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When a bicyclist falls in the city, does it make a noise?

A look at the city's most dangerous intersections
By PETE STIDMAN  |  September 1, 2009


Learning to cycle safely on Boston streets is a tempering process. Cyclists start out skittish, wobbly, hugging the side of the road so tightly they have to swerve to avoid the side-view mirrors of parked cars. Over time, they learn to ease out of the "door zone," where a hastily opened door can end a life. Their peripheral vision grows super-wide; a few even begin to read minds based on the way a driver's head twitches.

But as good as any rider gets at smelling danger in the air, there are chance situations that can overwhelm.

According to the Department of Public Health, over 3700 cyclists were sent to Greater Boston emergency rooms in 2006 after being hit by cars, and four of them succumbed. You can bet your Lance Armstrong–signed racing jersey that one or two among those thousands, as they were being strapped to a backboard and carried off in an ambulance, thought to themselves: "Damn, somebody oughta do something about that spot."

But likely those remained just thoughts, or at most rants to the officers, who took a few notes. The assumption is that police reports will do the talking, or maybe the ambulance drivers. Somebody, somewhere, deep in the bowels of your city or town hall, will surely read that report, and say to his co-worker in the transportation department, "Hey Bob, there've been five bike crashes at Main Street and First this year, maybe we ought to look at this." And he and Bob will get on it.

But that all depends. Around here, it's about what side of the river you're on: Boston or Cambridge.

From a "2007 Top Crash Locations" report released by the Massachusetts Highway Department last month, an outsider might gather Cambridge had the raw deal for cyclists. Eight of the state's top 10 bicycle crash locations were inside Cantabrigian borders. And bike-swarmed Central Square was named number-one bike grinder.

Before tossing a U-Lock at Cambridge City Hall, though, consider the fine print on page three.

"Although Massachusetts General Laws . . . require drivers and police departments to file crash reports . . . this is not always the case."

In fact, the Boston Police Department (BPD) sends only a tiny, tiny fraction of its police reports to the state's Registry of Motor Vehicles.

"They say they only send them in when the car needs to be towed or there's an injury, but I'm not even sure they do that," says Bonnie Polin, Mass Highway's chief safety analyst. "I imagine Boston gets something like 15,000 [motor vehicle] crashes a year, but they've reported only . . . 92 in all of 2007."

Cambridge Police Department (CPD), on the other hand, is relatively meticulous about it. And it's apparently not just because they like to get all academic about everything. The report can help leverage federal transportation-safety funding for re-engineering intersections. In other words, the worst intersections get federal money thrown at 'em.

"We should be filling out that secondary form, and we haven't been doing a good job of that," admits Elaine Driscoll, a BPD spokesperson. "Several months ago the districts have been told, 'You have to get better at filling out that secondary document.' We were not doing a consistent job of that."

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