A deadly combination

Cycling on roads

Biking ought to be the healthiest way to get around. But cycling on roads meant for cars can be a very dangerous form of transportation.

Last Friday, six bikers on a busy highway near Montreal were bowled over by a pickup truck in broad daylight. Three died, and the survivors were badly injured. Then, on Saturday, a cyclist on a rural road in Quebec’s Laurentian Mountains was killed by an alleged drunk driver. On the same day, Michael Bitton from Listowel, Ont., was struck and left in a coma while biking in Louisiana, where he attends graduate school and is a member of the Louisiana State University cycling team.

It was an unusually perilous weekend, and yet every year between 50 and 70 cyclists are killed in Canada in collisions with cars. Given the many advantages, both personal and environmental, associated with biking, society has ample motivation to reduce these accidents.

In Ontario, the opposition NDP has introduced a private member’s bill to establish a minimum three-foot passing distance between cars and bikes. Such a law, which would make all collisions with bikes the fault of drivers, would be a Canadian first. The notion that cars must always yield to bicycles has some intuitive appeal, but putting the onus entirely on drivers absolves cyclists of their equal responsibility for maintaining traffic flow and road safety. Certainly every motorist has seen bikers riding two abreast or flouting traffic laws. Sharing the road is a two-way street and the law should reflect that: Besides, Louisiana already has such a law, and it did Bitton no good.

Wider paved shoulders is another potential remedy. In the case of the Quebec fatalities, lack of proper shoulders is considered a contributing factor. Yet many committed bikers choose to ride as close to the car lane as possible, even when a paved shoulder exists, because debris tends to accumulate on the shoulder.

Specialist Advice

In the end, the entire concept of sharing the road may require a rethink. Differences between cars and bikes are so great, and the margin for error so slight, that it seems impossible to come up with an on-road solution that will be safe and practical for all. If sharing won’t work, then pairing makes more sense.

Investigation by the University of British Columbia’s Centre for Health and Environment Research shows that physically separating cyclists from cars is much safer than putting bikes on either roads or sidewalks. It even appears to be more effective than mandatory helmet laws.

Dedicated, and separated, bike routes can be found in Europe and some North American dries. New York, for example, puts flower pots and other dividers between bike lanes and city streets. Montreal has sidewalk cleaners that plow bike paths separately from the streets. These things are certainly more expensive than passing a law making all collisions the drivers’ fault, but they’re the only real solution.

A greater emphasis on dedicated bike lanes would not only protect current Canadian cyclists, it would likely encourage a great many other Canadians to adopt pedal power as well.

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