Truck drivers and traffic engineers need to rethink bicycle safety

In urban cities, over 50% of all collisions involving bicycles are at intersections. Up to a third of all bike collisions involve heavy trucks, despite there being less trucks on the road than passenger vehicles. These two statistics help paint a horrifying picture of how a lot of bicycle collisions happen. In most bicycle collisions involving trucks, the bicyclist is usually heading straight when an oblivious truck driver makes a right turn and “right-hooks” him or her. This past August in San Francisco, Amelie Le Moullac, a 24 y.o. woman, was killed exactly this way. This time was no different in Susan Watson’s death.

Susan Watson, a dear and wonderful friend to many, was riding on Market St. in Oakland after getting off the ferry at Jack London Square on Monday evening, December 17th, 2013. She was a dedicated bike commuter on her way to her home in El Cerrito, about 9 miles away. The shortest route with some sort of bike facility for her to take was northbound on Market St. and she wore all the things that would make a cyclist visible to drivers in the evening hours: an assortment of flashing and colorful wheel lights, bike lights, and lights decorating her backpack. She would have known that this route, close to the Port of Oakland, is often filled with trucks- even more the reason to have so many lights.

Her route going home has bike lanes in both directions, but it is also a favorite route for truck drivers coming in and out of the Port of Oakland to pick up and drop off all those cargo containers (see the stack of Matson containers in the image below). Anyone who rides a bike can tell you that large trucks are the scariest things on the road (aside from maybe aggressive and impatient taxi drivers), but the city decided to put bike lanes there anyway, sharing the truck route without doing anything more than painting white stripes. Obviously, doing only that much wouldn’t and doesn’t work and this setup hasn’t worked in San Francisco either.

Market St. - looking southbound. You can see this street is filled with big rigs.

Looking southbound on Market St. near 4th St. – You can see that this street is filled with 18 wheelers.

Trucks come and go on this route because of its vicinity to the Port of Oakland and the nearby freeway entrances and exits (see image below).

Market St. - northbound, another way to get on the freeway.

Looking northbound on Market St. near 5th St. – Truck drivers’ preferred route to get onto the 880 freeway.

Furthermore, when I was taking photos at this intersection, I saw that over 95% of the truck drivers did not merge to the far right before making a right turn (see image below). Although that would require trucks to merge into the bike lane before executing the turn, this is what they are supposed to do. Trucks need to do that so bicyclists and everyone else can predict where they will go and not think that they are going straight instead of turning. Also, it will keep bicyclists from treacherously ending up in their right-side blind spot.

Why aren’t truck drivers merging all the way to the right before turning? There’s definitely still enough room to make a right turn if they do so. This is probably so they can make wide turns which would also require less effort than having to merge to the right and then make a tight right turn.

Another truck not merging onto the bike lane.

Another truck driver is not merging to the far right before making a right turn.

In the image below, you can clearly see that the rear end of the truck is far from the corner curb. The front wheel axle barely turned.

Another reason why truck drivers might make such wide turns is to avoid the tail-end from hitting curbs, light poles, and pedestrians waiting on corners, etc., but does it warrant such a wide turn? I have seen big rigs make tighter turns than this.

Almost every truck makes this wide right turn.

Almost every truck driver makes a right turn this wide, with the rear end far from the curb.

Another reason for such wide right turns is so that after making the turn, the truck would not end up outside the boundary of the road he or she is turning onto. However, at this intersection these truck drivers clearly have space. The photo below shows that 5th St. is so wide, almost 4 lanes wide in one direction (including street parking space), that there is actually room for truck drivers to make tighter right turns. Tighter turns would mean trucks would have to merge to the far right, crossing over into the bike lane before turning, which would also mean that the driver would more likely see a bicyclist in the bike lane where Susan was located at the time of the collision.

Why such a wide turn when there is so much space? Do truck drivers do this so they can more easily position themselves on the farthest left lane on 5th St. so they can get onto the freeway ramp a few blocks down? To me, they just seem carelessly lazy.

3 lanes wide 5th St.

5th St. is a wide street: 4 lanes wide (including the parking lane).

Whether or not such wide right turns are indeed necessary at this junction, traffic engineers must design it better and also wherever there are bike lanes sharing the road with heavy traffic and in close vicinity to mass transit stops (in this case, the ferry terminal in Jack London Square).

Here are my ideas to improve this area:

Better and adequate street lighting in the right places, which it currently does not have (see photo below). For some strange reason, the street lamps are placed away from the sidewalks on the median island, so  that means that they will not really light up the curbs and sidewalks. This is pretty darn silly if you ask me. Why would street lamps be placed in the center of a road when pedestrians and bicyclists need it the most? Moreover, this junction is partially under a BART bridge and so needs more lighting than usual.

In addition, I think a bicycle alert signal placed near the intersection for alerting truck drivers of the presence of bicyclists is another good measure for safety.

Speaking of lights, another thing they can do is have different traffic signal lights for both drivers and bicyclists at this kind of junction.

Perhaps, let’s have green marked lanes such as green cross bikes all the way through the intersection.

Of course, protected bike lanes are ideal but that is going to be perceived as too expensive and intrusive in our car-centric society. Instead, put buffered bike lanes in that stretch since there is no street parking allowed anyway (see image below) and there is plenty of space. That way, bicyclists are placed closer to the curb and away from the back end of trucks making right turns. This extra distance will allow them some space to react.

No street parking, so why not have protected and buffered bike lanes

No street lamps on the sidewalk. No street parking, so why not have protected and/or buffered bike lanes?

To conclude, Susan’s death could have been prevented but a truck driver that night was too carelessly lazy and traffic engineers were too incompetent to see that what they put there is not enough to allow for the safe mixing of bicycles and trucks on open streets. They need to do more and they need to do it right.

Related reading:

Update: Susan, a ferry passenger and bike commuter just died…

 

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3 comments

  1. John

    I regularly cross the intersection at Market and 5th on my bike commute to the Oakland Airport. You’ve written an excellent description of how big rigs can do a “squeeze play” on unsuspecting cyclists. I’ve experienced a similar problem with the large AC transit articulated buses – they move to the left to pass you, then merge back into the right lane, seemingly oblivious to the fact the back 1/3 of their vehicle is crowding you into a line of parked cars, or worse. Thanks for writing about this tragedy. So sad …

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