Lessons Not Learned

[Note: This post was originally written in 2013 but never completed until now.]

I first came across the tragic story of Alice Swanson when reading this letter to the Boston Globe:

“MY DAUGHTER was killed by a truck while riding her bicycle to work in Washington in July 2008. You reported this at the time. She was in a bike lane, had a green light, and was wearing a helmet. It was not enough.

The laws may say bicyclists have equal rights and responsibilities (“Boston’s unruly riders,’’ Aug. 7), but when a multi-ton vehicle collides with human flesh, the damage is not equal.

Before goading the police to enforce traffic laws against bicycle riders, consider that your readers could submit accounts of bicyclists being “doored’’ by parked cars, being struck by hit-and-run drivers, or reporting an accident to the police who then take no action against the driver. Let’s first make the streets safe for bicyclists.”

I was curious about the circumstances of her daughter’s death, and found this Washington Post account:

“Alice Swanson was uneasy about riding her bike through city streets to work every morning, so a colleague told her to always wear a helmet for the trip, which was just over two miles.

The helmet was not enough yesterday morning. Swanson, 22, was hit by a trash truck during rush hour near Dupont Circle and killed.

The accident took place at 7:40 a.m. in the 1900 block of R Street NW, just north of Dupont Circle. Police said Swanson was riding in or next to a designated bike lane. She and the truck driver were traveling west on R Street when the truck driver turned right onto 20th Street, hitting her, police said.”

This case was also cited as an example of outrageous motorist behavior:

 “Both Alice and the truck had a green light, the driver hit her by what cyclists call ‘a right hook’ meaning that the truck took a right without yielding to her; an illegal act in most jurisdictions. No charges have yet been filed against the driver.” (from GhostBikes.org)

And from a comment posted on the WashCycle: “Folks — realize that they can run you right over when you are riding perfectly legally — and they will suffer no consequences. Please ride very defensively — and note that for bicyclists that has very little to do with riding legally.”

What happened?

All the witnesses cited in the police report say that the garbage truck was at the intersection first and the bicyclist attempted to overtake on the right of the truck in the bike lane. At least one of the witnesses interviewed by police saw the truck’s right turn signal illuminated. The police found that on that particular model of truck there are four separate lamps illuminated on the right side when the right-turn signal is activated. One witness said the bicyclist was attempting to male an “unsafe pass.” Another “blamed the collision on the city constructing bicycle lanes alongside vehicular travel lanes with both vehicles operating on the same green signal.”

The police report concludes that “it was the duty of the bicyclist as with any other operator of a vehicle on a public roadway to reduce her speed to avoid the collision and yield right of way to the truck.” The police cite the general speed rule (“reasonable and prudent under the conditions then existing”) but don’t give any evidence that the bicyclist was traveling faster than a reasonable and prudent speed, except that she was going faster than the truck. They do not cite any regulation for the requirement to “yield right of way” under these circumstances.

What does the law say?

DC law says that “Both the approach for a right turn and a right turn shall be made as close as practicable to the right-hand curb or edge or the roadway.” The police reconstruction showed that the truck was “close to” but “not encroaching upon” the bicycle lane. Drivers of motor vehicles are specifically authorized by 2220.2 to enter a “restricted lane” (including a bike lane) to make a right turn. The police may have thought the truck driver should not be in the bike lane. In any case, a garbage truck cannot make a tight turn, and in fact a witness mentioned that the truck was making a wide turn to avoid a car parked and pedestrians near the corner on the side street.

Shouldn’t the truck driver have looked to the right and yielded before starting on a new green? The police reconstruction determined that only the uppermost portion of the bicyclist’s head would have been visible in the in the small lower mirror and “only for a split second as the bicyclist continued forward and the truck continued turning.” Drivers do not expect to look for traffic passing on the right, and are not required to. They are only required to signal and to begin the turn from as far right as “practicable.” On the contrary, it is the duty of the overtaking driver (or bicyclist) to avoid the collision: DC law says that “A person operating a bicycle may overtake and pass another vehicle only under conditions which permit the movement to be made with safety.” (Section 2202.6 has the identical working for drivers.)

The police report concludes that “it is unknown what had transpired to cause the decedent not to see the truck or  recognize it as a hazard before it was too late.” It is on the contrary painfully apparent that too many bicyclists expect that it is safe to continue moving straight a head in a bicycle lane, regardless of what other traffic might do. Thus it is not surprising that the truck’s right turn took her by surprise.


Following this collision, DDOT extended the bicycle lane markings through the intersection, but did not otherwise change them. WABA proposed and the DC Council adopted the “Bicycle Safety Enhancement Act.” This law includes the following items:

  • A requirement that municipal heavy duty vehicles be equipped with “blind spot mirrors, reflective blind spot warning signs, and side-underrun guards to prevent bicyclists, other vehicles, or pedestrians from sliding under rear wheels” and a requirement that their operators “receive bicycle and pedestrian safety training.”
  • A new statute the motorists must pass a bicyclist at a distance of at least 3 feet.
  • An increase in the penalty for improper use of a restricted lane (such as a bike lane) to $100.

However, to my knowledge, no one has attempted to spread the message that bicyclists need to pay attention to what is happening in the travel lanes, and not go past a vehicle that is on their left anywhere near an intersection, and especially not a truck. Unfortunately, since Alice Swanson’s tragic death in 2008, there have been many more bicyclists killed in collisions with right-turning trucks, including four in Boston, all involving bicycle lanes. In response to the latest (August 2015) fatality, I prepared this brief video.


1 Comment

  1. I have visited the crash location. Shortly before the intersection with Connecticut Avenue is the T intersection to the right with 20th Street NWt. Swanson could have seen the red light ahead at Connecticut Avenue and assumed that the truck would not move — but it turned right into 20th Street. More here: http://john-s-allen.com/blog/?p=7162

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