Somerville Cyclist Discusses Dangers of Commuting by Bike

A Somerville cyclist talks about how she stays safe on the road, in the wake of several serious accidents.

(Editor's note: The headling on this article was corrected on Sunday, Sept. 2 at 11:26 a.m.)

Somerville resident Amanda King, 32, bikes 16 miles roundtrip to work in Waltham, on average three times a week during the summer. While she knows the risks of riding the roads, taking safety precautions and not being complacent is how she says she stays safe.

“When I first started biking, I thought, how can I possibly bike on the road — I’m going to get killed,” she said. “Now, I’m not as worried about it, but that doesn’t mean I’m not very wise to the dangers.”

When it comes to safety, King rides her bike wearing a helmet and fluorescent-colored vest. She mounts blinking lights on her helmet and the front and back of her bike. She “signals like a lunatic” to drivers, never runs red lights and stays as far to the right as possible, she said.

“I wear the most ridiculous outfit,” King said. “You couldn’t find more flashing lights.”

Whether cyclists take such precautions or not, accidents between cars and bikes can — and do — occur.

King, who has worked at Bentley University in Waltham since 2009 and is director of sustainability and a special adviser to the president, said she’s had just one close call while biking her route to work, along the Minuteman Bikeway and Rte. 60 and Trapelo Road in Belmont.

One pitch-black November night, a car pulled out of side street in Belmont, and King said she had to brake hard to avoid colliding with the car.

“I always look to see if I can see drivers’ faces,” King said. “I looked him in the face, but he went anyways. A car going the other way honked and he stopped.”

King says she had been trying to keep on commuting by bike into the fall, but had pushed it too far. She now stops biking when the days go dark during her evening commute.

But King will continue her commute by bike into the waning days of summer. For her, biking to work provides both physical and environmental rewards, through exercise and a reduction in carbon emissions from her car. Safety, however, is always at the forefront, she said.

“So far so good — I’ve been fine,” she said. “I’m not concerned about it, but I’m not complacent. I don’t take risks.”


Bikers: does hearing about serious accidents change your riding habits? What do you do to stay safe? Tell us in the comments.

Ron Newman September 02, 2012 at 10:15 AM
Did you mean 'Commuting By Bike' ?
Tom O'Brien September 02, 2012 at 01:24 PM
It sounds like she bikes correctly, which is refreshing. Almost every day I turn onto a one-way street and almost collide with 1 or even 2 bikers coming down the street the wrong way. I live on a one-way street and know that eventually a biker coming the wrong way will be hit by a car pulling out of a driveway. I just hope it's not someone in my family, as I'm sure the driver will take the fall. Bikers need to realize that they need to be aware of pedestrians, as well, as I've see them almost mow down pedestrians trying to cross the street. For some reason, bikers and joggers don't seem to think they need to even slow down at intersections. I'm actually surprised there aren't many more accidents.
Paul Elrod September 02, 2012 at 01:37 PM
Here's an important tip not yet mentioned: Get on your bike 10 minutes earlier than you now do. You will get wherever you're going safely and everyone will enjoy your ride: you, other cyclists, drivers, walkers, stray pets, road-crossing turtles, etc. Paul Elrod
mplo September 02, 2012 at 01:47 PM
Kudos to Amanda for realizing that a bicycle is a vehicle too, and that people in bicycles are subject to the rules of the road just as cars and other motor vehicles are. As someone who's also a bicyclist, I've observed too many cyclists who violate the rules of the road with impunity, which gives bicyclists a bad name.
Yikesbikes September 02, 2012 at 02:04 PM
Is a cyclist is struck while going down a one way they would be at fault. The law is actually quite clear. The trauma of hitting a cyclist, however, would be on the driver, and that is no small thing. Cyclists should obey one-ways. It is safer for everyone. Its one part education, and one part increasing bike infrastructure to increase accessibility so one-ways don't seem like attractive options. Of course, the people that do not obey the laws get the most attention. The number of cyclists on the road is not going to go down, so we should try to educate each other and find constructive ways to make the roadways safe for all road users. It will take time.
AHM September 02, 2012 at 02:25 PM
The driver does take the fall indirectly even if not at fault. I know first hand. The insurance company pays the cyclist and ups your insurance because they do not want to go to court. Even though you have a police report stating you were not at fault. As for the lady in this article, she sounds like she is doing all the right things but she is in danger all the time she is on the road. Stupid drivers, hung over or on drugs, somebody who just does not care and can easily cause her an accident. People on legal medication who do not have full control over their senses. It's just a fact of life we have to work this out but there are too many stupid people you are not going to educate or make them be considerate on both sides. The roads are not built so we can do this together safely. I am not safe with 4 walls of steel around me.
Jonah Petri September 02, 2012 at 03:03 PM
This article lacks an important piece of context. Cambridge and Somerville are basically the only places in eastern Mass where there's any significant amount of bike commuting. Of course there's going to be bike accidents at a higher rate than places where nobody commutes by bike. I made a quick map of all of the nearby cities/towns colored by their bike commuting rate. This data is a little bit old (2009) but still a good illustration of the situation here. http://metrobostondatacommon.org/visualizations/1040/
Ken Long September 02, 2012 at 03:03 PM
I've been biking the Boston area for many decades and have seen many problems. Most situations with cars are avoidable by being aware, courteous, and simply yielding the right of way. Most drivers seem to appreciate this behavior. Most problems are caused by being in a rush, or simply being ignorant of the dangers, assuming the right of way, and doing things that are inherently dangerous, like passing cars, crossing side streets without slowing and looking twice, etc. I'm guilty of all of these at one time or another, but they are all avoidable. Simply being acutely aware of the dangers and reacting quickly has saved me many times. There are still plenty of problems, even with precautions, bad weather, bad streets, bad judgement, and bad people, but we all make a choice about where we ride and how we ride.
Ken Long September 02, 2012 at 03:06 PM
Great map. Some places I didnt realize on both ends.
Ken Long September 02, 2012 at 03:29 PM
I've been driving in this city for almost as long as I've been biking, and over the years I've switched my opinion of the most dangerous drivers from cabbies and small utility trucks to cyclists. There are simply more of them, so the dangerous and arrogant behavior of some stands out even stronger. There's rarely a day when a cyclist doesn't ride directly in front of my car as I'm making a right hand turn, or try to pass my car when there's barely enough room to negotiate, or respond with a attitude when a car interferes with their given rights to to use the side of the road as a passing zone. That said, I always enjoy coming home from other places and seeing all the people walking, and the all cyclists on the road.
Benjamin Mako Hill September 02, 2012 at 05:39 PM
Sounds like Amanda is a responsible cyclist and a good example to others. I also commute daily and follow a similar routine. I do take issue with one thing in the article: the suggestion that Amanda stays as far to the right as possible. There's not enough context to judge this statement but it's important for responsible and safety conscious cyclist to understand that there is their right, under Massachusetts law, to use the whole lane and that it is often important to do so. I learned this the hard way myself when, squished into the right late, a car passed me with little room and then turned right into me, sending me over their hood and then to the hospital. Of course, I had the right of way and the driver was a fault for failing to yield -- and felt truly horrible. That said, if I had been riding more defensively, I could have easily prevented the accident. Car drivers are not always aware of their right side and do not expect cyclists on their right. This is not unreasonable since bikes are rarely there. When it is a situation where it is unsafe for cars to pass a cyclist without passing in the opposite lane (as they would pass any other vehicle) cyclists have the legal right, and and the obligation in terms of their safety, to make their presence clear and to the lane.
David September 02, 2012 at 09:57 PM
I bicycle a lot and I understand that cyclists are required to obey all signals including red lights. But here is a quandary. Often I will slow and stop or prepare to stop at a red light but if I am certain it is clear I will go ahead. Why? It looks like impatience but that's not it. By getting "out of phase" with the cars, I can have as much as 1 to 2 minutes of riding before another car passes me. On fast roads like Mass. Av. I think I am safer riding in the "gap" produced by red lights, than when cars are whizzing by sometimes just inches away. I don't scoff at the law, but I really do think in this specific situation I reduce the total risk. I wonder if others have considered this quandary and what is your conclusion?
Jason September 03, 2012 at 11:29 AM
Regardless of sync. You are a scoff-law. I spent twenty years riding, training, racing and 12+selling bicycles in somerville at a shop you would know about. I like the thinking you employ but it's not a good example to the drivers or other cyclists. Lead by example.
Jason September 03, 2012 at 11:36 AM
Your observation and opinion are dead in IMO. The lack of clear information er, enforcable laws and poor road ways are of the issue. The other being a culture that is below the radar of the car centered culture coupled with the fact that as children, cycling meant freedom. No rules. Only physics governed the youthful cyclist, not laws. It's really pretty simple in that regard.
Jonah Petri September 03, 2012 at 11:37 AM
On Mass Ave in particular, there are many pedestrian-only phases at the lights (4-way red, 30 secs for peds only). At this point, it's perfectly legal for you to _get_off_your_bike_ and walk it across the crosswalk. Once across, you can get back on it, and ride out of sync for your 1-2 minutes. I'd suggest that approach as a legal way to get what you'd like. Otherwise, it does have the scent of scofflaw about it. To whit: why should a driver of a car not take advantage of the same safety benefits of being out of sync? Why should they not run the red light to get it? Same rules, same road.
Ken Long September 03, 2012 at 03:58 PM
The rules for cars were designed for cars, not for bikes or pedestrians. While its important to stop, or at least to slow down and look before running a red light, I see no reason to sit at traffic lights when there is no traffic. In my car I do so because it is the law and the punishment is greater than the gain. On my bike I rarely sit at lights. If I see police and particularly bicycle police I will sometimes wait out of caution, but I haven't seen a lot of incidences yet. If they do start pulling me over regularly that will be a different story. For now I think its most important just to be safe, courteous, and aware, sitting at lights is as extreme as playing bumper tag in the intersections, opposite ends of normalcy.
Jonah Petri September 03, 2012 at 04:10 PM
@Ken Long: "In my car I do so because it is the law and the punishment is greater than the gain." I definitely don't share this viewpoint. A law is a law, and they deserve more respect than a simple cost/benefit analysis. Your actions, though they may benefit you, adversely affect me. Angry drivers, frustrated at scofflaw bikers like you, might choose to take out their rage on a lawful biker like me. Angry voters, frustrated at scofflaw bikers like you, might choose to elect anti-bike politicians who will enact policies which make it even harder to bike safely & legally. Follow the law, please.
Ken Long September 03, 2012 at 04:33 PM
Physics still rules cycling, as in momentum. No one wants to stop and have to exert the effort and energy to get going again. Hence, we see a lot of riders trying to maintain momentum even when it puts them in danger. Lack of clear information, enforceable laws, and poor road ways, are an excuse. The common information is clear, it just has to be relayed to cyclists in a way that they will listen to. Don't pass on the right, don't tailgate, and don't right in the blind spot, unless you want to cause accidents. Cycling may be below the cultural radar, but that often depends on where you ride. What it is, is out of the common visual line of sight of a driver. Nothing and no one else tends to ride off your right quarter panel in the common blind spot, or try to pass you on the right shoulder of the road without proper concerns for their own safety. Do we really think drivers should be constantly watching us, or watching the road in front of them? Enforcing laws is just relying on government to do our thinking for us. And poor roads are just a fact of nature, winter destroys road ways, use destroys road ways, some roads are too narrow to ride safely, etc. Once again, awareness, courtesy, and common sense, and taking full responsibility for everything that happens to us.
Jason September 03, 2012 at 04:36 PM
http://www.malegislature.gov/Laws/GeneralLaws/PartI/TitleXIV/Chapter90/Section14 Here IS the ma laws regarding bikes and traffic regs. Stay safe everyone. Debate is moot at this point.
Ken Long September 03, 2012 at 04:44 PM
Who's law, or who's interpretation of the law? Yours. Bikes are neither cars nor pedestrians, and neither's laws apply equally. Riding through red lights doesn't bother drivers when it doesn't interfere with them. Cutting off oncoming traffic is a different situation. What does bother drivers is cyclists doing track stands in front of them when they want to make a right hand turn, or taking off first and jockeying for position in front of them when the light turns green. Cyclists who go through red lights safely are of no concern.
Ken Long September 03, 2012 at 05:27 PM
I don't see anything here about traffic violations for cyclists. It's mostly about safety protocol and the rules that apply to motorists. It talks about the safe passing of bicycles, leaving enough space and not turning right in front of them, but this implies that the car is moving faster and passing the bike. This is a fairly safe situation and the driver should know the bicycle is there. The problems occur when the bicycle is passing the car, tailgating, or riding in a blind spot, and the car unknowingly makes a right hand turn or pulls over to the curb. Common sense rules dictate that the aggressor, the person approaching from the rear is responsible. Too many times I've seen bicycles get cut off by a car making a perfectly legal right turn at a light, or refusing to stop for turning cars. A bicycle lane is not a right of way or a passing lane. Where does it say that bicycles have to stop and wait at red lights like cars do? Like anyone it's not safe to run, or ride, into the front of moving traffic. But is there a law that says we have to sit like dorks at traffic lights?
Ken Long September 04, 2012 at 12:18 AM
C'mon Jason that link is for the weekly sale at Lowes. I did do a search on the site for bicycle rules and traffic rules but there wasn't anything about bicycles waiting at red lights.
Jonah Petri September 04, 2012 at 12:40 AM
Ken: MGL Chapter 85 Section 11B: Every person operating a bicycle upon a way, as defined in section one of chapter ninety, shall have the right to use all public ways in the commonwealth except limited access or express state highways where signs specifically prohibiting bicycles have been posted, and shall be subject to the traffic laws and regulations of the commonwealth and the special regulations contained in this section, except that: (1) the bicycle operator may keep to the right when passing a motor vehicle which is moving in the travel lane of the way, (2) the bicycle operator shall signal by either hand his intention to stop or turn; provided, however, that signals need not be made continuously and shall not be made when the use of both hands is necessary for the safe operation of the bicycle, and (3) bicycles may be ridden on sidewalks outside business districts when necessary in the interest of safety, unless otherwise directed by local ordinance. A person operating a bicycle on the sidewalk shall yield the right of way to pedestrians and give an audible signal before overtaking and passing any pedestrian. So you're wrong on two statements you made above. First: it's explicitly legal for bikes to pass on the right: cars do NOT have the right of way to turn right across a bike lane, regardless of who's in front of whom. Second: A bike is just another vehicle, subject to the exact same law of the road, including stopping at a red light.
Ken Long September 04, 2012 at 01:12 AM
Reread Jonah, I never said passing on the right was illegal, simply dangerous. I do this all the time, but I'm aware of the dangers and take responsibility for myself. The problem is that when you come up from behind a car on the right side they don't always know your there. No amount of rules or rule following will help you after you are hurt. You can blame anyone you want, but its still you that are hurt. As far as traffic laws and red lights. I'll wait at lights when its necessary or when I choose to, for reasons of legality and safety, other than that your welcome to sit there with your friends. I'll probably choose not to.
Jonah Petri September 04, 2012 at 02:04 AM
Ken: I must have misinterpreted your statement above: "A bicycle lane is not a right of way or a passing lane." However, I've reread it several times and can't suss out any meaning besides the one I indicated above. As for the red lights: Traffic laws offer basically the only protection for bicyclists, pedestrians, and other vulnerable road users. By ignoring them when it's not convenient or to "maintain your momentum" (I'd call that "laziness") you're putting all of us at risk, and giving all bicyclists a bad name. The law is unambiguous, and you should follow the law.
Jason September 04, 2012 at 11:21 AM
Doh! Like the windows Ken? Too many wheel spinning! Anyway, Ken as Jonah outlined above, and I will find. The red lites DO include bicycles. Basically, you use the road ways, you follow the rules of the road. But as I said all my years selling bike to folks in Somerville, Cambridge and further, don't be an idiot, you won't win an argument with a car, especially when the drive doesn't follow the rules of the road. If you fail to shoulder check, either as driver or a cyclist, you may wind up in a world of hurt. Or dead. So ken, it is on you the driver to be wary and shoulder check as you make your "Road house" turns around town. Incan refer to Attorney Andrew Frischer, who has handled many cycling/ car cases. He handled mine. Cheers Ps, I'll get that link...but I gotta buy some windows first.!
Charlie Denison September 04, 2012 at 01:21 PM
Excellent point. I totally agree. Staying all the way to the right can often be the worst place to be, since motorists may not see you there or may try to pass you when there isn't enough room to do so. Controlling the lane is an important skill for bicycling safely. Positioning yourself in the center of the lane is a signal to motorists that they should not pass or should change lanes to do so safely. As a motorist, I appreciate when cyclists do this because it is clear to the motorists behind me why I am not attempting to pass a cyclist.
Lucas Rogers September 05, 2012 at 02:39 AM
Perhaps a more productive conversation would be about whether the laws, as they exist and as they apply to bicycles, should be changed, at least in some circumstances?
Ken Long September 05, 2012 at 04:14 PM
Laws are laws and they're meant to control people and situations. Sitting at lights isn't difficult, but it doesn't solve the major problems, and there's really only a small portion of the biking population that sits at lights needlessly. The major problems seem to come down to awareness, on both sides, and what it takes to be safe. This cant be dictated in a law. Many cyclists seem to ride on the assumption that if they can see you, you can see them. This is an easy assumption to make, until you get in a car and try to drive with them. I know, I went many years without a car and am guilty of everything I state. Even with a car, it wasn't until I had a family that I drove around town much, but doing so really opens my eyes to just how ignorant many bikers are of their own safety and visibility. Unless you are in front of, or behind a vehicle, in plain sight, you are essentially invisible. Side view mirrors are designed to detect large objects in the opposing lane, not bicycles inches off the side of your car, or concealed by traffic. Constantly looking to the right endangers the people in front, and bicycles tend to move quickly. You can look and start a turn, and some bicyclist will still try to swerve around your front bumper without hesitation. This happens all the time. I don't think you can write a law to force awareness or consciousness among people. These things need to be explained over and over until they sink in and are accepted.


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