Doug van den Ham - Letter to Coroner

posted Dec 1, 2011, 3:24 PM by RCC Admin.
Regional Supervising Coroner – Toronto West Region
Office of the Chief Coroner
26 Grenville Street
Toronto ON M7A 2G7
Dr. Dan Cass
Re:  Ontario Coroners Review of Cycling Deaths
I am writing in response to the announcement that the Ontario Coroner is examining cycling deaths in Ontario.  I have been a participant in much informal discussion as to this matter and also have participated in a focus group session with RCAC in Ottawa (November 26, 2011).
I consider myself to be an experienced cyclist having spent roughly 40 000 km on the roads around Ottawa in the last five years.  This mileage has been accumulated while engaged in recreational cycling, commuting and racing / race training activities.   I feel that, in general, cycling is a very safe activity.
In the focus group session with RCAC, I was struck by the discovery that a Coroners report (Toronto) was conducted in 1998 and came to four principle conclusions.  Of those conclusions, only the implementation of cycling infrastructure appears to have been acted upon.  More relevantly, however, is that recommendation for more cycling education has been largely ignored.
On my daily commute to work and in my frequent rides in Ottawa, I am constantly astonished at the general failure of cyclists to conduct themselves in a manner that is safe and predictable.  Cyclists riding the wrong direction on streets, weaving in and out of parked cars, riding too tight to the curbs, running red lights, failing to indicate intentions, failing to use lights at night, riding on sidewalks, and not shoulder check before merging / changing lanes are all commonly seen occurrences.  With such a laundry list of problems, it is no surprise that cyclists occasionally come in contact with stationary objects, other cyclists, pedestrians and cars.
Informally, I have asked around my peers and have discovered that cycling education has entirely disappeared from the public education system.  While many people in their thirties or older, recall cycling education at least once during school, this appears no longer the case.  Cycling education is now limited to those who search it out and frequently pay their own way.  In Ottawa, it is offered to very limited extent by CAN-BIKE and by the Ottawa Bicycle Club (whose program I have taken).  Given this reality, it should come as no surprise that cyclists are conducting themselves poorly and in a manner that increases danger to themselves and others.
It would seem that with the limited amount of funds that seem to be available for cycling initiatives (compared to the seemingly infinite funds for automobile infrastructure), that cycling education has been cut in favour of building a smattering of cycling infrastructure, some of which utilizes and encourages patterns of movement that are directly in contravention to what is outlined in the HTA.  Examples of such would be bike lanes that force cyclist to pass right turning vehicles on the right and infrastructure that creates unusual patterns, sequences, or complications of movement in intersections.
The current focus on infrastructure with a disregard for education has had other negative impacts to cycling.  The first negative impact is evident in media coverage.  A survey of public forum postings in response to cycling media coverage reveals a back lash against cyclists would opt to the use the roadways over segregated infrastructure.  It would seem to a certain portion of the population, the existence of dedicated infrastructure, regardless of how limited or practical, provides justification for the ghettoization or harassment of cyclists.  Comments demand to know why a cyclist wasn’t in a lane half a dozen blocks away or demand to know why, if a cycling lane was constructed, all cyclists aren’t required to use it.  The poor practices (as identified above) exhibited by some cyclists serve only to compound the situation.
The second apparent negative is the manner in which cyclists use these dedicated infrastructures, and points directly to the need for further cycling education.  In the areas of approach to and departure from a cycling infrastructure, there is a dearth of safe cycling practices.  Sidewalk cycling is especially common.  It would seem that cycling infrastructure serves as a substitute for skill and training.  As such, when the infrastructure ends (a reality for the foreseeable future), poorly trained and unskilled cyclists are left with the inability to safely integrate onto the roadways.
In my opinion, there is a distinct need to make cyclist education the forefront measure in improving the safety of cyclists in the urban environment.  Children and young adults need to be educated in the rules of the HTA as they pertain to cyclists, how to identify and avoid hazards, and how to select the safest roadways.  Adults and those taking up cycling later in life need to be encouraged of the value of cycling education.
For the governments' part, this means bring cycling education back into the public education curriculum, and for funding cycling education to make sure that it is accessible and affordable to those who need it.  Secondly, corrective education should be administered in place of fines for cycling infractions to ensure those who fail to conduct themselves in a safe manner receive instruction.
A concerned cyclist,
Doug van den Ham