MassBike’s Response To Decision Not To Indict Driver In Wellesley Fatality

Black memorial RibbonEarlier this week, we learned that a grand jury decided not to indict the driver of the truck that stuck and killed bicyclist Alexander Motsenigos in Wellesley last August. We are outraged at this result, and our hearts go out to the Motsenigos family who must suffer this injustice on top of their loss. We are trying to understand how this happened, in what would appear to be a clear case of motor vehicle homicide. Here is what we know:

  • The Wellesley Police Department performed a thorough investigation beginning immediately following the crash. They interviewed witnesses, collected evidence at the scene, reviewed traffic camera video, executed a search warrant at the company that owns the truck, impounded the truck, and performed extensive forensic analysis on the truck. Police tracked down the driver and interviewed him at his home the next day, and concluded that he was not being truthful in his account of the incident. They performed a simulation of the crash using the truck, a bicycle, and an officer the same size as the driver to determine what the driver could have seen. You can read the entire report of the investigation here, but be warned that it is graphic and disturbing.
  • The police filed a variety of charges against the driver, including motor vehicle homicide. The driver was also charged for Unsafe Overtaking of a Bicyclist, a law passed as part of MassBike’s 2009 Bicyclist Safety Act.
  • Prosecutors presented the case to a grand jury, which, in December, declined to indict the driver, effectively bringing an end to the investigation. Grand juries are county-wide, and closed to public view, so we will never know who was on the jury, what evidence was presented, or what was said in jury deliberations. The grand jury would have been composed of citizens from multiple communities in Norfolk County.
  • The Motsenigos family has filed a civil lawsuit against the driver and the companies that own and operate the truck.

So what went wrong? Based on the information available to us, it appears that the police and prosecutors took this case very seriously, and performed a thorough and professional investigation. Ultimately, the decision was in the hands of the grand jury and we cannot know what was in their minds. We can and should assume that the grand jurors took their job seriously – they are constantly reminded of the gravity of their decisions. But we can assume that many of them, perhaps all of them, are not cyclists – we represent a growing, but still small proportion of the population. We can be certain that most of the jurors, probably all of them, are drivers – most people, including most bicyclists, are.

I will speculate that some, perhaps all, of the jurors put themselves in the place of the truck driver and asked themselves the question “should I face felony criminal charges if I accidentally hit a bicyclist?” And in the world as it exists today, with bicyclists forced to mix with cars and trucks on roads that were not designed to be shared, and inadequate education of both motorists and bicyclists, those jurors might have decided it would not be fair to hold the truck driver accountable. The system did not fail us, but our fellow citizens did.

This is a cultural issue, where most people still view bicyclists (if they think about us at all) as daredevils and people on the fringe of society. They do not yet see us as vulnerable individuals sharing the road, people like them who deserve greater protection and vigilance. We need to get past this cultural divide, get more rapidly to the point where bicyclists are as accepted and respected as any other person on the road. We are working on this culture shift at MassBike, and we are thinking hard about how to accelerate it. We need your help, first with your ideas, and later with your participation as we move forward.

Please give us your thoughts in the comments.

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15 Responses to MassBike’s Response To Decision Not To Indict Driver In Wellesley Fatality

  1. brad February 6, 2013 at 2:12 pm #

    The report of investigation is extensive and very interesting especially around page 20 when the officer’s show up at midnight to conduct their interrogation of truck driver. The transcript appears to have some lines of questioning occasionally deleted but I agree that it shows due diligence by the police trying to accurately reconstruct what happened.

    Several weeks ago there was an open discussion by Metropolitan Area Planning Commission in Boston, titled, “Slow Down! Speed reduction strategies for vibrant communities”. I was glad to see MassBikes was well represented there.

    For those who were not,
    Many international and local traffic planners are convinced that speed reduction will decrease crashes and fatalities by close to 50%. Road narrowing, is one of the strategies to get compliance, because signage and traffic enforcement alone are not seen as effective.

    My take away message as it applies to this particular fatality, is that motorists and cyclist’s need to respond effectively to the road narrowing in Wellesley. The addition of “Rumble strips” before the road narrowing for motorists may annoy them but they might have slowed this trucker down.

    It will always be imperative that motorists and cyclist need to recognize and adapt to these manufactured conflicts and designs with mutual respect.

    Traffic planners will continue to try and reduce fatalities thru planning and facilities design but narrowing roads and the resulting conflicts warrants more community education, better roadway signage and proper follow thru in enforcement of the law.

    Truck Driver’s judgement re: Safe Overtaking of Bicyclist and the 2009 Law needs to be reiterated again and again till it sinks in. To those who are able, Enforce the law please.

    Is there a police report to read for the Dec 6th Commonwealth Ave fatality where a truck driver failed to safely overtake bicyclist Christopher Weigl?

    • John S. Allen February 7, 2013 at 9:34 pm #

      I agree that speeding is a problem, but wow, your suggested solution! What happened to good old-fashioned traffic law enforcement? Road narrowing and even more so, rumble strips, are no gift to cyclists. They have made many a road which cyclists and motorists could share amicably into one where motorists must slow to cyclists’ speed, and most cyclists would prefer not to ride. See this for example:

      http://www.bikexprt.com/massfacil/nonstandard/rumble.htm

      (I understand that this location was later fixed — but inappropriate rumble strip installation has occurred elsewhere in western Massachusetts.) Rumble strips are appropriate and useful only when there is a 4-foot recovery area on a shoulder to their right — In which case that is also a rideable shoulder for cyclists, and the rumble strip reduces the likelihood of drift-to-the-right car-bike crashes. About bicycle-compatible rumble strip installations, see this:

      http://www.richardcmoeur.com/docs/rumblgap.pdf

      • brad February 9, 2013 at 3:42 am #

        John,

        Sorry for the confusion about rumble strips. I was not advocating the longitudinal rumble strip most motorists might think of. I am saying that if there are any similar pinch points from the road narrowing in Massachusetts, a transverse rumble strip (or speed bump) should be considered.

        Local reports by Wellesley residents say that Linden St blinking traffic light has never been effective in slowing traffic at this intersection.

        I could not tell from the reading the police report but looking at a drawing in police report my assumption is that the lane narrowed from 12-14′ wide before the intersection to 10- 12′ just after Linden St.

        According to the police report driver of truck claims to be aware of car preventing him from crossing yellow line and also aware of passing a cyclist to his right. I would think it possible to get out there with a tape to figure out how much room a cyclist has with that specific truck and the angle truck had to be at that day.

        I don’t think it was a conscious effort on the part of a prior traffic planner to slow traffic speed by decreasing the width of Weston Rd but I am trying to think out loud and point out to the best of my ability the consequence of a pinch point that neither the motorist or cyclist EFFECTIVELY recognized until it was too late.

        I think an occasional reminder to cyclists that traffic planners often don’t think thru the consequences of their plan, is part of what should be the educational efforts after a tragedy like this.

        The point I was trying to make about MAPC workshop David and I attended several weeks ago was that the traffic EXPERTS there claimed enforcement is not seen as economically viable, so they look to signage and primarily physical alterations on road to slow down MOTORIST’s. They are claiming road narrowing as one strategy for slowing down motorists. MY Point as it relates to this particular crash is that a transverse rumble strip or speed bump would have alerted that truck driver to get out of automatic pilot mode along that stretch of road and in the reassessment, slow down and hopefully realize a road narrowing pinch point was about to occur.

        I speculate that both cyclist and trucker were too focused on each other without sufficient visual or tactile info to get them to reexamine their choices as they barreled into a trap . I had not thought about a rumble strip for cyclists but something needs to be done to get some cyclist out of their tunnel vision.

        Because I’ve been pulling trailers behind my bike for over 30 years I have attuned myself to be in constant “pinch point recognition mode” for my own safety.

        How would you develop that ability in other cyclists?

        (thanks for the links)

        • brad February 11, 2013 at 2:34 pm #

          “Helping others see that which is hidden in plain site” That is a phrase I woke up hearing on WBUR radio this morning when my radio alarm clock came on.

          Then I turned on TV to see pictures of the city streets and the piles and piles of snow pushed to the sides where cyclists are expected to ride.

          My thoughts this morning are to get on the internet and make a few phone calls to see if there is a precedent for a bicycling-in-the-snow PSA(public service announcement).

          As an athletic coach I preach not to get MAD at that which you have no control over. I think that is what disturbs me about focusing on what a grand jury did or will do in the future.

          What we as cyclist can continue to do everyday, is be wary of pinch points along ones daily rides. If you see one, don’t rush headlong toward it without being aware of the traffic we should collaborate and communicate with, not compete with.

          share the road

  2. David February 6, 2013 at 2:32 pm #

    As far as we know, no report has been made public yet in the Weigl case. If anyone has been able to get hold of a report, we would be very interested to see it.

  3. Angry Dan February 6, 2013 at 9:37 pm #

    That’s the problem with our jury system. If you are a minority (like cyclists) “a jury of one’s peers” doesn’t include anyone who will identify with you and care for your rights or welfare.

    So even if the grand jury had returned an indictment, it would have been an even longer shot to get a conviction.

    But many thanks to Wellesley PD and everyone else who contributed to the investigation. It’s great to see police taking this seriously even if juries are not.

  4. John February 7, 2013 at 8:14 pm #

    So the jury’s finding is that bicycles are worth 20 points? Needless to say this case sends all kinds of really bad messages to cyclists, drivers, even to police and prosecutors whose career advancement is based on conviction rates. Even when the police do their job and do it well, it’s not enough to break the choke hold cars have on us.

    I hope that I will see more bike paths springing up. They’re the only way to be totally immune to drivers with 19 license suspensions and his many sympathizers in the juries. As for the car culture, my only hope is that rising gas prices will deal with that.

    • dr2chase February 15, 2013 at 9:57 am #

      This is also just the sort of message that gives cyclists a rational basis for an “us versus them” approach. Careless drivers happen, they are not necessarily representative of the group — but when the group declines to indict them despite damning video evidence, then the group owns that decision. This is awful.

      But three cheers for the Wellesley police and doing their job well.

  5. Alan Wright February 14, 2013 at 7:48 pm #

    I rode to the site of the death the day after the incident and tried to imagine how it occurred. Clearly the narrowing of the road is problematic. I ride on the VFW parkway in West Roxbury with some frequency, where similar road narrowing occurs at intersections. i dread these, but because the road is two lanes in each direction and generally flat I can adequately anticipate how to respond to merging with car traffic. In the case of Linden St there is little such opportunity and a rapidly overtaking vehicle could easily trap a cyclist. Wondering if i would have been so trapped and struck i have wondered two things: 1) would my use of a helmet mirror made a difference, and 2) was Alex, in the triatholon position on his bike – that is – leaning far forward on the center bars. If the latter was the case he may have been less able to see the truck and certainly less able to navigate quickly out of the way. I raise these points not to blame him or excuse the negligent driver, but to add to our collective awareness of how to manage the risks of our wonderful sport.

  6. Jessica H February 15, 2013 at 9:35 am #

    Hello,
    I am a high school teacher and I bike to work everyday. Most of my students are drivers. I would like to give a 10-20 minute presentation on how to share the road safely with bikers. Do you have any ideas of a video I could show? I’d love to show a video of a biker getting doored as part of an explanation of why bikers need to bike in the street and not next to parked cars.

    Individual teachers have some flexibility and would be able to implement a short curriculum if you have one or want to create one. This could make a big difference in attitude, once classroom at a time.

    Thank you,
    Jessica H

    • brad February 19, 2013 at 8:12 pm #

      Jessica, write directly to david@massbike.org

      Below are my current favorite video’s and the film maker Robert Seidler has offered to help us make one for Boston

      1. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Mqvgr-cH_A8

      “Cyclists and Roadway Use” is 5min 45 sec video

      Florida Bicycling Association and Orlando Police training video

      Because of the empathy by Orlando Florida police and focused recognition of the specific needs of cyclists on the roadways this is my current favorite but I will give you a link Chicago Bike Program and we could both watch for the first time one of their 9 video’s which is on dooring .

      http://www.chicagobikes.org/video/index.php?loadVideo=avoid_door_zone

      Have your class compare the different skills of riders from chicago to florida riders, you should stop and talk about what happens in the reaction of various riders to a surprise door opening. The point is it should not be a surprise. If you know to expect it, you don’t have to do an emergency stop (a teachable skill). Better to anticipate dangers.

      John Allen who wrote Street Smarts says that if you ride within 3 feet of a car you can not really ride much faster than 5mph. He also teaches emergency braking skill well.

      Even one of the riders in Chicago video who is on far left of a bike lane swerves out of bike lane without looking because she did not anticipate and then overreacted.

      Maybe you could email Nicole Freeman who is Boston’s Bike Zsar and she if she has any video’s.

      I’ve been writing to her to check out the video below but she has not returned my emails regarding video’s.

      “Traffic Enforcement for Bicyclist Safety” 13 min video

      A training video for Chicago Police Officers created in partnership between the Chicago Police Department & The Chicago Department of Transportation. Funded with a grant from the Illinois Department of Transportation Division of Traffic Safety

      http://www.chicagobikes.org/video/index.php?loadVideo=police_training_2009

  7. brad February 15, 2013 at 11:26 pm #

    Alan,

    I tried using google street view for an analysis but it was not very effective for truly assessing situation. So thank you for riding over to Weston/Linden intersection and your perspective. You bring up some good points, It’s been so long since I’ve ridden with the aero bars I had forgotten about the instability and how much less control you have of bike in a wind blast. If you sense a truck or bus approaching from rear(I never wear earphones) my suggestion would be to assume the widest stablizing position on the H-bars with fingers on brake levers.

    I found an intersection similar in Sharon Ma yesterday to the one you visited in Wellesley.
    In Sharon there is a road that narrows just after a road intersects and there is a bright yellow sign with black chevrons alerting motorists/bikers at the point of narrowing. 50-75 yards before the intersection there is a larger sign warning of a ROAD NARROWING. I took pictures and will try to send to Wellesley DPW or someone who could do something to alert road users of that pinch point.

    Riding on VFW parkway is something I’ve done many times but would absolutely recommend alternate route during rush hour.

  8. brad February 16, 2013 at 1:30 pm #

    When I drive my bike I am not just along for the ride. I am an active participant and co-creator of my circumstances.

    Especially on narrow suburban roads I am always on the look out for “The Triple-by-Pass”.

    A very good habit to learn is that when you see in the distance an oncoming car IMMEDIATELY start assessing if any overtaking traffic from the rear might coincide with the point you (and your space needs) AND the space you and the oncoming vehicle allow for the vehicle behind you.

    I still have good enough hearing to distinguish between diesel truck and gas truck but unless I look back I can’t see how wide it is.

    Because I choose not to use a mirror(which I feel adds too much visual stimulation constantly), I either speed up or slow down to change a “triple-by-pass” to a double-by-pass and I do that usually without looking backwards.

    Looking backward while riding in a straight line is possible but even a mirror can not give you enough info, so I focus on eliminating the triple by pass. OR GET OFF THE ROAD.

    I choose not to feel demeaned or marginalized (tho I am) I feel alive in a field of possibilities to come.

    create your own way IF YOU HAVE WINGS

    (with due respect to pedestrians and my friends the squirrels who are so hard to predict)

  9. brad February 16, 2013 at 1:33 pm #

    “Perceptual expectancies are frequently created by suggestion” is a phrase I googled last night after reading about the controversy.

    I also made a point of finding a website I heard Ian Brett Cooper created: The Desegregated Cyclist “Safety in Numbers” or a “Target Rich Environment”

    http://ianbrettcooper.blogspot.com/2012/11/safety-in-numbers-or-target-rich.html#comment-form.

    UNLESS cyclist organizations that advocate for cyclist rights and facilities DO NOT recognize that pinch points on the roadways or segregated “Protected” paths often lead a cyclist to an unexpected conflict with motorists, I predict more tragic deaths.

    When we segregate our minds and see ourselves only according to our chosen mode of transportation we do ourselves a mis-service.
    We are just PEOPLE

    Traffic Planners are JUST people. Hopefully they will fix that intersection with the knowledge and assistance of Human Factors Engineering.

    Whether one is a truck driver or a traffic planner, when other peoples lives are at stake remember: WE ARE AS GODS SO WE MIGHT AS WELL GET GOOD AT IT.

    When a Roman Engineer built an arched bridge, they were asked to stand under it.

    If you “only” see yourselves as bicylists, GET GOOD at IT and recognize pinch points in the poorly designed systems we are provided.

  10. brad February 16, 2013 at 1:52 pm #

    incomplete systems is what I meant to write

    we are all doing the best we can

    even the polarized jurors

    sadly there will be a next time

    unless we change

    “A person changed against their will, is of the same opinion still”

    A. Pope wrote a long time ago