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Ontario Coroners Report on Bike Safety Has Lessons That Apply Everywhere

Ontario Coroners Report on Bike Safety Has Lessons That Apply Everywhere

 

Written by Llyod Alter

129 cyclists were killed in Ontario, Canada between 2006 and 2010. The Chief Coroner for Ontario has just released a thorough investigation of them, and come up with findings and recommendations that have lessons that are applicable everywhere. Significantly, the first and most important one is for Complete Streets.

Before I start looking at the broader recommendations, I have to note that all the local headlines are screaming “Ontario Coroner calls for mandatory helmets for cyclists”. Herb at Ibiketo writes:

The media has latched onto the helmet recommendation like it is the magical talisman that will solve all that harms cyclists. Drivers won’t have to change anything, it’s all up to the cyclists!

Except that the report didn’t call for mandatory helmets, it is a nuanced recommendation that calls for helmet laws “within the context of an evaluation of the impact of this legislation on cycling activity,” which is a very different thing. But more on this later.


Coroner’s office/Public Domain

What’s an Accident Anyways?

Right at the start, the coroner notes that there is no such thing.

It is important to note that deaths resulting from cycling collisions, just like motor vehicle collision deaths and pedestrian deaths, are not “accidents” in the sense that all of these deaths were predictable, and therefore preventable.

Surprising statistics

The vast majority of cycling deaths were male (86%) and more than half of the cyclists killed were over 45 years old. Peak time of day was between 8:00 and 10:00 in the evening. in 83% of the deaths, conditions were clear. Only 4% of deaths happened during periods of poor visibility.

So those most at risk appear to be boomer men riding in the evening, not the usually blamed hipsters riding through stop signs in rush hour.


Coroner’s office/Public Domain

The great majority of the accidents involved the cyclist being hit by the bumpers, hood or windshield of cars. The coroner infers from this that “the majority of collisions took place when the driver was attempting to pass the cyclist.”

Clearly, there is an issue here of sharing the road; the great majority of accidents are cars hitting cyclists, not cyclists hitting cars.

Trucks

In fully half of the 18 deaths where the cyclist was killed by a truck, “In half of these, the cyclist impacted the side of the truck, resulting in the cyclist being dragged, pinned or run over by the rear wheels.”

Helmets

In 71 of the 129 cases (55%), the cyclist sustained a head injury which caused or contributed to their death. In 43 of those 71 (60%), a head injury alone (with no other significant injuries) caused the death. Those whose cause of death included a head injury were three times less likely to be wearing a helmet as those who died of other types of injuries.

Whose Fault is it?

The coroner found that cyclist’s behavior contributed to 71% of the accidents, through inattention, failure to yield, or disregarding traffic signals. Drivers behaviour contributed to only 62% of the accidents, mainly by speeding, inattention or failure to yield, but the coroner suggests that this is possibly a significant under-representation of the facts because, by definition in this study, the cyclists are all dead and can’t defend themselves.

Recommendations:

Significantly, the first recommendation, without qualifications of any kind, is for complete streets.

The concept of ensuring that cyclists could share the road safely with motor vehicles and other road users was a prevalent theme.

Literature was reviewed that emphasized urban design principles that were inclusive of all road users, not just motorists. In the United States, the term “complete streets” has been coined to describe such principles. In such a model, a variety of strategies are used to ensure the safety of all road users. Such strategies include cycling networks (segregated or non-segregated bike lanes; bike paths), and other means to permit safe access for all road users, including vulnerable road users such as cyclists and pedestrians. Other strategies include low-speed “community safety zones” in residential areas with increased fines for speeding.

Formal Recommendation:

A “complete streets” approach should be adopted to guide the redevelopment of existing communities and the creation of new communities throughout Ontario. Such an approach would require that any (re-) development give consideration to enhancing safety for all road users, and should include:
• Creation of cycling networks (incorporating strategies such as connected cycling lanes, separated bike lanes, bike paths and other models appropriate to the community.)
• Designation of community safety zones in residential areas, with reduced posted maximum speeds and increased fines for speeding.

Sideguards on Trucks

The findings from our study indicated that half of those cyclists killed in collisions with heavy trucks impacted the side of the truck, where side guards could have potentially prevented or deceased the severity of their injures. Because of this, the Panel supported the recommendation for the introduction of mandatory side guards on appropriate heavy trucks.

Mandatory Helmets

Here, the report is very careful to note the controversy over mandatory helmet rules. In fact, it is one of the best summaries I have seen of the discussion about helmet laws. I quote a lot of it because it is important:

There were three general arguments advanced against mandatory helmet legislation….The first related to the potential for mandatory helmet legislation to decrease the overall number of cyclists. Proponents of this view cited the experience in Australia, where the introduction of mandatory helmet legislation was associated with a drop in cycling activity. Some research exists which suggest that the health benefits of helmets may be outweighed by the detrimental effects on overall health in the population through the decrease in cycling activity in jurisdictions where helmets have been made mandatory.

The second argument against mandatory helmet legislation relates to the view that government may see mandatory helmet legislation as “the answer” to cycling safety, with the result that other measures recommended in this Review (improved infrastructure, legislative review, education and enforcement activities) are de-emphasized or not acted upon.

The third point raised by members of the Expert Panel is that helmets are, indeed, the last line of defence and of value only after a collision has occurred. Instead of mandating the use of helmets, it was argued that efforts should be focussed on preventing the collision (through strategies such as improved infrastructure and expanded public awareness and education programs) – in other words, if one prevents the collision, helmets become unnecessary. In addition, some stakeholders felt that mandatory helmet legislation sent the message that the responsibility for safety rests with the cyclist alone, rather than being a shared responsibility of all road users.

While there may be differences of opinion with respect to the value of mandatory helmet legislation, the key message to all Ontarians is simple:

Helmet use by all cyclists in Ontario should be encouraged and supported.

Notwithstanding the varied perspectives on helmet legislation, the Office of the Chief Coroner for Ontario takes the position that helmet use by all cyclists can and will decrease fatal head injuries. We feel that this is supported by the findings from this Review, and as such are recommending to the Ministry of Transportation that the Highway Traffic Act be amended to make helmets mandatory for all cyclists in Ontario. In recognition of the controversy that surrounds the issue of mandatory helmet legislation, both within the Review’s Expert Panel, and in the cycling community as a whole, this recommendation indicates that the implementation of such legislation should occur within the context of an evaluation of the impact of mandatory helmet legislation on cycling activity in Ontario.

Now that is a nuanced response, showing that the Coroner certainly is aware of the issues, and given the statistics on the number of deaths that might have been prevented, I am not certain he could have come up with anything else.

There are other conclusions; wearing headphones is not a good idea (possibly contributing to 21 deaths) nor is drinking and riding (possibly 30 deaths) or riding with shopping bags on your handlebars or heavy backpacks on your back.

In the end, the coroner’s report pretty much calls for what cycling advocates have been calling for: Better infrastructure, complete streets, paved shoulders on highways and sideguards on trucks. Everybody is complaining about the helmets without actually reading the report, which is why I include so much of it here. Frankly, after reading the numbers, I am putting mine back on.

This post was originally published by TreeHugger.

 

Related Stories:

Death By Headphones?

Bike-Friendly Cities: It Can Happen Here

Chicago Aims for Zero Traffic Fatalities Within 10 Years

 

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Photo: Canned Muffins/flickr

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23 comments

+ add your own
9:09AM PDT on Jun 24, 2012

Brian S. - Being primarily a cyclist, I understand and feel your frustration.

The stats shown here would seem to be in-line with "over-taking" accidents. When one includes all collisions involving a motor vehicle coming-up from behind the cyclist (whether or not the motorist has moved over to pass).

Particularly at note is the high percentage of men killed in evening hours. While it does not say here, my guess is that many of these deaths were what people in transportation planning circles refer to as, "the invisible cyclist." That is the cyclists who intentially ride dusk to dawn going without lights or reflectors, wear all black/ dark colors, etc. doing everything they can to NOT be seen....

Sadly, too many are not seen until they have been hit by a car bumper, thrown onto a car windsheild, etc.

Laws requiring bicycle lights (like motor vehicle lights) are often more to be seen by others, not just to see other vehicles/ obsticles....

6:04PM PDT on Jun 22, 2012

thnks for this

5:39AM PDT on Jun 22, 2012

Thanks

1:34AM PDT on Jun 22, 2012

I am not sure if the conclusions drawn were made by the report or the writer of the article. To me, if the majority of collisions were with the very front of the cars (bumper, bonnet/hood, windscreen) then it doesn't sound like predominantly overtaking collisions to me, otherwise there would be a predominance of side-swipes. It also refutes the prevalent idea that a large proportion of collisions are caused by cars pulling out of side roads into a cyclist's path, because that would also be a side impact.

It does, however, suggest (and I stress, only suggest) that maybe cyclists are pulling out in front of cars. After all, the vast majority of incidents were adjudged to have been caused, at least in part, by the cyclist and not the driver.

I am all in favour of cycling and certainly of cyclists being protected from other road users, who are almost always bigger and stronger than them (my children and I all cycle), but I am also as a car driver fed up with having to deal with unpredictable riders swerving around, jumping traffic lights, overtaking on the inside when you are trying to turn off, and riding between lines of stationary traffic without any care taken that someone might be indicating to change lanes or turn.

12:54AM PDT on Jun 22, 2012

In Holland, one of the biking capitals in the world, Amsterdam has approximately 700,000 bikes! No one seems to wear a helmet, studies there has shown that drivers regard someone in a helmet as an expert on the road and are genuinely surprised when they make errors of judgement, while people without helmets are watched closely. Of course the drivers there are road educated, with a lot of them cyclists themselves. Their transport system is very bike friendly, with cyclists having authority, and quite often the right of way!
They are not seen as vehicles of the road, but more often as pedestrians with bikes, and as such have different rules than 2 ton cars!

6:21PM PDT on Jun 21, 2012

Well no s...!

3:11PM PDT on Jun 21, 2012

Thanks for the information.

10:21AM PDT on Jun 21, 2012

Sideguards on trucks would also prevent them from going over low profile and small cars because they often don't see those, either.

That said, I was taught to drive defensively...but I see VERY FEW bikers doing the same, especially kids who are allowed to share the same road as cars even when they may not have enough control or supervision, let alone practice in watching out for cars. I had to take it up with a kids GRANDMOTHER once, when her grandson kept flying out from between cars a few feet in front of me. It's almost like someone gets a bike and automatically assumes that everyone else should be entirely responsible for that biker's safety regardless of the biker's behavior, instead of roads being a cooperative venture in which everyone is responsible for their own safety as well as that of others.

'Drive like everyone else is an idiot' should apply to bike riding, too. In fact it should apply DOUBLY to biking, since their soft fleshy body is out there in the open air.

10:19AM PDT on Jun 21, 2012

Sideguards on trucks would also prevent them from going over low profile and small cars because they often don't see those, either.

That said, I was taught to drive defensively...but I see VERY FEW bikers doing the same, especially kids who are allowed to share the same road as cars even when they may not have enough control or supervision, let alone practice in watching out for cars. I had to take it up with a kids GRANDMOTHER once, when her grandson kept flying out from between cars a few feet in front of me. It's almost like someone gets a bike and automatically assumes that everyone else should be entirely responsible for that biker's safety regardless of the biker's behavior, instead of roads being a cooperative venture in which everyone is responsible for their own safety as well as that of others.

'Drive like everyone else is an idiot' should apply to bike riding, too. In fact it should apply DOUBLY to biking, since their soft fleshy body is so exposed.

10:18AM PDT on Jun 21, 2012

Sideguards on trucks would also prevent them from going over low profile and small cars because they often don't see those, either.

That said, I was taught to drive defensively...but I see VERY FEW bikers doing the same, especially kids who are allowed to share the same road as cars even when they may not have enough control or supervision, let alone practice in watching out for cars. I had to take it up with a kids GRANDMOTHER once, when her grandson kept flying out from between cars a few feet in front of me. It's almost like someone gets a bike and automatically assumes that everyone else should be entirely responsible for that biker's safety regardless of the biker's behavior, instead of roads being a cooperative venture in which everyone is responsible for their own safety as well as that of others.

'Drive like everyone else is an idiot' should apply to bike riding, too.

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