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      THE POLITICS OF BICYCLE SAFETY

      by Avery Burdett


      Another young Ontario cyclist was killed last week. Shayne Norris of Kanata was hit at 10 pm from the rear by a station wagon driven by an off-duty Ontario Provincial Police officer. There were no skid marks so it is likely that a high speed collision occurred. Although few other details have been made public, we do know that such tragedies are preventable.

      Any combination of factors can contribute to a bicycle accident including inadequate cyclist skills, aggressive motorist behaviour, speeding, narrow lanes, gravel shoulders, lack of effective lighting or other safety equipment, and badly lit roads. It is rare that just a single factor is the cause of such accidents.

      Contrary to the commonly held view, throwing money at bicycle facilities such as bike paths is not the answer. Neither is mandatory helmet legislation. Bicycles are vehicles and belong on the road. Paths belong to pedestrians. Cycling on paths merely moves the problem to path/road intersections. The vast majority of bicycle collisions occur at intersections.

      Ironically, it is the Province's obsession with helmet legislation that is a major obstacle in reducing cycling fatalities. The government's fixation on helmets is diverting attention and resources away from introduction of true accident prevention measures.

      Ninety five per cent of school age children will own a bicycle at one time or another. This is the source of both the problem and the solution. Few children get the opportunity of cycle skills training, and yet 80% of the accidents involving cyclists under 15 years old are caused by the children themselves. Most bicycle "accidents" are not accidents at all but rather preventable crashes. The vast majority of children acquire bad habits early in life which places them at risk each time they ride. One only has to observe the practices of cyclists around us - children riding out of driveways without yeilding right of way, cycling on sidewalks and in crosswalks, jumping red traffic lights, riding against the flow of traffic, no lights at night, and failure to use hand signals, are but a few examples of dangerous cycling habits.

      Data show that cycle skills training offers the highest potential to reduce cycling fatalities. Last year a young Ottawa cyclist was killed when he turned left from the far right of the road across the path of a car, without checking over his shoulder first. He was wearing a helmet. A helmet is of little use if a cyclist has not learned traffic skills and offers no protection in collisions exceeding 20 km/h. Even when a motorist makes a mistake, a trained cyclist may still be able to avoid a collision.

      Unfortunately, there is much hypocrisy related to bicycle safety. The Ontario government through its Ministry of Transportation has been advised repeatedly for more than a decade by cycling organizations that you prevent bicycle injuries by preventing accidents. There is no reason why the best of all prevention measures, training in the operation and maintenance of a bicycle, should not be more widely available through the school system.

      The provincial government's current approach to bicycle safety is a sham. Except for printing a few leaflets, it is doing nothing to increase the amount of bicycle education delivered to children. It has set up a "bicycle safety team", but expert cycling opinions are ignored and initiatives are taken without proper consultation. The government allocates what miniscule funds are available to its euphemistically called bicycle safety promotion campaign. Close examination shows the campaign to be nothing more than a public relations exercise designed to justify the province's oppressive bicycle helmet legislation.

      Just to make the whole exercise more grotesquely Orwellian, the province is prepared to spend campaign funds in countering opposition to its policy. In "Bicycle Safety: A Social Marketing Approach", an ineptly drafted internal document dated April 1994, the government's thinking is revealed by its plans to assess "how best to manage the media attention (the opponents of helmet legislation) receive".

      It's time the Ministers of Education and Transportation of Ontario and our boards of education took child cycling seriously. More and more children will be riding bicycles as school busing is reduced. It is sad that while there is a pressing need for resources and initiatives to teach kids fundamental cycling skills, and to educate the next generation of motorists on safe sharing of the roads, there are those in government who are prepared to play political games with the lives of Ontario cyclists like Shayne Norris in order to achieve the province's self-serving propaganda objectives.


August 1994
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