As faithful readers will know, I am a long time cyclist, and a confirmed helmet wearer. I am even included among the many who have been ‘doored’ and I used a photo of my bloodied face in an editorial many years ago to promote helmet use. I recently wrote about the tragic deaths of several bicyclists in London following ‘dooring’ incidents. That report is included in the Global News section of the next print issue of the Journal. Today, however, I wanted to add a few points to hammer home the central point that bicyclists need and deserve more protection. I am tired of complaints about how some cyclists behave; they may all be entirely true, but for the most part idiot bicyclists will only harm themselves or at worst, an innocent pedestrian but not often in a serious manner. In contrast, there is little outcry about the infinitely more dangerous drivers of cars and trucks, where similar idiotic behaviour is often fatal to the bicyclist or pedestrian. Until there is equal condemnation for driver infractions I am inclined to cut bicyclists some slack.
This view was hammered home by coroners reports into three recent bicyclist deaths in Montreal since April of this year. There are now over one half million more cyclists in Quebec than there were in 1995. In the last year 92 were doored and 58 of these were taken to hospital and 2 died. The fine for violating the pertinent article of the Quebec Road Safety Code is $30. Yes, $30!!!
Not surprisingly, the coroners recommended that alongside a public awareness campaign (ugh) reminding drivers that dooring is illegal, one coroner recommends bringing charges of criminal negligence and a substantial increase in fines (yeah). Driver training should include advice to open car doors with the hand furthest from the door, thus forcing the driver to look behind. This coroner (a bike rider) added that “Motorists need to understand and accept that cyclists have the right to ride on on any street.. and that they are not obligated to restrict themselves to bike lanes.” (Incidentally, the coroner also pushes helmets but adds that it is a dangerous illusion for drivers to assume that simply by wearing a helmet a cyclists can fully protect themselves.)
This is encouraging but a far cry from the prevailing ethos in Holland, where the driver is always considered to be at fault unless he or she can prove otherwise. Quebec’s $30 fine for at fault drivers is undoubtedly a spill over from the States. There, as Daniel Duane writing in the New York Times points out, “motorists … generally receive no punishment whatsoever for crashing into or killing cyclists, even when the accident is transparently their fault. This insane lacuna in the justice system reflects extreme systemic prejudice by drivers against cyclists, and would be easy enough to fix.” (i.e., by following the Dutch example). Just to be clear, quoting Duane again, “To sum up: in the Netherlands, if a motor vehicle hits a cyclist, the accident is always assumed to have been the driver’s fault, not the cyclist’s. … the law treats pedestrians and cyclists as weaker participants in traffic… The driver of the motor vehicle is liable for the accident, unless he can prove he was overpowered by circumstances beyond his control (overmacht). The driver must thus prove that none of the blame falls on him, which is extremely difficult in practice.”
It is time now for the balance in North America, including Quebec of course, to swing in this direction. To coin a phrase, ‘bikes don’t hurt people, it is cars that kill or maim”.
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