On a July afternoon in New Orleans last year, Philip Geeck was riding his bicycle in a marked bike lane on a busy street. Approaching an intersection, he came up alongside a tractor-trailer truck hauling a tank of chemicals. Geeck, 52, was at the 18-wheeler's midpoint when suddenly, without signaling, the truck began to turn right, witnesses say.
Victor Pizarro was driving nearby and watched in horror as the scene unfolded. He saw a look of confusion on Geeck's face as the trailer came toward him. Geeck, an experienced cyclist known to his friends as “Geric,” tried to get away from the truck but couldn't make it. First his wheel went beneath the semi's enormous rolling tires, then his foot, then his entire body was dragged under. "It just kind of sucked him in," Pizarro said in an interview.
Geeck's head was crushed and part of his leg was severed from his body. "He was just a mound of flesh on the ground with blood oozing out," Pizarro said. Geeck died at the scene; the truck driver was not cited by police.
Heavy trucks like 18-wheelers and box trucks, along with garbage and dump trucks, make up a fraction of the vehicles on the road, but they are involved in a disproportionate share of accidents that kill bicyclists and pedestrians, according to federal data. The problem is worst in cities.
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In New York City, for example, trucks account for 3.6 percent of vehicles, but were involved in 32 percent of crashes that killed bicyclists from 1996 to 2003 and 12.3 percent of pedestrian fatalities from 2002 through 2006, city statistics show.
Some safety advocates say the problem could get worse: The rise of e-commerce is bringing more trucks into urban neighborhoods at the same time that cities are encouraging cycling and walking, through bicycle sharing programs, bike lanes and other infrastructure improvements. "It could be a collision course," said Alex Epstein an engineer at the John A. Volpe National Transportation Systems Center, a federal research institution in Cambridge, Mass.
Safety advocates would like to see a range of reforms: Better training for drivers, restrictions on the size of trucks allowed on busy thoroughfares, better-designed streets, more federal funds for bike and pedestrian safety and tougher penalties for drivers who kill bicyclists and pedestrians. Meawhile, there's also a small but growing movement in U.S. cities to adopt a simple truck retrofit -- one already in use in much of the world -- that could immediately save lives.
In about half of the fatal bike and truck accidents and a quarter of those involving pedestrians and trucks, the person who is killed first makes impact with the side of the vehicle, according to the Volpe center, typically because the vehicle is turning or something like a car door sends a cyclist into the side of the truck. In those cases, a person's body can fall under the truck, and into the path of the truck's rear wheels.
But truck side guards -- a panel or set of metal bars running between the two sets of wheels -- can keep people from falling under the wheels. Instead, they bounce off the side of the truck. "The intention is to take something that would be a fatality and turn it into an injury," said Kris Carter, a city official in Boston, where an ordinance requiring side guards on many large city-owned and city-contracted trucks took effect in May.
While federal regulators don’t require truck side guards, local efforts are gaining traction. In addition to Boston's law, Cambridge just passed similar legislation and New York City has equipped about 200 city trucks with the guard and passed a law last week requiring them on most large city trucks and privately owned garbage trucks operating in the city by 2024. The guards are also required on many city-owned trucks in Washington, D.C., and Portland, Ore.
The American Trucking Associations, the industry's trade group, has no official position on truck side guards but is “always concerned about truck safety,” said Ted Scott, the group's director of engineering.
Most of the research on side guards' safety comes from Europe, Scott said, where bicycling is much more common. He said more U.S. data needs to be collected to judge the guards’ effectiveness. "Maybe it mitigates the damage. Maybe it just kills you differently," he said. "We don't know."
Epstein says the time to act is now.
"To me, it seems like a very efficient engineering solution that we can take almost immediately," said Epstein, who has worked with the Boston and New York on the issue. "If you talk about low-hanging fruit, this is it."
From the bike lanes of Oklahoma City, to Los Angeles' expanding transit system, to New York City's High Line walking trail and hordes of bright blue Citi Bikes, American cities are becoming less car-centric. Cities and towns are encouraging biking and walking.
At the same time, pedestrian and bicyclist fatalities have held relatively steady over the last decade, even as fewer motorists have died. As a result, pedestrian and bicyclist fatalities now account for a bigger share of overall traffic deaths.
From 2004 through 2013, cyclist deaths hovered between 623 and 786, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, or NHTSA. The figures for pedestrian deaths ranged from 4,100 to 4,892.
Even in cities with strong biking cultures like Copenhagen, crashes between trucks and bicyclists are a stubborn problem, said Andy Clarke, president of the League of American Bicyclists.
"I don't believe for a second that truck drivers are out to get me," he said. "The laws of physics and the challenges of driving a truck compared to the joys of riding a bike are not always compatible. That's just a fact of life."
Scott said he didn’t know of any training for truck drivers that specifically focuses on pedestrian and bicyclist safety. However, he said, drivers of large trucks have to earn commercial drivers' licenses, which require learning how make turns safely.
Statistics from the United Kingdom suggest putting side guards on trucks could help. In the 1980s, the U.K. adopted a policy requiring side guards on all large trucks. Fatal side-impact collisions between bicyclists and trucks dropped 61 percent and those between pedestrians and trucks fell 20 percent. The side guards are mandatory in the European Union, Brazil, Japan and China, according to the Volpe center.
The side guards used in Boston cost about $1,200 to $1,800 each, according to city figures, though the U.S. Department of Transportation estimates they can be put into place for less than $1,000, depending on the design. There's a even a positive side effect: If properly designed, side guards can increase fuel efficiency because they reduce air drag. Indeed, some long-haul trucks are now using side skirts to this end.
In July, Boston's side guards were put to a test when a city-contracted garbage truck turned in front of a bicyclist, who hit its side. The man did not slip under the truck and into the unforgiving path of the truck tires, likely because the truck was equipped with the guards as a part of a pilot project that led to the city’s ordinance. The accident was still serious -- the cyclist's leg was stuck under the truck and had to be freed using special equipment. But the cyclist survived, and city councilors approved Boston's side guard ordinance unanimously three months later.
This story reported by FairWarning (www.fairwarning.org), a nonprofit news organization based in Los Angeles that focuses on public health, safety and environmental issues.