The Usual Suspects

It was a Sunday morning in July; the five cyclists, ranging in age from 26 to 45, were on their regular weekend ride. On this particular Sunday morning, they planned to ride from Kanata, on the outskirts of Ottawa, Ontario, to Pakenham, and back again, a round trip of about 57.5 miles.

They never made it out of Kanata.

Barely 3 miles into their trip, as the cyclists were riding single-file within a bicycle lane, a van angled into their lane as it passed the last cyclist, clipping her before continuing ahead, plowing directly into the remaining 4 cyclists.

The driver fled the scene.

The injured cyclists were reported to be:

• A man in his late 30s, who suffered closed head injuries and showed signs of brain injuries. He also suffered a broken ankle, and was intubated by paramedics before being airlifted to hospital. He was unconscious on arrival at hospital and is listed in critical condition;

• A man, 39, who suffered a concussion and other closed head injuries. He was listed in critical condition but stable condition, and was undergoing surgery late Sunday morning. The man’s father, Marcelli Wein, identified him as Robert Wein, a public servant and father of two. Wein is a triathlete who competed last weekend in a triathlon in Carleton Place.

• A 26-year-old woman, identified as Hilary McNamee, a social work student at Carleton University by her father. She suffered closed head injuries, and a possible hip or femur fracture. She was taken to hospital by helicopter and was listed initially in critical condition, then upgraded to serious condition;

• A 36-year-old man, who suffered minor head and leg injuries;

• A woman, 45, who suffered a broken arm and a possible dislocated elbow, identified by a friend as Cathy Anderson of Kanata.

A few hours later, the driver turned himself in to police, and was charged with five counts of failing to stop at the scene of a collision causing bodily harm.

Apparently shocked by the senseless carnage, Ottawa police decided to address bicycle safety as a part of their Integrated Road Safety Program. The target of their bicycle safety campaign?

Cyclists.

Directing their attention at safety violations made by cyclists, Ottawa police ticketed 340 cyclists in August, and handed out 500 free bicycle bells. Additionally, police handed out hundreds of information pamphlets on safe cycling at intersections known to be a high-risk for collisions between cyclists and motorists.

Now, if cyclists are violating the traffic laws, they should be ticketed; the traffic laws are a commonly understood and agreed-upon set of rules that give everybody on the road some degree of assurance that other people on the road will behave in predictable ways. The greater the enforcement of the laws, the greater the degree of compliance with the laws we can expect, and thus, the greater the degree of predictability we can apply to the actions of others. It is this predictability that allows us to maneuver our vehicles in close proximity without crashing into each other. Traffic laws, and their enforcement, are a proactive attempt to prevent accidents before they occur, while lawsuits and insurance settlements are a reactive attempt to deal with the aftermaths of accidents after they occur. So in that light, it is not only “acceptable” to enforce the law, it is necessary to enforce the law, because enforcement is a vital component of the accident-preventing intent of traffic laws.

And thus, if cyclists are violating the traffic laws, they should be ticketed. And as should be obvious, and even more essential to road safety, motorists who are violating the traffic laws should also be ticketed.

All that said, didn’t it strike anybody—anybody?—at the Ottawa Police Service that in rounding up “the usual suspects,” they just might be targeting the wrong people? If they were truly attempting to develop an enforcement response to a shocking and horrific crash—and there’s no reason to believe that they weren’t sincere in their response—would it make any sense at all to target cyclists? After all, the cyclists injured in the crash were all law-abiding cyclists, riding in the bicycle lane, and run down by a driver who never hit his brakes, continued driving for another 400 feet as he hit one cyclist after another, and then with his victims laying critically injured on the roadway behind him, continued on his way as if nothing had happened.

And the best response the Ottawa Police Service can come up with is an enforcement action that targets cyclists? Really? That’s it? That’s the best they can come up with?

What about a stepped-up enforcement action against drunk drivers? What about stepped-up enforcement against reckless drivers? Against aggressive drivers? Against drivers who harass law-abiding cyclists? What about targeting the most dangerous violations of the law, like excessive speed, or red light running? Wouldn’t any of these have been a more appropriate response than a program targeting the victims of this horrific incident?

Tellingly, while their attention was focused on cyclists, Ottawa police still managed to nab 500 drivers who ran red lights. 500. It’s an impressive number. But just imagine what the Ottawa police might have accomplished if they weren’t so busy looking for cyclists with no bells on their bikes.
 

Comments (Comment Moderation is enabled. Your comment will not appear until approved.)
While the tragic circumstances of this 'accident' make the police action seem ironic (if not ridiculous), there is a certain logic to it. Cyclists notoriously ignore stop signs and traffic signals, actions that do not ingratiate them to drivers. One way to garner more respect from motorists is for cyclists to acknowledge that they are subject to the same rules of the road that apply to motorists. And yes, I'm a cyclist. And a motorist.
# Posted By kdt | 9/16/09 2:42 PM
Geez! So irritating.
# Posted By erikv | 9/16/09 7:43 PM
What makes this even more ironic is that judging by a recent report from the University of Toronto cyclists are responsible in only 10% of bike/car accidents in the city of Toronto:
http://communities.canada.com/montrealgazette/blog...
It looks like the usual suspects aren't only the most vulnerable party but also not as guilty as this police response implies.
# Posted By Surestick Malone | 9/16/09 8:36 PM
Nothing wrong with educating cyclists. An Orlando study (http://www.metroplanorlando.com/site/upload/docume...) predicted that cyclists could reduce accidents 63% by being sober, riding with traffic, not riding on the sidewalk, using lights at night, and stopping when required.

The problem is that the campaign in connection with the tragedy blames the victims, and presents the image to the general public that riding single file in a bike lane is inherently dangerous, and it's up to cyclists to somehow change.

Too many drivers (and police officers sadly) already don't know cyclists rights on the roads. Things like this just make it worse.
# Posted By Rich Wilson | 9/17/09 1:26 AM
kdt,

Enough with the stop sign thing. Seriously. Park your butt at a stop sign intersection and count the number of cars that actually stop. As in their wheels stop rolling. This is a joke. A sad joke.

Not sure why this infraction is considered par for the course for cars and widely ignored, yet everytime bikes come up it's "oh the stop signs."

In Portland there was a similar thing a few years ago. A cyclist was killed by a truck that right hooked him. He was in the bike lane and had right-of-way. A week later a woman was right hooked in the exact same spot. She survived. Where were the police? You'd think that after a fatal collision they might be at that intersection citing cars for not yielding to bikes. Nope. They were 3 miles away running a stop sign sting at a major bike thoroughfare. At an intersection where there has not been one collision.

Enough.
# Posted By tony | 9/17/09 10:31 PM
kdt, it's not just cyclists that flagrantly disobey traffic laws. Many, if not most drivers speed, turn on red without stopping, roll through stop signs, etc.

Psychologists also say that observation bias leads drivers to remember the bad cyclists, and forget the ones that behave.

Surestick, the Toronto study did not say that cyclists only cause 10% of vehicle/bicycle crashes. It said that driver error contributed to 90% of them. It's not a zero-sum game. Many crashes are caused by a combination of mistakes by both parties. An example would be a driver turning into the path of a wrong-way cyclist.

And by the way, I am also a cyclist and a motorist. And a traffic engineer.
# Posted By JJM PE | 9/17/09 10:39 PM
I'm a cyclist. Started riding when I was 7 and am nearing 40. Between 16 and 20 I rode no less than 500 miles a week, sometimes as many as 700. I also won thousands of dollars in amateur races. So I have a right to say the following with animosity.

I can't stand that there are SOOO many stupid cyclists nowadays. They think they own the road and that cars and pedestrians need to make way for them. I live in a mostly rural area with 45mph and 55mph speed limits. Two lane, curvy and hilly roads with no side line or only a few inches outside the lines. I would never think of riding on those roads. I was taught to think before acting. These people think the world stops for them.

Yet every day when in my car, there's a few idiots riding on those roads and taking up to three feet of space. Hell, I still find ADULTS all decked out with road bikes and gear riding AGAINST traffic!!! Even at night.

WTF? I never did that crap and still don't.

Then there's those who blow right through stop signs, lights, etc. They don't even bother to pause long enough to figure out if side traffic has a stop/light or is just pulling away from a legal stop. I've been hit broadside three times in four years by these idiots.
# Posted By stromm | 9/18/09 12:48 AM
@kdt

You mention that cyclists are notorious for breaking the traffic laws. Do you assert that car drivers generally don't break the law?
# Posted By Jaxtapose | 9/18/09 1:41 AM
Yes, Jaxtapose, I assert that car drivers generally don't break the law. Many car drivers "bend" the law, to be sure, but do not blatantly ignore basic traffic laws to the extent that recreational cyclists do -- and I'm thinking in particular of the spandex-clad, Lance-wannabees who seem to pollute our roads on weekends. From what I have seen, transportation cyclists -- those who are using their bikes for utilitarian as opposed to recreational purposes -- are more diligent about observing traffic laws.

I recently spent a week cycling in and around Copenhagen. Cyclists there were of course much more numerous than in the US. They in general obeyed the traffic laws. Not all of them did, to be sure. But if cyclists want to be respected and treated as equals on the road, then more of them need to start riding as if the rules of the road applied to them.
# Posted By kdt | 9/18/09 2:23 AM
@Jaxtapose

And they are ticketed at every opportunity. Why should cyclists be any different? Your defense of 'everyone else does it' is very weak.
# Posted By Sadstate | 9/18/09 2:24 AM
On a similar note, the city of Ottawa also recently started the "Walk like your life depends on it!" campaign: http://www.ottawa.ca/residents/onthemove/driving/r... Thanks Ottawa, I see now that if I'm not in a car, I'm a nuisance.
# Posted By Steve | 9/18/09 2:42 AM
Part of the problem is that cycling "advocates" often share the same frame of mind as the motorists who hate us. They spend the majority of their time looking down on other cyclists.

Just look at the comments here. KDT is the perfect example of someone who should spend more time doing something more productive than pointing fingers.
# Posted By JeffS | 9/19/09 12:01 AM
JeffS, what would you have me do? How much time did my comment take? Your gratuitously snarky comment is the perfect example of time that could have been better spent. How is encouraging cyclists -- or motorists, for that matter -- to pay attention to basic traffic laws a waste of time?
# Posted By kdt | 9/19/09 12:34 AM
The logic here is irrefutable. I mean, just think:

Some bicyclists ignore traffic laws.
Bicyclist that is obeying the law is killed by a reckless driver.
Therefore, warn bicyclists against ignoring traffic law.

Let's apply that to something we all - drivers, bicyclists and pedestrians alike - can understand.

Some pedestrians jaywalk.
A pedestrian that is not jaywalking is killed by a vehicle.
Therefore, warn all pedestrians not to jaywalk.

Gee, now that's a bit stupid, isn't it?
# Posted By Bryce | 9/19/09 3:11 AM
How about this.

Everyone pay attention to your driving and cycling habits for a week. Notice each time you bend, stretch, or break a traffic law. And then don't do it.

Slow down. Use your turn signals (or hand signals). Stop *completely* at the stop sign or light. Don't try to "beat the yellow." Give others ample space. Don't swerve in and out of lanes. No texting. No telephone. Both hands on the wheel/handlebars.

Respect the laws of physics. Your speed and your size make you dangerous (yes, even a bicycle).

And then, at the end of the week, smile that you did this for a whole week.

And do it again the next week.
# Posted By neo | 9/19/09 3:42 AM
One of the most serious problems is now driver inattention and distraction. The crash described here could easily have been due to driver distraction. Yet one more reason that cyclists have to fear for their lives--its not just the usual drunk, speeding, and red-light running motorists to watch out for. Its the ones hurling along in oblivion.

http://www.psych.utah.edu/AppliedCognitionLab/cdir...
http://www.nsc.org/resources/issues/factsheet.aspx...
# Posted By Khal Spencer | 9/30/09 1:31 PM
Not only are many car drivers not coming to a full stop at stop signs, but many now appear to be color-blind at traffic lights, where it has now become "fashionable" to accelerate when they see a yellow light and even demonstrate the irresponsibility of proceeding through the red light.

And this happens because we let it happens. Police appears more interested in easy prey than in addressing such isssues.
# Posted By Paul-André Larose | 10/24/09 1:02 PM
I sat at Starbuck's near my house - an intersection in a semi-rural area where plenty of cyclists ride on a saturday morning. Results of my non-scientific study:

Cyclists passing in a 1:15 period: 41
Cyclists failing to stop at the traffic light: 0
Cyclists running a yellow light: 1 (it was marginally unsafe in my opinion)
Cyclists failing to stop prior to making a right-hand turn: 12

Motorists passing: I lost count
Motorists failing to stop at the traffic light: 3
Motorists running the yellow light: 6
Motorists failing to stop prior to making a right-hand turn: well over 30 - I lost count

Motorcyclists passing: again I lost count - this is a mecca for motorcycles
Motorcyclists failing to stop at the traffic light: 0
Motorcyclists running the yellow light: 0
Motorcyclists not stopping prior to making a right turn: over 20

I did witness a motorist who honked and yelled obscenities at a group of cyclists who were turning left in the left-hand turn lane. One of them apparently struggled clipping in.


Again - this is non-scientific. I'm sure I could pick the same intersection and get different results. I was honestly surprised at how respectful the cycling community was of the traffic regulations, and didn't expect the data to come out as it did.

Maybe if we found a way to sponsor a scientific study it would tell us (cyclists) where to focus our efforts. There are clearly infractions happening, but as many have pointed out, a built-in bias may be exaggerating our perceptions.
# Posted By DaveyD | 11/2/09 2:32 PM