Why Do We Tolerate Blind Spots, Both Physical and Cultural?

A response to the recent press release from the office of Middlesex District Attorney Marian Ryan on the crash that killed Bernard "Joe" Lavins in October 2016:


Middlesex District Attorney Marian Ryan announced earlier this week that there would be no charges against the driver who drove his 18-wheel tractor trailer over Bernard “Joe” Lavins in Cambridge’s Porter Square on October 5, 2016.

Bicycle advocates immediately - and appropriately-  began to pick apart the findings of the police investigation. And there is a lot to pick at. Most American crash investigations start with the assumption that cyclists are a lawless bunch. The presumed liability placed on the most vulnerable. And too often that person - the victim - is unable to speak.  

The investigators got out their charts and diagrams and measuring tapes and protractors and manuals all to prove that the driver of the truck did not see the victim. Hence, he could not be held liable because the victim made the mistake of being in the driver’s blind spot.

The driver’s blind spots are NOT the problem. The problem here is our collective cultural blind spots. And I would argue that American mainstream culture has three blind spots when it comes to truck safety: the technical blind spot, the vilification blind spot, and finally what I call the Lazarus blind spot.  

First there is a technical blind spot. Why in 2016 do we allow vehicles weighing more than 10,000 pounds to operate on our public ways with so many blind spots?  

We require trucks to have brakes because drivers need to stop. We require trucks to have lights because drivers need to see in the dark. We require trucks to have turn signals to allow others to know the driver’s intent. And we require trucks to have windshield wipers because drivers need to see during foul weather.

So where is the logic that we DO allow them to drive despite being unable to see what they may hit?   

Despite the proven effectiveness of convex mirrors, warning systems, on-board cameras, side guards, etc. (much of which comes standard on 2017 passenger vehicles) when it comes to the most potentially lethal vehicles on our roadways we simply hold up our hands and tell the general public to watch out because we rely on World War II technology to deliver freight. And our “curb-scape” and loading policies seem to have come from the set of an Alfred Hitchcock film.

Second is what I call the vilification blind spot. Because so many people - including the police, judges, jurors, journalists and the general public - identify with the driver and not the victim in this case. Truck drivers have a very important job to do with minimal support, low pay, inadequate training, and far too much pressure from management to meet challenging time tables. And it is only fair to note that truck drivers have one of the most  dangerous jobs in America. But the narrative tends to go: “Why do you want to vilify the driver? The guy must feel awful and has to live with this for the rest of his life. What good would it do?” To that I would point to Matthew Levari, the truck driver who killed Anita Kurmann in August, 2015. If the driver, and/or his company, Levari Trucking LLC, were truly contrite about the fatality, one would think they would have changed training policies or  improved safety features on their trucks. But a review of the Levari Trucking US DOT safety file shows the company trucks have been involved in six crashes that caused injuries SINCE the Kurmann tragedy.

Third is the Lazarus blind spot. This narrative goes like this: “Well we can’t bring the victim back to life so why ruin two lives?” The reason is simple: to prevent the NEXT fatality.

A lot of people used to die in mining catastrophes. In the first half of the 20th Century more than 2,000 people died on average per year in coal mines. People put in regulations and developed safety equipment. But they also made owners and operators criminally liable. In 2016 there were just eight mining deaths in America. Prior to the formation of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration in 1970 more than 14,000 people were dying in the workplace each year. Despite an increase in the workforce that number has declined by more than 60 percent.

For some curious reason, however, Americans tolerate roadway deaths. When there is a crash involving a ferry, an oil tanker, a cruise liner, a train, or a subway we immediately talk about charging the driver or captain. Commercial airlines take safety seriously. And they hold pilots to high standards. As a result we had not a single commercial airline death in America last year.

Given the high stakes, should we not hold truck drivers to such a standard? While truck crashes are responsible for more than 10 percent of roadway fatalities - about 4,000 per year every year -- we tend to identify with the challenges of driving a truck.

There are relatively few people in the enforcement community able to identify with the challenges of riding a bicycle. This is despite the surging popularity of doing so in urban settings such as Porter Square. Joe Lavins was not an anomaly in that setting, which happens to be one of the busiest bicycle corridors in the Northeast. People ride there because it is faster than driving or public transit, fun and practically free.

That the driver, whose name has yet to be released, was not charged with homicide or involuntary manslaughter is acceptable. But to not even cite the driver for failure to yield to a bicycle is inexcusable.

We believe this conversation should be elevated to a legal, if not moral, discussion in a courtroom. Instead, the failure to charge this driver with ANY violation sends a message to all citizens in the world’s largest college town who choose to ride instead of drive that people on bicycles simply do not matter in the eyes of this government.

Enforcement works. We get what we tolerate. And sadly we tolerate too much on our roadways.  

Richard Fries recently stepped down as executive director of MassBike. He plans to remain as a board member and advocate.

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