The prestigious dead -- and the prosaic

The following letter was sent in May of 1997 to the National Transportation Safety Board. To date, no variant of crushed-cyclist syndrome has been found worthy of that august body's Men In Black treatment, as routinely accorded to self-immolating Cessna pilots. Their callous unconcern is underscored by the recent death of cycle courier Brad Minch beneath the wheels of an illegal oversized truck.

May 22, 1997

Mr. Jim Hall
National Transportation Safety Board
490 L’Enfant Plaza, S.W.
Washington, DC 20594

Dear Mr. Hall:

I write to you in your capacity as chair of the federal agency chartered with determining the probable cause of transportation accidents and formulating safety recommendations to improve transportation safety. I myself am a resident of New York City and president emeritus of Transportation Alternatives, a 4,000-member NYC-based civic organization that promotes safe pedestrian and bicycle transport in the New York region.

Each year in New York City 15 to 20 people are killed riding bicycles on city streets. Many of these cyclists were riding lawfully in traffic when motor vehicles struck them, threw them off their bicycles and crushed them under their wheels. Many more are seriously injured. Similar deaths and injuries to bicyclists occur regularly in other highly congested metropolitan areas.

Some of these incidents follow regular patterns, and thus constitute transportation accidents that involve problems of a recurring character. Hence, they fit within the scope of transportation accidents that the NTSB is mandated to investigate as to probable cause and to recommend danger-reduction measures.

Two types of accident causation are particularly recurrent in recent bicyclist fatalities in New York City: "Dooring" and interference from heavy trucks.

1. Cyclist Fatalities from Motorist "Dooring"

"Dooring" refers to crashes caused when a motorist opens a vehicle door into the path of a moving bicyclist. Two cyclists were killed in dooring incidents in Manhattan in October 1996.

• Clyde Moss of Brooklyn, 52, a daily bike commuter for 30 years, was doored off his bike and thrown into the path of a truck that ran over him on Church St. near Franklin St. in lower Manhattan just before 8 a.m. on Oct. 16, 1996.

• Rosemarie Brodie, 33, of East 85th St., was doored off her bike and thrown into the path of a van that ran over her on York Ave. near 72nd St. in the morning of Oct. 28, 1996.

Both died instantly.

New York City traffic law, §4-12, prohibits any occupant of a motor vehicle from exiting "from the side facing on the traveled part of the street in such a manner as to interfere with the right of the operator of an approaching vehicle or a bicycle." State traffic law has a similar provision. However, this law is widely flouted and rarely enforced. Neither of the motorists who opened car doors into Moss’s and Brodie’s paths, precipitating their deaths, received even a traffic citation. A NY Police Dept. spokesperson quoted in the New York Times dismissed the Brodie incident as "an accident all the way around."

Another underlying factor in the deaths of Moss and Brodie, and in other dooring fatalities and injuries to cyclists in New York, is the failure of governmental authorities to ensure the rights of bicyclists to ride in traffic at a safe distance from parked vehicles. Out of roughly 6,000 miles of streets in New York City, only a handful of miles have bike lanes wide enough for cyclists to ride clear of opening car doors; even these lanes are chronically occupied by moving or parked vehicles. Even more fundamentally, the New York City Police Department does not summons motorists whose intimidating and aggressive driving forces cyclists out of the main traffic stream and into proximity to parked cars.

2. Cyclist Fatalities from Interference by Heavy Trucks

Bicycles share New York City streets with trucks, including extremely long trucks with large turning radii. During this spring alone, two cyclists have been killed when they were dragged under the wheels of heavy trucks.

• Christopher Amantea, of West 86th Street, was killed on March 25, 1997 when a tractor-trailer ran over him as both were proceeding southbound on Broadway near 87th Street in the afternoon. According to a police officer at the 24th Precinct, Amantea fell off his bicycle and under the rear wheel of the truck.

• Eight days later, on the morning of April 2, 1997, another cyclist, Jill Solomon, age 30, was run over and killed by a tractor-trailer truck while she was making a left turn onto the Queensboro Bridge bike lane from Second Ave. at 59th Street. Police reported that both Solomon and the truck were making left turns from Second Ave., and Solomon was caught under the back wheels of the truck and killed.

Although the NYPD accident reports are not available, it appears that both Amantea and Solomon were proceeding lawfully when they were dragged under the wheels of the trucks and killed. This is also true of Moss and Brodie when they were doored. All four fatalities occurred during daylight hours. None of the four fatalities has been investigated by the NYPD Accident Investigation Squad.

Congress has chartered the NTSB to determine the probable cause of transportation accidents and to formulate safety recommendations to improve transportation safety. As indicated above, the Safety Board’s scope includes transportation accidents that "involve problems of a recurring character."

Above, I reported summaries of four fatal accidents to cyclists in the past seven months -- two from dooring and two from interference by heavy trucks. Insofar as 15 to 20 cyclists are killed in New York City traffic incidents each year, there are almost certainly other fatalities, as well as serious injury-causing accidents, that fit these categories, but whose details are not made available to the citizenry.

I respectfully ask that you designate dooring accidents to cyclists and truck-related accidents to cyclists as accidents of a recurring nature, and that you initiate an investigation by the Safety Board of these accident modes in New York City. I stand ready to provide resources (e.g., statistical data, correspondence with police and transportation authorities, contacts in the bicycling community) to assist you in such an investigation.

As a final comment, I note that Jill Solomon died a mere kilometer or so from the site, and within a week, of a fatal helicopter crash in the East River which precipitated a full-scale investigation by the NTSB. I hope you will agree with me that the death of Jill Solomon, and the dangers to which bicyclists in New York City are routinely exposed, are no less a concern to the Safety Board than the death of that helicopter passenger and the safety of other helicopter passengers. Indeed, some 75,000 New Yorkers use bicycles for transportation on a typical day, far more than ride in helicopters.

I look forward to hearing from you as to how you will use your powers of analysis, investigation and recommendation to enable people to travel by bicycle in New York City with greatly reduced risk of serious injury or death from motor vehicles.


Charles Komanoff

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