Saturday, July 16, 2016

Saving Cyclists' Lives

It seems like every year we have cycling deaths in our community. In the past, the local paper reporting has held a subtle anti-cycling stance, but this summer, some tragic accidents have been clearly cyclist error.  People are calling for greater education for cyclists, which is important, and I'll get to it in a minute (scroll down if that's more your interest), but it's only part of the problem. Our city has too many areas that aren't set up well for cycling, particularly around bike paths (ironically), and the rules aren't entirely clear to enough people. There's often heated debate about what cyclists should be doing. As I've said before, statistically, it's no more dangerous to bike than to drive here, but things could certainly be made a whole lot safer.

A FEW EXAMPLES OF QUESTIONABLE BIKE PATH PLANNING (a bit of a rant, so maybe scroll down to the next heading):

"Sometimes it's necessary to go a long distance out of the way in order to come back a short distance correctly" (Jerry, The Zoo Story.) - Well, in K-W it is because you often have to turn right in order to go left if you actually want to follow the rules.

According to a recent Record article, "Riding into a crosswalk off the sidewalk is one of the most common scenarios for cyclist-vehicle collisions....Cyclists are not supposed to ride on sidewalks or in crosswalks." The region and city have been adding bike paths and are working on more bike lanes, which is really wonderful, but there are areas in town that have bike paths that end at crosswalks or that encourage cyclists to ride on the sidewalk. People won't risk their lives to follow the rules, and people won't go a long way out of their way to get where they're going, so sometimes the rules are broken.

King and Weber: The bike path from Conestoga Mall ends at the crosswalk on Weber. If I want to continue on the other side of Weber, it's significantly safer for me to cross in the crosswalk (from the circled X to the arrow) than for me to join busy Weber Street traffic to go half-way across King, then join King street traffic to make a left-hand turn on to Weber. But I'm not supposed to bike in the crosswalk. If I were a car, I'd be doing a U-turn, but I'm not really sure how to do that on a bike (or in a car) without travelling straight until the next driveway or side street to turn around. That can be far to travel on a bike just to turn in the opposite direction. I could dismount and walk the crosswalk, but it's hard to convince a cyclists to walk beside a perfectly good bicycle.

Victoria Street and Iron Horse Trail: The bike path hits Victoria at a sign that instructs cyclists to cross at the lights a block away rather than travel directly across the street. Cyclists have to choose between biking the wrong way on the street or biking on the sidewalk, and both are illegal (or ignoring the sign and zipping across the street). To stay mounted means riding to the right until it's possible to turn around. Well, they could also walk their bikes on the sidewalk, but that's unlikely to happen, and, practically speaking, there would be less room for pedestrians to get by, not that there are many pedestrians on that sidewalk anyway. I regularly break the law there by biking on the sidewalk.

Waterloo Park Trail and Father David Bauer Drive (Why are our street names so flippin' long?): As you leave the park from the trail, you'll hit a median. I can't imagine why the median doesn't have a break in it for cyclists to cross the street there. But it doesn't. So we ride on the sidewalk to get to the open crossing at Avondale Ave. I'm not going to ride in the opposite direction on the street to get to a break in the median, then turn around to go where I had originally intended. Imagine asking motorists to do that - turn right and then turn around in order to turn left!

Homer Watson bike paths: To get from one path to another, you have to travel a little bit on Homer Watson. It's a busy four-lane road, but it's got a wide, paved shoulder, so it feels very safe. But if you're travelling west, you need to take the shoulder against traffic (which is illegal) or else cross four lanes of traffic twice, which would be illegal and insane, or you could join traffic to the lights then cross (at the crosswalk, which is illegal, or make a scary U-turn) then ride down Homer Watson to the next set of lights, then ride back up to get to the bike path again. That's not going to happen. Taking the shoulder the wrong way for a few meters is typically the safest choice, except...

there's sometimes a freakin' truck parked on the shoulder. The grassy part is a narrow strip at the top of a steep hill, so travelling against traffic on the road actually seems the safest bet, which should never be the case.  A little more bike path connecting the two away from the road would be pretty cool.

Homer Watson and Stirling: The bike path ends at a crosswalk with a walk signal that EVERY SINGLE CAR ignores. On the way there, I waited at the lights to cross Stirling, sitting on my bike at the ready, but cars continued to turn left from Homer Watson to Stirling in front of me until the light changed from a walk signal to a red light. At my next turn, I got off my bike to see if being a pedestrian would help - I got a chance to cross at the "1" of the light countdown, so boarded my bike to cross before the light turned red. I wouldn't have made it across in time on foot. On the return trip, I tried to film the number of cars crossing the crosswalk against a walk signal, but I was trying to cross with my phone in hand, so it was mainly just sky. In this direction, I can understand cars turning left on the walk signal because a pedestrian is almost completely blocked from view by traffic posts. I thought my bike would help visibility, but I ended up crossing at the "0". AND there was a police van waiting at the opposite light, watching the cars turn left as I tried to cross. Nobody was stopped and ticketed even though the MTO's Driver's Handbook clearly states,
"At any intersection where you want to turn left or right, you must yield the right-of-way. If you are turning left, you must wait for approaching traffic to pass or turn and for pedestrians in or approaching your path to cross."
Where's the local paper's report on that?? Until car drivers follow the rules of the road, we're all in danger. MPP Eleanor McMahon's is calling for stiffer penalties for careless drivers since her husband died when he was clipped by a truck while out biking, but what we need is simple enforcement of the laws. I don't think it matters if motorists face a $100 fine or a $1,000 fine if police never stop them. That being said, I also don't get ticketed when I ride through crosswalks or on the sidewalk.

So wait a minute. What's the difference between motorists wanting to get home faster and therefore driving through the crosswalk illegally, and cyclists wanting to cross faster so biking instead of walking through the crosswalk? Potential for harm. When I bike through a crosswalk, I'm out of everyone's way faster and I don't pose a threat to anyone because I'm on the outside edge of the crosswalk. Motorists who ignore the walk signal and turn left in front of pedestrians and cyclists trying to cross, have a greater potential to hit people in the crosswalk.

We have to figure this whole thing out better.


I'll be so arrogant as to say 'the rules are confusing' rather than say 'I'm an idiot' even though the latter may very well be the case. After all, I don't know how to properly make a U-turn on a bike.

First of all, the Region's Cycling Safety booklet says "Fluorescent fanny packs are trendy," which is totally inaccurate.

What's an intersection and what's a crosswalk and what's a crossover? The distinctions aren't always clear. I'm also not sure what's a regional road, a township road, and a city road.

A crossover has the XX markers and lights overhead or the walking signs and a striped crosswalk. It's the only place (except where there's a crossing guard) that drivers must wait until the pedestrian completely crosses the road before continuing. I'd love it if that rule could be extended to all crosswalks.

A crosswalk "is a crossing location usually found at intersections with traffic signals, pedestrian signals or stop signs. A crosswalk can be: the portion of a roadway that connects sidewalks on opposite sides of the roadway into a continuous path; or, the portion of a roadway that is indicated for pedestrian crossing by signs, lines or other markings on the surface of the roadway at any location, including an intersection." According the MTO "it is illegal to ride across a crosswalk," but I assume we can ride beside one, where cars drive.

Ride a meter from the curb according to the Region's booklet, but the Ministry of Transportation says, "You must stay as close to the right edge of the road whenever possible." Another MTO site says, "it is legal to take the whole lane by riding in the centre of it." It makes sense to be a bit from the road so you're not swerving around garbage and storm drains, and it's wise to stay away from parked cars for fear of being doored, but I'm not ballsy enough to take the lane. There's a fine of only $365 for causing death or disability by opening a door into a cyclist.

In our region, riding on the sidewalk, is okay for kids, even though, in the same pamphlet, it says it's "a contributing factor in 86% of all bike collisions." A City of Waterloo bylaw says it's all about wheel size with diameters less than 50 centimetres acceptable on sidewalks regardless the age of the rider. They also say skateboards aren't allowed on sidewalks, but we all pretty much ignore that one. I still use the sidewalk in areas that feel too risky to use the road. I'd rather pay a ticket than die. Nothing will change that rule-breaking behaviour except making the roads safer.

Cars must give cyclists a metre of space according to the MTO: "All drivers of motor vehicles are required to maintain a minimum distance of one metre, where practical, when passing cyclists on highways," but that 'where practical' bit can allow for a lot of exceptions. But further down it says, "A motorist may, if done safely, and in compliance with the rules of the road, cross the centre line of a roadway in order to pass a cyclist. If this cannot be done, he or she must wait behind the cyclist until it is safe to pass." There's a fine of $110 for motorists who violate this even though clipping a cyclist just a bit can kill them.

Ride single file, according to MTO, and keep at least one metre apart form other cyclists. Large groups should break up into smaller groups of 4-6 which stay a km apart. But in Waterloo Region, it's now legal to ride two abreast on regional roads, but not on city or township roads. I have no idea where the dividing lines are there. Good thing I typically ride solo.


As the father of a recent victim said, "Telling them what to do and (them) doing it is two different things." In many cases, accidents aren't so much a matter of missing knowledge but of simple negligence either because the cyclists feel safe enough to allow themselves to zone out, or they choose to ignore the rules for their own perceived safety.

Regardless, there's no harm in schools taking part of a class every spring to re-teach road safety facts. Some people suggest that this will be an arduous undertaking because the training will have to be by volunteers and will take tons of people in order to get to every kid. Here's an alternative suggestion: Get some professionals to take four hours of their time on one PD day every couple years to train all elementary teachers in the region. Give them curriculum to take home or access online that's grade-appropriate in order to help them plan lessons. The Ministry of Education should enforce maybe two or three hours of mandatory road safety in each grade in April or May of every single year and ensure kids are tested and re-tested until they're able to pass the knowledge necessary at each grade.  We can't wait for kids to take driver's training; it has to be part of the regular schooling. Then we'll all know the rules. Here are some key ideas to impart beyond basic rules of the road:

Be seen: Have lights and reflectors everywhere. Wear clothes that contrast with the background. Have kids bring in their helmets so they can decorate them with reflective tape stickers. Fun!

Be aware: When I took driver's training, my instructor would periodically cover the rear-view mirror and ask me what's behind me. That was good training to develop an awareness of what all the cars are doing around me. Cyclists need to learn to develop this kind of awareness of everything around them. That's key to their survival. It's not safe to get lost in your own world when you're on the road. The other way driver's ed changed my driving practice was watching terrifying films of accidents. Kids need to be scared into cycling more carefully. They tend towards illusions of immortality, and they need to be reminded of their potential demise if they don't pay attention for a minute.

Signal intention: Everyone should be able to tell what everyone else on the road plans to do next.

Learn how to turn: How to turn left in traffic safely and legally (many still move from one crosswalk to the next) and how to do a U-turn without using the crosswalks. I need to sit in for this one. OR allow cyclists to use the crosswalks when it would be more dangerous to do otherwise.

Maybe some of that might help.

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