Bikers beware: Practice safe city cycling

by Beacon Staff • October 31, 2007

Last year, Kelly Anne Wallace pushed the peddles of her bike through Allston for the final time.,Boston's track record for driving has never been something to boast about. When student bicyclists are thrown into the mix, the city streets become hell on Earth.

Last year, Kelly Anne Wallace pushed the peddles of her bike through Allston for the final time. She was killed in an accident with a car in Boston.

Zach M. Smith, the founder and director of Helping Everyone Live Longer (H.E.L.L.), a non-profit organization devoted to providing a free bike helmet to anyone who wants one, was a close friend of Wallace. He decided that something should be done in response to her untimely death.

"We didn't really know what to do," the junior writing, literature, and publishing major said. "So we just decided to start raising money."

At first, the fundraiser was intended to help the family pay for the 18-year-old's funeral, but something much bigger was born.

H.E.L.L. has two main goals. One is to spread the message that wearing a helmet can and will save your life. The other is to turn the common Styrofoam shell of a helmet into something everyone will want to wear.

Because the organization hand-stencils the helmets upon request, H.E.L.L. has helped cover the crowns of hundreds of people.

"We make helmets that are, like, kind of odd or fashionable so people might feel good about wearing them," he said. "We have a lot of weird underground stuff. Pretty much anything anyone asks for."

Although Smith began the organization small, H.E.L.L has not limited its influence to Emersonians alone.

"It's all over," he said. "I mean, we've mailed stuff out to people in the UK and all over the country."

Thom Dunn, a senior theatre studies and writing, literature and publishing double major, has also experienced the risks of the road when he was hit by a distracted woman.

"She hit my bicycle with enough force to knock [the driver's] front bumper partially off," he said. "And then she had the nerve to flip me off, yell an obscenity at me and drive away, leaving me stuck beneath my bicycle in an intersection on Mass. Ave. during rush hour."

As Dunn will tell you, the problem all had to do with the disregard of a major form of transportation in the city. Although some surrounding areas have bicycle lanes, such as Cambridge, the city of Boston itself has no such safe way for bicyclists to travel about the city.

Bicycling has become increasingly popular as this self-proclaimed college city gains thousands of young students eager to avoid cars and the rising cost of public transportation. Despite its growing popularity, the laws remain that bicycles must observe the same traffic laws as motor vehicles. This policy may look good on paper, but in practice, drivers seldom take the time to give special caution to bicyclists.

Dunn said that riding a bike in the city is not an activity of leisure.

"You need to be assertive sometimes," he said. "You just have to go, pedal hard and hope to God you make it."

Dunn said that he is still suffering from back damage as a result of the frightening fender-bender, and the driver of the car is not being held responsible.

"I would have liked to have caught her license plate number," he said. "But I was busy avoiding being run over by all the other cars on their way to work."

MassBike, a group whose primary aim is to serve and protect the interests of the bicycling public in Massachusetts, and advocates for bike safety like Smith, believe bicyclists should have rights too.

In 2003, a bill was proposed in the state of Massachusetts to ensure the safety and regulation enforcement of sharing the road. The potential legislation will clarify that bicyclists have the same rights and responsibilities as other drivers, rather than merely saying that bicyclists have to follow the traffic rules.

The bill will also require people to wait until it is safe before opening car doors into traffic, insist that training courses on bicycle safety be provided for police officers and recommend the posting of "Share the Road" signs where appropriate.

Nadav Carmel, Massbike's advocacy and programs associate, said there are currently two major projects to support bike safety in Massachusetts. One goal is to get the Bicyclist Safety Bill over to the legislature in order to change the state's laws. The other task is to raise awareness of Mayor Thomas Menino's recent biking initiative, which intends to make Boston a friendlier biking city by creating paths and installing bike racks. The original Bicyclist's Bill of Rights was vetoed and a new version is now in the Committee of Public Safety and Homeland Security.

In order to move the bill into the next step in the legislative process, the Committee needs to report favorably on the it.

Yet as the bill remains in the legislature, bicyclists continue to face the dangers of the street.

Despite Dunn's first accident, he continues to bike around the city.

But getting back on the bike so soon may not have been the best decision when drivers of parked cars open their doors to get out without looking first.

"Flipping over a car door and sliding down the street on your arm with a bent bicycle on top of you is somewhere in the list of top seven worst things I've ever experienced," he said. "You'd think that after the three bicycle-related deaths in Boston over the last year, automobile drivers would have more sympathy and let us share the road like they're supposed to."

Coincidently, one of the bill's potential provisions is to make "dooring" subject to ticket and fine.

Smith said that "dooring" isn't all that uncommon for bikers in the Boston area. He, too, experienced the abruptness of leather and metal from a car door while riding his bike.

But Smith knows what dangers lay in the accidents we laughingly brush to the side. The scratches on his helmet are proof enough of what may have happened if he had neglected to protect himself.

In a city where public policy and drivers both fail to be concerned about the rules of the road, it is difficult for those college students who rely on bicycle transportation to get around. The obvious answer from most riders is simply "ride safe." But Smith knows a helmet and some pads can only go so far.

"You might think you look cool not wearing a helmet," he said. "But it's not cool when your friends' lives are ruined and their brains are splattered all over the street."