Friday, September 04, 2009
Image by Fred Hsu.
This has been a tragic summer for cyclists. First 5 cyclists were mowed down while riding in a bike lane in an Ottawa suburb, while another Ottawa area cyclist was seriously injured just weeks later. Then there was the case of Brian Browers, a Kingston police officer who suffered life-threatening injuries after he was hit by a truck while cycling to work (Peter wrote an excellent editorial on Brian's story for the Kingston Whig Standard, which can be read here). And just this week, the former Attorney General of Ontario was charged with criminal negligence following a bizarre accident that resulted in the death of a bike courier. Something needs to be done, and I have a very simple solution - cyclists need to obey traffic laws.
Now don't get me wrong, I'm not blaming the cyclists for all of these accidents. In at least two of the incidents cited above, it appears that the cyclists were following every rule of the road, and had no hand in the accident that caused them so much harm. And yet, whenever an article about a cycling accident is posted online (including Peter's recent post on the topic), the comments invariably question whether it was the cyclists' own recklessness that caused the crash. In fact, it's the first question that comes into my head as well. Why is that? Because hardly anyone obeys even the most basic traffic laws when they are on a bike. They run stop signs and red lights, turn without signaling, ride against traffic, and do all manner of things that they would never consider while driving a motor vehicle. And I understand - I ride to work everyday, and it's awfully tempting to run through a red light when there is no traffic coming the other way. But cycling will never be truly safe until all drivers treat cyclists like they deserve to be on the road. And drivers will never give us that respect until we stop casually flaunting many of the most basic rules of the road (don't even get me started on Critical Mass, a protest group made up of cyclists who intentionally flout traffic laws in a misguided effort to prove that "we are traffic").
Just two weeks ago, my girlfriend and I rode our bikes from Canmore, Alberta, to Chase, British Columbia - a distance of roughly 500km on the Trans-Canada Highway which took us from one side of the Rocky Mountains to the other. I was pretty apprehensive about our safety before the trip began, but once we got on the road I was constantly impressed by how many drivers (and especially truckers) slowed down and moved over while passing us, showing us as much respect as they would show to any other vehicle on the road. There were of course those who passed us at full speed and came just inches from us and our bikes, but thankfully they were a small minority. My point is that most drivers are careful and courteous while driving near cyclists. Rarely do I see cyclists showing the same respect to motor vehicles.
The great tragedy is that when I ask people why they don't commute by bike more often, they almost always say that it's because they fear for their safety. I understand - it's not fun when a bus mirror passes just inches from your shoulder while riding down a busy street. But most people don't realize that if they obey basic traffic rules (and common sense), cycling is quite safe. In fact, I have only been hit by a car once, and it was my own fault (I was riding on the sidewalk in undergrad, a practice which I have avoided ever since). I know far more people who have been involved in accidents while driving a car than when riding their bikes. True, the consequences are more severe when you're on a bike, but that's just one more reason to minimize your risk by obeying traffic rules. And the benefits of commuting by bike vastly outweigh the risks. Commuting by bike even a few times a week can result in dramatic health benefits, reduce your carbon footprint, and free up space for other drivers on the road and in parking lots all at the same time. Plus, it can be a beautiful way to get around! Take, for example, these pictures from my daily 6km commute, roughly 2/3 of which is on a paved trail and 1/3 is on major roads.
Not a bad way to get to work, eh? Of course I spend a few minutes surrounded by heavy traffic, but it is more than made up for by the beautiful surroundings the rest of the way.
I am hopeful that we will see changes that improve cycling safety in the near future - harsher penalties for drivers who hit cyclists, more bike lanes, etc - but this will never happen until the public sees cyclists as having a legitimate right to ride on the roads. And that will never happen until more of us obey the rules of the road.
Peter summed it up best in his recent editorial:
"Until mutual respect develops between cyclists and motorists, few [individuals] will adopt habitual active transportation, no matter how many encouraging reports the medical community releases."
Have a great long weekend, and consider going for a law-abiding ride if the weather permits!
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