Cyclists deserve more protection

Tuesday, August 10, 2004


Written by Scott Piatkowski

On July 29, a 21-year-old Guelph woman was struck and killed by a dump truck while riding her bike. Compounding the tragedy was the fact that she was riding safely in a designated bike lane (in the middle of the afternoon) when the driver of the truck allegedly turned across her path and crushed her to death. Designated bike lanes are supposed to be a solution to the dangers of riding a bicycle on busy city streets.

It’s estimated that between one and two per cent of North American road fatalities involve a cyclist being killed (although figures may be lower in Canada due to climate). But, cycling is, by any measure, a desirable activity that should be promoted. Because bikes take up far less space on the road than cars, it cuts down on traffic congestion. It is entirely pollution free and measurably improves the health of participants (thereby saving precious health care dollars). Yet, the real and perceived dangers of cycling are a real deterrent to those who are considering trading in their car for a bike.

So, other than installing more bike lanes (which, as noted above, are an imperfect solution if drivers continue to ignore them), what can be done to make cycling safer? For starters, we can change the way that we design our cities in order to allow more people to cycle on trails instead of on roads. Winding recreational trails are great, but we also need trails that get cyclists quickly from point A to point B. Unfortunately, the rate of expansion of trails in most municipalities is just a fraction of the rate of the expansion of roads. There are even those who oppose trails in (near) their backyard due to misguided fears of traffic noise, increased runoff, and disturbances to wildlife (concerns that never seem to stop road construction).

But, conversely, it also makes sense to get more cyclists onto local roads. The most common excuse the motorists give after cutting off a cyclist, turning left in front of a cyclist, or opening their car door in the path of a cyclist is “I didn’t see them”. The more cyclists that are on the roads, the more drivers will expect to seem them and, hopefully, be looking for them.

As well, municipalities with more bikes on the road will be forced to design roads that are safer for cyclists. Davis, California (a city of 46,000) is considered a model for cities hoping to make life safer for cyclists (its bicycle fatality rate has been zero for the past five years). “The low cyclist fatality rate is not due to a low number of cyclists,” says Tim Bustos, the city's bicycle safety coordinator. “What makes Davis significant is that everybody rides a bike here.”

Municipalities can also require businesses to provide facilities for bike parking. But, in Kitchener, complains local cycling advocate Cheryl Lousley, “the city just built a new underground parking garage at the new Kitchener market, just a block away from a four-level parking garage, and no bicycle parking is installed. Sure makes it inconvenient to shop locally.”

Federal and provincial governments can also pass laws to make cycling safer. For example, a 1998 coroner’s inquest called upon the federal government to enact laws similar to those in the European Union that require side guards on large trucks. When a cyclist is hit by a truck in Europe, they bounce off the truck’s side guards. That normally means injury for the cyclist, but it does not mean getting crushed under the wheels of the truck.

While the Ontario government has a law requiring all cyclists to wear helmets, it has directed police to enforce it only for cyclists under the age of 18 (the law was passed by the NDP government and was then gutted by the Harris Tories). But, as former Transportation Minister Gilles Poulliot said when the helmet law was first passed, “We know that head injuries are responsible for 75 per cent of all cycling fatalities and that helmets can reduce the risk of head injury by 85 per cent.”

In other words, regardless of what the law says there is no good reason to ride without a helmet. And, when buying your helmet, make sure it fits and is adjusted properly. It is also important to remain visible, by wearing brightly-coloured clothing (such as the orange vest with a big reflective X that I wear), and by properly outfitting your bike with lights and reflective tape for night time riding.
Cyclists also need to obey all traffic laws. Incidentally, that means riding a metre from the curb, away from the sand, debris and broken pavement that tends to accumulate at the edge of the road. Riding any closer to the curb merely encourages cars to pass when there isn’t enough space for them to pass. Remember, you’re not blocking traffic; you are traffic. The more drivers that learn that, the better.

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