Change to traffic act needed, Toronto coroner finds

By Bruce DeMara

(Originally published in the Toronto Star, September 9, 1998)

A coroner's review of 38 cycling deaths in Toronto over 11 years has recommended identifying dangerous locations around the city and changing the Highway Traffic Act to give cyclists precedence over other drivers.

The report, written by Toronto Regional Coroner Dr. William Lucas, also recommended "side guards'' for large trucks and buses to prevent cyclists being crushed under rear wheels and better education for cyclists and drivers.

"Cyclists should understand what their rights and obligations are. But operators of motor vehicles need to understand the vulnerability of the cyclists and have respect for them,'' Lucas said.

"It isn't just the cyclists' problem and responsibility. It's a shared responsibility to become more educated,'' he said. Ben Smith Lea, spokesperson for the group Advocacy for Respect for Cyclists, said the report offers needed support for bicycle users.

"Cyclists are a valued resource for the City of Toronto. . . . We need to encourage them. Every time a cyclist is killed, I think we're in danger of discouraging other cyclists.''

The report - sparked by the deaths of cyclists Erin Krauser and Martha Kennedy in separate accidents in July, 1996 - was compiled by a committee including municipal and provincial officials, police, cycling advocates and the trucking industry.

It identified 13,475 collisions involving motor vehicles and cyclists between Jan. 1, 1986 and Dec. 31, 1996 - 38 of which were fatal.

The report noted no strong similarities regarding location, time of day or age of the victims. As well, while no sites were name, the report recommended identifying problem intersections or city streets.

Smith Lea's group supported the report's call for changes to the Highway Traffic Act, calling the law "dangerously vague'' in detailing the relationship between bicycles and other vehicles.

The report noted the law "does little to clarify how bicycles interact with other vehicles on the road.''

"The concept of motorized vehicles yielding to non-motorized vehicles. . . seems to be a common sense rule which should be accepted by all road users. Entrenching this principle . . . (would) likely significantly reduce risk of injury and death,'' the report added.

"If the Highway Traffic Act was a bit more specific in emphasizing that a bicycle is a vehicle and as such, is entitled to all the rights but also the responsibilities of any other vehicle. . . that would helpful,'' Lucas added.

However, the report offered only limited support for bicycle helmets, noting studies have shown no reduction in deaths or injuries and mandatory helmet laws might actually discourage cycling.

"Helmets are an asset, not a panacea. The helmet does nothing to prevent a collision,'' the report added.

Stronger support was offered for "side guards,'' which are mandated in the United Kingdom and some European countries. The devices prevent cyclists from being pulled under the passing rear wheels of large vehicles.

Lucas said guards may be resisted by the trucking industry because of extra weight and cost, but have potential to save lines.