Published On Mon Jun 18 2012
Cycling advocates are praising an Ontario coroner’s recommendations to make the province’s roads safer for cyclists — with one exception.
They like the coroner’s call for side guards on trucks that would prevent cyclists from being pinned under the wheels, and they approve of building more road space for bikes to prevent collisions.
But bike advocates don’t necessarily support mandatory helmets for adults — a key recommendation of the coroner’s review of 129 bike fatalities between 2006 and 2010.
Helmets sound like an easy fix but could do more harm than good because they discourage people from biking at all, say the advocates, who are stressing that the coroner has recommended a thorough study of the impacts before any helmet legislation is introduced.
The Cycling Death Review found that only 27 per cent of those killed were wearing helmets. Even among victims under 18, a group required to wear helmets, only 44 per cent of the victims had been wearing one.
Jared Kolb of Cycle Toronto wouldn’t dream of getting on his bike without a helmet. But he knows people who don’t wear them because they don’t want to mess up their hair.
“That seems frivolous, but what is a person supposed to do if they don’t have adequate facilities at their workplace?” he said.
He quotes studies, including one done in Melburne, Australia, that show making helmet use mandatory educed cycling by 20 to 40 per cent.
In Canada, helmets are required for all ages in Prince Edward Island, British Columbia, New Brunswick and Nova Scotia.
Cyclist and blogger James Schwartz, who doesn’t wear a helmet, thinks their value in saving lives is overrated. He says they encourage recklessness among some cyclists.
“Helmets are mandatory in the most dangerous places in the world to ride a bike, like Australia. But almost no one wears them in the safest place, The Netherlands. That’s one of the reasons people ride there,” he said.
The coroner’s report, released Monday, notes that a 1990 helmet law in Victoria, Australia, increased helmet use to 75 per cent from 31 per cent in a year and saw a 51 per cent reduction in cyclist head injuries.
In the United Kingdom, side guards on trucks reduced fatalities by 61 per cent in cases where bikes collided with the sides of trucks, it said.
Deputy Chief Coroner Dr. Dan Cass said he’s optimistic that governments will act on the recommendations even though a similar review of Toronto-area cycling deaths in 1998 wasn’t entirely effective.
The report’s call for a “complete streets” approach, which means allotting space for bikes, pedestrians and cars on streets that are being built or redeveloped, addresses the need for more bike lanes, Cass said.
His survey comes as Toronto cycling advocates are waging a fierce battle to persuade the city to keep bike lanes on Jarvis St. — space that is supposed to be returned to cars when physically separated cycling lanes are finished next year on parallel Sherbourne St.
NDP transportation critic Olivia Chow said the review is one more indication the federal government needs to legislate side guards on trucks, which would prevent tragedies like last year’s death of Toronto mother Jenna Morrison.
Chow’s efforts to persuade the government failed in 2006 and 2010.
In addition to keeping cyclists from being pinned underneath, side guards — at a cost of about $800 to $2,000 per vehicle — save fuel by making a truck more aerodynamic, she said. They pay for themselves within two years and mandating them would require a minor regulatory change rather than a new law.
“The minister has not said, ‘No,’ but he did not say, ‘Yes.’ No action equals no,” said Chow.
A spokesperson for Transport Canada said it will study the recommendations to “inform our approach to improving the safety of all vulnerable road users,” but would not mandate side guards, as regulating trucks falls under provincial jurisdiction.
Ontario Transportation Minister Bob Chiarelli said in a news release that the province endorses the principles and will “assess those recommendations in a timely manner while also considering timelines and budgets.”
Dying to ride a bike
The Ontario Coroner’s Cycling Death Review found that both cyclists and drivers have a role to play in reducing bike fatalities.
More than half of the cyclists who died were 45 or older. Fifteen per cent were cyclists 19 and under and 6 per cent were under 14.
Men were far more likely to die on bikes. Of the 129 deaths, 111, or 86%, were male.
Cycling fatalities fell every year of the review, but rose in 2010.
Most fatalities occurred in July through September; three-quarters took place between noon and midnight, with 8 p.m. to 10 p.m. being the peak time.
In 83% of collisions, the weather was clear; in 88%, the roads were dry.
Some 63% of deaths took place on recreational trips; 31% commuting to work or school.
In 38% of fatalities, the cyclist was struck by a vehicle; in 14%, the cyclist was run over by a vehicle.
Eighteen of 100 fatalities involved a heavy truck; in half of those, the cyclist hit the side of the truck and was pinned, dragged or run over.
In 23% of fatalities, the cyclists tested positive for drugs or alcohol; it’s not known to what extent those substances played a role in the vehicle drivers’ actions.
Source: Cycling Death Review by the Office of the Chief Coroner of Ontario