Helmets Shouldn’t Be A Question in the Snelling-Summit Bike Fatality

(Also published on Ride Boldly)

Yesterday, in St. Paul, a cyclist was killed when hit by a school bus. The accident happened at Snelling and Summit, which is a complex intersection involving service roads. You can get a sense of it from this Google map:

The cyclist was headed westbound, straight, per witnesses. The bus was turning left onto Snelling. The students on the bus saw the cyclist lying bleeding in the street near the bus’ front bumper.

Naturally, during the briefing with police at the site, two common questions were among those asked:

  • Did the cyclist run the red light?
  • Was the cyclist wearing a helmet?

Because we are talking about a cyclist going straight and a left-turning bus, if the cyclist ran the red, so did the bus. There is no left turn signal. Instead of asking “Did the cyclist run the red light?” someone might as well ask “Do you believe the cyclist was actively suicidal?”

Per pictures in articles covering the crash, the cyclist was hit by a flat-front bus.

A flat-front bus is also known as a Type D bus. It typically is over 10,000 pounds gross weight, and generally between 10 and 11 feet in height. The picture above gives a sense of scale compared to the nearby officer and police SUV. The bus driver will be looking over most vehicles in traffic, and certainly all bicyclists and pedestrians.

If you are hit by a flat-front bus, accelerating through a left turn, a helmet is the least of your worries as a cyclist. You are not going to die from the head wound. You are going to die of blunt force and internal injuries to your torso. It doesn’t take experience in trauma, in collision science, or even a passing grade in high school physics to realize this.  A recent study by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety found that SUVs, with high-riding style, flat front ends, and higher total horsepower are likely to strike higher on the bodies of pedestrians and cyclists — at the chest rather than in the legs — and strike with more force. And they’re smaller than these buses!

So what are the right questions to ask? Well, here are some ideas:

  • “Was the bus driver the regular operator for this route?”
  • “Do the signals at this intersection have a Leading Pedestrian Interval, to allow pedestrians and cyclists to start crossing before motorists get a green?”
  • “Do the east and westbound signals change simultaneously, or are there timing gaps to allow turns to occur?”
  • “Was the bus coming from the service drive, or the main through lanes?”
  • “Was the cyclist riding the service drive, or the main through lanes?”
  • “Are we aware of anything that could have blocked the bus driver’s view of the cyclist?”
  • “What were the injuries to the cyclist, per paramedics at the scene?”

There is plenty of history in this intersection, including a 2008 death and a 2014 crash leading to long-term rehab. Plenty of questions can be asked from this history. The articles I have read so far all neglect to even mention the past.

If “severe head trauma” is indicated, sure, ask if the other injuries were survivable had there been a helmet. But a helmet doesn’t protect your spine, torso, ribcage or any internal organ except sorta your brain against 10,000+ pounds of flat-front, left-turning bus. And a helmet is not a virtue signal. “He was wearing a helmet” is not shorthand for “did not deserve to die,” and “was not wearing a helmet” is not a flag for “that awful bicyclist the commenters in the Star-Tribune told you about.”

I like bike helmets. They are often useful. But they shouldn’t be in the first 25 concerns anyone has about this particular collision. Stop wasting media briefing time on the helmet question. Stop pretending that helmets save lives in these situations, because they don’t. Helmets don’t fix bad design. And let’s figure out how to stop these deaths from happening, again and again.

About Julie Kosbab

Julie Kosbab is an online marketing consultant and active transportation advocate living in Anoka County, Minnesota. She was one of Minnesota's only League of American Bicyclists Certified Instructors when certified in 2005, and is no longer lonely in that calling. A past member of the National Bicycle Tour Directors Association, she has 2 children and a garage full of bicycles. Find her on Twitter as @betweenstations, or read her (seldom updated) blog at Ride Boldly!

45 thoughts on “Helmets Shouldn’t Be A Question in the Snelling-Summit Bike Fatality

  1. Sean Hayford OlearySean Hayford Oleary

    Good points, Julie. I wonder if part of the reason this comes up so universally after a bike crash is the self-reassurance of thinking, “I wear a helmet, so if a helmet would have saved them, this wouldn’t have happened to me.”

    The sort of nefarious flip side of that to someone thinking only from a motorist’s perspective has to be something like, “if a helmet would have saved them, it wouldn’t be my fault if I did that”.

    I definitely fall into thinking along that first category — even knowing that a helmet does not prevent all head injuries, and certainly does nothing else for the rest of your body. It is good to feel reassured, because by and large, crashes like this are rare. But I hope that doesn’t allow us to lose focus of the fact that they’re not rare enough (zero).

    1. Julie Kosbab Post author

      I like helmets. I have cracked more than one, in non-vehicular incidents both on- and off-road. (The log was at fault.)

      But I think in these reporting situations, it’s almost about lazy reporting. “It was a bike accident, we will ask if they ran the red or were not wearing a helmet.”

  2. Hampton Smith

    Thanks, a good point about helmets. The intersection is a problem, particularly the confusion caused by the service roads. Summit Ave. was designed in the 19th century as a sedate, suburban parkway, not a major thoroughfare. At the least, the light should have a turn signal. It would be helpful to have some marking for the bike lane through the intersection.

  3. Matt SteeleMatt Steele

    This is a shockingly awful intersection. Two additional questions come to mind:

    1. Why do we have an intersection where the signalized crosswalks are set over 70 feet back from the actual signalized intersection where motorists are turning?

    2. How is it acceptable to have a busy intersection with significant bicycle and pedestrian traffic, and have a left turn lane, but not have a protected left turn phase for turning motorists that is separate from the crossing phase for pedestrians and opposing vehicle/bicycle through-traffic?

    We don’t know all the details, but I’m comfortable from photos and descriptions of the collision so far giving it about 75% odds that this second question is the root design cause of this crash.

    1. Julie Kosbab Post author

      That there isn’t a dedicated LTO signal is ridiculous. Even with neighborhood resistance to better bike infrastructure, a signal change shouldn’t be difficult, even if it “slows traffic.” Given the surrounding neighborhood, traffic should be slowed.

      1. Monte Castleman

        It may not be difficult from a NIMBY standpoint, but it probably is from a technical standpoint. You’re probably talking well into five figures to modify a permissive only traffic signal to protected/permissive or protected only. Even more if the entire cabinet needs to be replaced,(A limit of 2 phases only was a standard configuration for both cabinets and controllers, they may have not installed a cabinet capable of 4 or 8). And that or leading pedestrian intervals likely may result in retiming all the other signals in the area. Are the conduits are too small for additional wires, do additional masts need to be built? (Like is the case here, you’d need to build masts over Summit to hold left turn arrows)

        Not that it’s a bad idea, but it’s not a trivial process and it has to be looked at in the larger scheme of priorities. Do we modify signals where there’s been crashes? In a systematic matter based on locations? Those with heavy pedestrian volumes? Those not due to be replaced anyway in the next few years? Spend the money on marked crosswalks, pedestrian flashers, and sidewalk repair instead?

        1. Julie Kosbab Post author

          I actually seem to believe that the lights were replaced in the last few years already, as part of the A Line configuration on Snelling. I do not have concrete proof of this right now, though.

          1. Monte Castleman

            It wasn’t. Mn/DOT recently helped pay for a modification to it to have countdown and APS pedestrian signals as part of the ADA transition plan for trunk highways, but St. Paul hasn’t used yellow signal heads since sometime before the Green Line. hasn’t installed new 8″ indications for many years. The green LED module was a style popular about 10 years ago but now they have better designs. The overall installation looks early 1980s to me.

  4. Monte Castleman

    Every time there’s a motorist fatality, we learn what if any traffic laws were broken and if anyone wore a seat belt or not, whether or not these were actually factors in a crash. A semi truck could fall off a overpass and land on a Yaris and it would be noted if the Yaris driver was wearing a seat belt

    Also Minneapolis and St. Paul, with their much higher pedestrian volumes absolutely insist on sticking with extremely dangerous “yields on greens” rather than the much safer flashing yellow arrows (that can be programmed to prohibit conflicts like this between a pedestrian and left turn phase like new Bloomington installations do. Also newer Hennepin County installations institute a flashing yellow arrow delay, which accomplishes much the same thing as a leading pedestrian interval in that in a permissive phase left turning traffic isn’t released until 4 seconds after the through phase. Besides giving pedestrians a chance to enter the crosswalk, it prevents left turning motorists from stomping on the gas, and probably not looking for pedestrians, the second the light turns green in order to try to beat oncoming traffic.

    Having the eastbound and westbound sides not change simultaneously (split phase) is not something you normally do since it’s an abolute disaster for people in cars unless turning volume relative to through volume is high or you need protected only turns with option lanes. If you want protected turns a protected only (or protected/permissive) phase is a much better option at a typical intersection.

    1. Julie Kosbab Post author

      It’s worth noting that wearing a seatbelt is a law. Wearing a helmet is not, even for the under-18 set, in Minnesota.

      Your point about light varieties is valid. That said, at least a time of LTO light at that intersection, either E and W together, or running E at start of light and W at end, would be really useful. There is reasonably high volume of turns at this intersection due to the nature of Snelling.

      1. Julie Kosbab Post author

        I will say that it may be more relevant, more of the time, and does represent a legal requirement for the person in the vehicle. While there are many incidents that a belt is not going to help, many crashes are like being shaken in a large box without the restraint. It may be somewhat similar to what I said about “extent of injuries,” where it may be a question of if someone weren’t thrown if they’d have had a chance.

    2. Matt SteeleMatt Steele

      I follow lots of these cases in the news, and it’s extremely extremely rare to ultimately hear about what traffic law was broken if there was a motorist at fault. Of course it’s even more rare to hear acknowledgement of design flaws that contributed to that decision.

      In many of these cases, you or I or others who have a good sense of traffic design issues have a reasonable guess as to what happened given limited facts in the initial news reports.

      Remember the person waiting for the bus on that pork chop island who was hit and killed by an Xcel Energy line truck which hopped the curb? I was more confident than not that a motorist in the northbound lane was turning left (westbound) and couldn’t see the Xcel truck heading southbound in the far right lane. This would be a likely cause of the Xcel driver losing control, hopping the curb, and killing a human at a bus stop.

      But we never heard what ultimately happened. Not in the news. Not even from the Bloomington P.D. (who gave me the run around for months on this). Of course, we also did not hear anyone besides maybe you and I discussing how this is a common sightline deficiency for left turns on Four Lane Death Roads. Not by the media, not by public works, not by the police.

      I could name a dozen other examples like this too. There is simply no follow through on these issues, and people keep dying in the same way over and over again. It’s heartbreaking.

    3. Chris

      Here’s what I see on the first couple pages of results for a google search of “crash site:startribune.com” Could only find one story that mentioned seatbelts

      2 die in single vehicle crash. no mention of seatbelts – http://www.startribune.com/2-die-in-fiery-single-vehicle-crash-near-anoka-county-intersection/481859851/

      Man killed in rollover crash. No mention of seatbelts – http://www.startribune.com/20-year-old-man-killed-in-ramsey-rollover-crash/479050883/

      Driver kiled in crash during police chase. no mention of setbelts – http://www.startribune.com/driver-who-had-fled-police-killed-in-minnetonka-crash/479022763/

      Three killed in crash. no mention of seatbelts – http://www.startribune.com/3-killed-in-head-on-crash-in-wyoming/482230371/

      Tesla crash kills 2 teens. no mention of seatbelts – http://www.startribune.com/police-car-crashes-into-wall-in-florida-2-teens-killed/482156361/

      single vehicle crash. no mention of seatbelts – http://www.startribune.com/brainerd-man-22-dies-in-cass-county-crash/481681901/

      2 die in crash. no mention of seatbelts – http://www.startribune.com/couple-killed-in-coon-rapids-car-crash-are-id-d/481956961/

      crash involving Metro Transit bus and 2 cars. no mention of seatbelts – http://www.startribune.com/several-injured-in-multi-car-crash-with-bus/481990711/

      2 killed in crash. three other people involved in crash survived. Article mentions all 5 were wearing seatbelts – http://www.startribune.com/woman-child-killed-in-aitkin-county-crash/482169301/

      similarly, car crash belt site:startribune.com returns 822 results while car crash -belt site:startribune.com returns 80,500 results

  5. David MarkleDavid Markle

    The mass media reported that authorities were trying to determine who had the right of way, which would and should be a primary issue, maybe the main issue.

    Another important factor might be whether the cyclist was riding on the sidewalk and if so, at what speed, which could make the bicyclist’s sudden appearance more unexpected for the bus driver. The picture and other information above gives no insight on this question

    1. Adam MillerAdam Miller

      I don’t understand the media confusion about right of way. They are reporting that he was going straight and the bus was turning left. Absent a turn arrow/phase, which we know doesn’t exist, then the person going straight has the right of way, right? How would the bus have the right of way?

      Witnesses say the man who was killed was biking in the bike lane.

      1. Matt SteeleMatt Steele

        I have also wondered why SPPD and the media have been reluctant to point out that (absent other factors) a left turning bus with a green ball would have to yield the right of way to an oncoming bicyclist with a green ball. That the bicyclist appears to have had the right of way.

        The same standard does not apply if there’s a pedestrian outside of a marked crosswalk (even if they are crossing at a corner unmarked crosswalk), or if a pedestrian or bicyclists crossed against a red light.

        1. Sean Hayford OlearySean Hayford Oleary

          Yeah it seems like media outlets and police departments are a big fan of using the phrase “not at a marked crosswalk” without noting if the victim was at a legal, unmarked crosswalk where they still had right-of-way.

      2. aperson

        well, if said cyclist seemingly comes out of nowhere… as small objects tend to do,,, right of way is really irrelevant. can’t yield to what you don’t see.

        also, it’s perfectly possible for the light to have been red for the cyclist, but the bus to have not been running a red, as you can legally pull out into the intersection in order to make a left immediately after the change of the light.

        also, lets think about the probable relative speeds here. chances are, the bus was doing 10-15 mph. which begs the question: how fast must the cyclist have been going, for there to be enough relative velocity to kill a person?

        I put this one down mostly to bad design

        1. Adam MillerAdam Miller

          If you can’t see people on bikes, get off the road. You’re not physically capable of driving and you’re endangering other people’s lives.

          The media has been mentioning right of way. If they’re going to do that, there’s no reason to not state that the person on the bike had the right of way.

          If the bus was doing 10-15 mph, it wasn’t legally turning during a red phase, it was running a red light. It’s legal to enter the intersection on a green, wait and then turn after it turns red, not speed into the intersection and into your turn after the light’s red.

      3. Jeff

        There’s not even a sidewalk adjacent to Summit at that point, since there’s a service road and the sidewalk is on the North side of the service road.

        1. Julie Kosbab Post author

          This. While there is a lot we don’t know for sure, we know for sure that there is no way a cyclist using a sidewalk gets hit in that part of the intersection, given the sidewalk’s location near the service road.

          This was an apparently experienced cyclist, as well. He was using the bike lane.

  6. Jeff McMenimen

    Summit Avenue is a busy bikeway in Saint Paul – maybe the busiest in the City. I bicycle on it several times a week for recreational purposes. My kid bicycles on it to get to school. In fact, there are several schools and other community destinations along the Summit Avenue corridor. We should be promoting bicycle transportation along the corridor and providing safe crossings to facilitate walking and biking.

    The intersection is confusing at best, due to the separation of frontage roads. The traffic signals and signage should be upgraded to better inform motorists, pedestrians and bicyclists and provide safe times for crossing. Markings on the roadway should also be improved to let motorists know that there is a bike lane on Summit and that bicyclists are crossing this busy intersection.

  7. Alex SchieferdeckerAlex Schieferdecker

    If this cyclist had instead been killed by hail of gunfire, nobody would be asking whether or not he was wearing a helmet. Yet in both that fictional case and the one that occurred, a helmet doesn’t help the cyclist at all. The press may well have asked whether the cyclist was wearing shorts or slacks.

    This is how normalized fatal traffic crashes are. We take their lethality as a given, and try to armor ourselves against it with helmets and bigger, bulkier cars, instead of questioning the basic premise of why 30,000 Americans die every year while just minding their business trying to get from Point A to Point B.

  8. Bill Dooley

    Another questions media needs to ask in these incidents is whether the driver was using a cell phone. They can ask about bicyclist use of cell phones as well but I have rarely seen a bicyclist on the phone while biking but have seen both Metro Transit and school bus drivers on the phone while the bus was in motion.

  9. Matt SteeleMatt Steele

    I just had to run an errand in the human-hostile moonscape known as St. Paul north of the Capitol. And I saw a bus take a right from Rice to Pennsylvania and hop the curb ramp (where the truncated domes are) because the school bus driver was too busy trying to turn on red ahead of traffic approaching on Pennsylvania. I think the bus said something like “HEP” on the side. The bus almost took out a pedestrian waiting to cross on the corner. I’m sure these near-misses are a daily occurrence across St. Paul and everywhere.

  10. Jonathan Lord

    I think that the right of way issue will be the outcome root cause analysis, The follow-up article in the Pioneer Press today, 2018-05-10 (https://www.twincities.com/2018/05/10/bicyclist-killed-in-st-paul-crash-id-minneapolis-grandpa/) says, “An investigator told Andy Grahn that witnesses reported his father was traveling west on Summit Avenue, the bus was heading east and the traffic light was yellow, he said.”

    The ages of both the participants, driver (80) and cyclist (75) might indicated that they both still believed that they have the reaction times of a 20-year-old and need to get through that yellow light come hell or high water; both unable, or unwilling to back down even though the driver should have realized that the cyclist was not going to stop and waited for the intersection to clear and the cyclist to pass before completing the turn.

    My bets are that the insurance companies will agree that both parties were responsible for 50% of the tragedy.

    I agree that better facilities on Summit are long overdue given the traffic and cycling load that it carries, but even with better facilities, there are still going to be accidents when opposing parties believe they have the right-of-way on the transition from green to red.

    1. Monte Castleman

      It would be interesting to know if the bus driver had pulled into the intersection while waiting for oncoming traffic to clear, and then panicked when the light turned yellow, or if he entered the intersection trying to beat the light.

      Crashes at conflict points when a permissive phase terminates is a known issue. There’s a couple of ways of dealing with it:

      1) Not use permissive phasing, and use split or protected only phasing.
      2) Use a flashing yellow arrow that stays on for 4 seconds after the through movement has a red, to allow turning motorists stuck in the intersection to clear it in a safe, orderly fashion.

      Normally the delays to all users of the intersection offset the safety benefits (and long delays due to excessive traffic control can backfire and cause disrespect for all traffic control devices, motorists to get angry and drive recklessly, and pedestrians to jaywalk against red lights and Don’t Walk indications.) But it sounds like this intersection has an ongoing crash problem exceeding what’s typical, so it’s probably time to look at one of these options.

    2. Julie Kosbab Post author

      There is also a question of at what point each entered the intersection. There is a difference between entering the intersection on yellow, and being in the intersection on yellow.

      In fact, one of the reasons there is a yellow is because you can enter the intersection on green, and need the phase to exit the intersection.

      Getting hit on the yellow doesn’t mean you entered on the yellow.

        1. Julie Kosbab Post author

          That part of Summit, going westbound, is slightly downhill. As a cyclist, you can get cruising pretty good into that stretch. I’ve been known to carefully time it so I don’t have to stop, because if you get rolling you can make it to the river with minimal effort if you don’t have to stop there or at Fairview, Cleveland or Cretin.

          He might very well have been doing a nice pace with minimal effort through there.

      1. Monte Castleman

        The point of yellow is to warn you that it’s about to turn red and thus illegal at that point. . If we were going to make it illegal to enter an intersection on yellow, we’d need a pink or fuchsia light or something to warn you the light was going to turn yellow because if you’re 10 feet in front of the intersection going 30, you can’t reasonably expect to be able to stop if the light happens to turn yellow.

        The red clearance interval (where it shows red in all directions), is what is meant to give traffic legally in the intersection a chance to clear it before conflicting movements are released (and to provide a bit of a buffer if someone runs the red light right after or just before it changes.)

  11. David A Marquette

    Has the bus driver been at minimum ticketed for failure to yield the right of way? it sound vehicular manslaughter if not outright homicide.

    1. Bill Dooley

      Latest MPR story: “Authorities said it wasn’t immediately clear who had the right of way before the collision last week. The crash remains under investigation.”

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