It's every bicyclist's nightmare: You're riding on an arterial street, perhaps in a bike lane, when a truck appears on your left. The driver fails to check for bikes before making a right turn, causing a "right-hook" crash. The truck blocks your path, you're struck, and you fall under the massive vehicle. The rear wheels roll over your body, causing severe, likely fatal, injuries.
As previously reported in this column, variations of this worst-case scenario resulted in the deaths of two young adults in Chicago this summer—25-year-old Virginia Murray and 20-year-old Lisa Kuivinen. (Two other people, courier Blaine Klingenberg and security guard Frank Cruz, were killed by commercial vehicle drivers while biking this summer, and a third person, pizzeria worker Nick Fox, died in late September from injuries he suffered after being hit by a pair of trains while riding last June.)
Late this month two more truck-bike crash fatalities were added to the list. On September 22 during the evening commute, 18-year-old Northwestern student Chuyuan Qiu rolled out of a parking lot on the university's Evanston campus and collided with a concrete truck that was heading north on the 2000 block of North Sheridan Road. Police said Qiu was struck by one of the wheels and fell under the vehicle.
And four days later, 23-year-old health coach Anastasia Kondrasheva was fatally struck while biking to work in Edgewater. She'd been heading north on Damen at Addison in Roscoe Village when a 38-year-old male flatbed truck driver turned right in her path, killing her instantly.
A candlelight vigil and “ghost bike” installation for Kondrasheva is scheduled for tonight at 6:30 PM at the crash site. About 200 people have RSVPed on Facebook. The local group Chicago Ghost Bikes, which provided the white-painted bicycle, has prepared a second ghost bike it hopes to install soon at the Evanston crash site to honor Qiu.
Chris Spicer, co-owner of Lakefront Supply Company, told WGN-TV that he witnessed Kondrasheva's crash, and that the flatbed truck (belonging to a different company) was just like the ones his employees drive.
"In my mind, I saw [one of my trucks]," Spicer said. "I saw my driver on the ground sobbing uncontrollably because he just took someone's life."
In an effort to make sure that never happens, later that week Spicer had fender-mounted mirrors installed on all nine of Lakefront's flatbed trucks, which should reduce their blind spots.
That may be a good approach for helping truckers see bicyclists before they strike them. Meanwhile, there's a growing movement in U.S. cities to require side guards or side rails on large trucks as a strategy to reduce the damage if a crash occurs. These devices—already widespread in Europe, Japan, Brazil, and other countries—prevent pedestrians and cyclists who are struck by trucks from going under the vehicle and being crushed by the rear wheels.
It's likely that side guards could have made a difference for Murray, Kuivinen, Qiu, and Kondrasheva. Therefore, we should push Chicago's City Council to require the equipment on large trucks operating in the city, in order to prevent more truck-bike crash fatalities.
Side guards have been proven to reduce serious injuries and deaths when vulnerable road users are hit by the side of a truck. After 1986, when Great Britain began requiring the equipment on most new trucks, the fatality rate for turning-truck crashes dropped by 20 percent for pedestrians and 61 percent for cyclists. (This week London mayor Sadiq Khan proposed banning semitrucks from the city altogether by 2020, since these vehicles were involved in 58 percent of cyclist deaths in that city over the last two years.)
In 2013 the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board issued a recommendation that large trucks be fitted with side guards. But the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, which sets the rules for truck design, hasn't passed regulations to require them.
Asked about current NHTSA efforts to promote side guards, agency spokesman Derrell Lyles pointed me to recent research into the effectiveness of side and rear truck guards (the latter can help prevent deaths in the event that a car driver rear-ends a truck). Lyles noted that, according to the agency's data, 53 bicyclists were killed in truck crashes in the U.S. in 2015.
Some east-coast cities have already begun installing side guards on their municipal truck fleets. In 2014, after two fatal bike/truck crashes, Boston passed an ordinance requiring side guards on all city-contracted vehicles weighing more than 10,000 pounds. The safety gear proved its value that year when a man riding a Hubway bike-share cycle survived being struck by the driver of a turning garbage truck equipped with the guards.
Last year New York mayor Bill de Blasio signed a law mandating side guards on all municipal trucks of more than 10,000 pounds as well as all private garbage trucks operating in the five boroughs by 2024. That time line will allow the city to phase in the equipment with new truck purchases rather than taking the more expensive route of retrofitting vehicles.
"The best thing to do, of course, is to avoid crashes in the first place," Paul Steely White, director of NYC's Transportation Alternatives advocacy group, told Streetsblog New York last year. "But these side guards are like airbags for pedestrians and cyclists."
—Personal-injury lawyer Jay Stefani
So if it's clear that that side guards can help prevent deaths like the four recent Chicago-area truck-bike crash fatalities, what will it take to make the safety gear standard equipment in our region?
Chicago recently announced that it will be releasing a Vision Zero plan later this fall, with the goal of eliminating traffic fatalities by 2026.
"We are aware that [requiring side guards] is a step taken in other cities and countries, and it's one of many potential safety steps we are looking as part of the Vision Zero planning process," transportation department spokesman Mike Claffey said in a statement. The state, meanwhile, hasn't made any recommendations regarding the strategy, according to a spokesman for the Illinois Department of Transportation.
But resistance from the trucking industry could be a roadblock to passing legislation requiring this safety gear. In 2012 the Active Transportation Alliance lobbied for Illinois legislation, sponsored by state representative Kelly Cassidy, requiring convex mirrors for the front of all large Illinois-licensed trucks. However, the Illinois Trucking Association balked at the $500-per-vehicle cost, and testified against the bill; the legislation died in committee.
"We decided not to include side guards [in the proposed legislation] because it was clear we'd lose with that in the bill," says Active Trans director Ron Burke. "Needless to say, we support side guards and convex mirrors. . . . How you make it happen is the question."
Active Trans is now preparing recommendations for Chicago's Vision Zero Plan, says Burke, which could include a proposal for a city ordinance requiring truck side guards and/or convex mirrors. Friday afternoon the group e-mailed its members about "the urgent need to address the disproportionate threat . . . large vehicles pose to people biking and walking." "We are asking the Mayor, Chicago City Council, and relevant city agencies to immediately put into place proven strategies that can prevent more fatalities due to crashes involving large vehicles," the group wrote.
Active Trans listed requiring side guards, strengthening commercial driver licensing rules, and limiting large vehicle traffic during rush hours as possible solutions. The group asked supporters to sign an online petition urging the city to take immediate action to address preventable traffic fatalities as part of Vision Zero. Jay Stefani, a Chicago-based personal-injury lawyer who works with survivors of car and truck crashes, says a local law to require the safety gear can't come soon enough.
"What makes the truck right-turn incidents all the more tragic is the refusal of lawmakers to require side guards," he said. "Sadly, to make them mandatory here, there needs to be a tipping point where enough people are fed up with the deaths."
Hopefully the City Council can be persuaded to follow Boston and New York's example by requiring side guards for municipal trucks and other large vehicles operating in Chicago. While it's painful to think that this safety gear might have prevented the tragic deaths of the four recent truck-crash victims, passing such an ordinance could help save lives in the future. v
John Greenfield edits the transportation news website Streetsblog Chicago.