friends paying respect, sits chained to a light pole on Putnam Avenue, just outside the Whole Foods Market. The bike is the year’s first addition to the dozens of cyclist memorials around Greater Boston. It commemorates the death of Marcia Deihl, a 65-year-old LGBT activist, musician and longstanding icon of her community’s defining eccentricities.

“She got cheated. We all got cheated,” said Robyn Ochs, a close friend and fellow activist. Deihl was two years into retirement from a secretary position at Harvard University she held for about 30 years. The working world behind her, she pursued her music and art without hindrance for the first time since taking the job in the 1980s.

“Her mother lived to be 102 years old. Marcia was totally expecting another 35 years of creative productivity,” Ochs said. “All of her friends were diminished by her loss.”

At about 1:30 p.m. on March 11, a container truck struck Deihl as she rode away from the Whole Foods parking lot. Police pronounced her dead at the scene. The driver of the truck, a Medford man working for the Cambridge excavation company CJ Mabardy, remains unidentified. He stopped after the crash and cooperated with investigators, said Jeremy Warnick, spokesperson for the Cambridge Police Department.

Though police have not pressed charges against the man, the District Attorney’s investigation remains open. The accident report, and any witness accounts therein, remain tucked away until authorities close the case. If past precedent is any indication, the driver won’t face charges, and trucks—the vehicles that account for one in four fatal cyclist crashes nationally—continue to drive through the city without requirement of safety equipment that can turn deadly collisions into scrapes.

While fatal cyclist crashes in Cambridge are relatively uncommon—the last one was in 2011, and 2002 before that—cyclist deaths in Greater Boston at the hands of vehicles, especially trucks, have followed an exponential curve in the past several years. Between 2009 and 2012, there were 9 fatal crashes in Boston proper and 12 in the Greater Boston communities, according to Boston Police and Massachusetts Department of Transportation data. Nationwide, about half of fatal cyclist crashes are the result of side impact with a vehicle. In larger cities, like New York, half the fatal crashes stem from impact with trucks, said Alex Epstein, an expert on truck safety measures.

“Trucks are a small minority of vehicles on the road, but they’re grossly overrepresented in fatal crashes,” said Epstein. He is a passionate advocate for truck side guards: extensions of truck beds that drop the clearance between wheels to about a foot from the road, as opposed to three or four. The guards effectively prevent a cyclist or pedestrian from falling under the truck’s bed during a crash. Instead of rolling under the truck’s wheels, they’d bounce off, he said.

“We want to turn fatalities into injuries and injuries into less severe injuries,” he said.

Marcia Deihl

Marcia Deihl poses with a VW Beetle. Courtesy of friends of Deihl.

Truck side guards have been adopted around the world as a safety measure that significantly reduces deadly crashes. In places like Brazil, China and England, they’ve been a requirement for decades. And as of last year, Boston proper requires all trucks driving through the city to have them. Cambridge has not implemented such regulations, but the City Council commissioned a study late last year that will eventually lead to implementation, with any luck, said Epstein, who is working on the study.

At 7.1 percent, Cambridge has one of the highest percentages of bike commuters in the country. Though the city has a lower crash rate than surrounding communities, bike activists and city officials continue to push for legal and infrastructural means toward a safer city for cyclists. But, when a crash leads to injuries, especially fatal injuries, bike activists feel those on two wheels don’t have the legal recourse they deserve against those on four—or in Deihl’s case, eighteen.

“If you think about it, someone driving a two ton vehicle should have greater responsibility than someone riding a bicycle, or a pedestrian,” said Pete Stidman, executive director of the Boston Cyclist’s Union.

In 2013, a grand jury failed to indict a truck driver with 19 license suspensions who hit and killed cyclist Alexander Motsenigos and drove away from the Wellesley scene. When a vehicle hits a cyclist, even with fatal results, the driver almost always gets off the hook, said Joshua Zisson, a bike rights attorney.

“In Massachusetts, the only way a driver would ever go to jail is if they were intoxicated,” said Zisson. “It’s the culture we live in.” He added that juries are not inclined to convict people if the crime is accidental, he said. The Wellesley authorities built a strong case—a “clear cut” case, according to Zisson—but it didn’t matter.

“I know it’s incredibly frustrating for bicyclists,” he said. “It feels like we’re being forgotten, like our lives don’t matter as much.”

Accidents are accidents, though. It’s not tax evasion—making an example via a jail sentence wouldn’t make for safer streets. It’s bigger than criminal cases and lawsuits, he said. The streets just need to be safer.

The Massachusetts Bicycle Coalition (MassBike), an organization that aims to create a more bike-friendly state, filed two bills with the state legislature in January aimed at giving cyclists more weight. The Vulnerable Users Bill would group pedestrians, cyclists, motorcyclists and others into one concise, heightened legal definition and place limitations on how fast and from how far away vehicles can pass them, a measure enforceable by fines. The Bike Lane Protection Bill would make idling or parking in bike lanes a ticket-worthy offense.

Both bills reflect MassBike’s vision of “complete streets”—road infrastructure that “fairly and equitably” suits the various ways in which they’re used, and indicate cyclists’ growing political weight, said Lauren LeClaire, communications director for the organization.

But stronger legal recourse for cyclists won’t create change in a vacuum. Cyclists, cars and trucks still share the streets while some intersections and stretches of road have garnered reputations for serial bike crashes and fatalities.

“The ultimate answer here is to separate bike traffic from car traffic,” said Stidman.

Boston City Council’s decision in March to separate bike traffic on a stretch of Commonwealth Avenue marks a shift toward safer streets, but to get all the way there—to eradicate every high-crash location—is a long uphill battle.

Jessica Mink, a co-founder of MassBike and bike activist for 36 years, understands that better than most. Creating bike accessibility takes patience and persistence, she said. She’s spent 20 years pushing for the Neponset River Bike Trail south of Boston, and it’s still coming to fruition.

“The timescale it takes—it’s more than most people can think. It’s longer than young nonprofits, longer than politics,” she said. “It’s a never-ending battle. The more people we get working on it the better.”

In the case of deaths like Deihl’s, “it’s hard, it’s really hard,” she said. There’s no clear-cut solution. Mink, a friend of Deihl’s who spoke at her Ghost Bike dedication ceremony, is two years younger, and has been riding in the city since she was 19. She said she averages an emergency room trip once every five years. Mink said there’s a Buddhist subtext to cycling in the city: “The world is a painful place, but you don’t have to suffer.”

Perhaps Deihl felt the same borderline religious zeal, cruising streets in old clunkers with names like Buttermilk, Thouroughgood and Black Beauty, covered in paint and streamers. In 2007, Deihl, a prolific caller and letter writer, phoned into an NPR segment on bike rights, and, to the tune of the Woody Guthrie classic, she sang a cappella in a plain and simple voice: “This lane is my lane, this lane’s a bike lane, if you don’t get off, I’ll ring your head off.”