A Simple Tool To Save Bicyclists’ Lives

How to make trucks less lethal, and move one step closer to achieving Vision Zero.

Credit: Shutterstock

Credit: Shutterstock

It seems like every week there’s a new list of the most “bikeable” or “bike-friendly” American cities. Lo and behold, Philadelphia makes the Top 10.

Cycling has exploded in the city, but thankfully, traffic accidents involving bicycles have not. Last year, the number of bicycle crashes was nearly half (551) what it was in 1998 (1,058). The number of bicycling fatalities has also dropped, although much less dramatically over that span. After recording an astonishing zero deaths in 2013, the city rose back up to three last year — the same figure posted in 1998 (the median over that span was four deaths).

Credit: Jonathan Maus, BikePortland.org

Credit: Jonathan Maus, BikePortland.org

Here’s one way to help reduce that gap: truck side guards. Boston now mandates all city-owned vehicles over 26,000 pounds to have them. Portland adopted side guards years ago. And two weeks ago, New York Mayor Bill De Blasio signed a transportation bill to equip 10,000 trucks with side guards over the next decade, including both city-owned vehicles and private trash haulers. The website Grist described how they work:

Say a cyclist is pedaling down the street, in a bike lane, and just happens to get doored by a parked car just as a truck is passing on the other side. Rather than falling underneath the wheels of the truck, the cyclist (hopefully) bounces off the side guard — probably not in great shape, but not dead either. Think of it as a cow catcher, for people.

These devices may sound gimmicky, but they actually work. In places where side guards are mandatory already, namely Japan and the European Union, they’ve helped reduce bicycling deaths (although haven’t reduced crashes). In the U.K. — where a national requirement for truck side guards was adopted in the 1980s — fatal bicycling crashes involving trucks have dropped 61 percent. Of course other safety improvements and a growing awareness over bicycling culture contributed to the decline, not just the side guards.

While the side guards aren’t cheap, costing Boston between $1,200 and $1,800 apiece, according to Fair Warning, they’ve been incorporated into Vision Zero plans in many cities, including New York’s. As Philly gears up for its own potential adoption of Vision Zero, the side guards are worth considering as the city tries to further reduce bicyclist fatalities.