Most road "accidents" tend to have short lives in our media. Road wrecks, unlike wars or airplane crashes, are common enough to seem nearly natural. Yet when a Boston bicycle messenger struck a rich local socialite last year, the media pricked up its ears_the tired story of `car hits person' had suddenly taken a new twist entirely. Here at last was a dog everyone could kick: a spectacular way to shift away from the usual culprits in road wrecks. Other rich socialites in Boston soon began to make much righteous and indignant noise, and this summer Boston bike messengers received the harshest legal sanctions in their history.
Late last October, experienced courier Jonathan Gladstone turned onto Commonwealth Avenue on his way to Brighton. His speedometer read 18mph as he accelerated towards a stoplight that had just turned green. A pedestrian suddenly stepped out into his path_trying to make the opposing light he had just missed. There was no time to swerve or warn and the two collided. Gladstone, landing dazed but on his feet, checked on the pedestrian now laying face down in the crosswalk. The man was breathing but not answering questions. Gladstone radioed for help while pedestrians stopped to gawk. Other onlookers including drivers who had witnessed the crash left the scene.
Gladstone was treated for injuries at Bringham and Women's hospital and released. The pedestrian, Boston Federal Reserve Bank Vice President William Spring, was kept in a medically-induced coma for two weeks before recovering.
Reaction to the crash came quickly and severely. The Boston Chamber of Commerce called for a boycott of unlicensed bicycle messengers. Any gratitude for those professional and skilled enough to perform the 10 and 15 minute deliveries that Chamber members still depend upon was quickly forgotten: these executives had a morality lesson for the rabble on the streets.
FRB VP Spring, now recovered, became a leading proponent of new regulations for bicycle messengers. Arguing for new laws in June, Spring alleged that "the civility of Boston is at stake." A new law governing the cycling component of the courier industry was passed by Boston Mayor Thomas Menino later that month, then forwarded to the state legislature for consideration because it involved the use of public roadways.
The rules sailed through the legislature in a lopsided vote, and Acting Governor Cellucci signed the bill August 14. Designed to regulate bike couriers into submission, the rules set up an obtuse passbook system for bicycle couriers alone. Anyone who actually knows many messengers would have to wonder about the merits of such an idea. The law requires all couriers to register with Boston police, to pay for a license renewal whenever changing employers, to display license plates and to either carry insurance or work for insured companies. Boston bike messengers are now required to carry more insurance than either car couriers or taxicabs, and hiring unlicensed messengers is now illegal.
The new laws have left bike messenger community puzzled. In a June letter to the Boston Globe, San Francisco Bike Messenger Association President Howard Williams thanked the paper for assuming that bike messengers were perfect - the paper's fundamentally sloppy coverage of the controversy had suggested that couriers were somehow expected to maintain perfect safety records, regardless of the 40,000 and more that drivers kill each year. "We must in all seriousness decline the compliment," Howard added after thanking them. "We...will try to live up to such expectations, but we can only do so without unnecessary and antidemocratic legislation."
Similar sentiments were echoed by Bike Messenger Associations (BMAs) across the world. A July press release signed by representatives of 14 regional BMAs from Toronto to Australia took the law to task. "North Americans accept death and injury due to motor vehicle crashes as routine. However, this unusual incident has resulted in a proposed law that is not only unnecessary but one that has been proven ineffective in other North American cities." Noting that motor vehicle crashes are the leading cause of death for all age groups from 6 to 27, the couriers point out that "the bicycle is not only statistically harmless to pedestrians but is also environmentally friendly and cuts down on urban gridlock."
Attempts to regulate bicycle couriers have a colorful history, if not a successful one. The balance of evidence shows that regulations targeting bicycle messengers alone have no significant impact on road safety statistics. While they allow civic leaders to proclaim "something is being done!," legal sanctions on working cyclists draw on both the public coffers and the remediation of more common traffic problems.
Glancing down upon the streets from executive towers, upstanding Chambers of Commerce members must surely realize that excesses of motor vehicles cause gridlock, smog and nearly all road accidents. While some cyclists - like some drivers and pedestrians - do not always make mature decisions about safety on the roads, it is disingenuous to assume working cyclists somehow fill this category. The nature of the occupation demands a commitment to basic safety - you screw up, you lose your income or worse. Riding for a living teaches traffic skills.
Messenger advocate Joe Hendry maintains a database detailing bicycle messenger regulations and their impacts across the globe. It can be found on the web at www.wwonline.com/~jhendry/MAIN.HTM.
Fearing perhaps pending legal action, Gladstone has not offered comment on the crash or the ensuing laws. "People were more concerned with the fact that I may be a courier, and the issue of who was at fault than with the well-being of someone lying unconscious on the pavement, bleeding," he said in an early statement.
Others in the courier community have felt more free to comment. Wrote one: "While there's no excuse for bad vehicle operation_by anyone_had Spring been hit by a taxicab under similar circumstances, it could hardly have been expected to produce a similar hysteria to "crack down" on cab drivers.