Safety Dance: feature from issue 10

This story originally appeared in our Summer 2013 Safety Issue.

Originally published to the blog August 14, 2013.

dandyFEATURE: Safety Dance

The benefits of cycling outweigh the dangers, but not in the minds of some Torontonians. Sarah B. Hood separates truth from reality.

By Sarah B. Hood

Illustrations by Dushan Milic

What I compare bike lanes to is swimming with the sharks. Sooner or later you are going to get bitten,” said Toronto Mayor Rob Ford, notoriously, in 2007. “My heart bleeds for them when I hear someone gets killed. But it’s their own fault at the end of the day.

Having travelled mainly by bike for just shy of 50 years, I was shocked and angry when I first heard this quotation. But Ford’s not the only person who thinks this way. Could this possibly be right? Is it simply too dangerous to ride a bike in this town?

I feel my own experience is somewhat typical; I’ve been doored a few times and hit twice, leaving me with aches and bruises. I suppose I was no more surprised by these incidents than when I cut myself chopping vegetables. I haven’t considered giving up riding (or cooking) since the benefits, from exemplary heart health to pure pleasure, are so important to me.

Most of the time, I trust I’ll be safe if I ride defensively and rely on people’s innate tendency to follow what has been dubbed the Toronto Coroner’s Rule: motorized vehicles yield to bikes, which in turn must yield to pedestrians. The Coroner’s Rule is modeled after the rules of the sea, which dictate that “steam gives way to sail.” The Advocacy for the Respect of Cyclists (ARC) group (which I was a member of) really pushed for what we called a ‘right-of-way hierarchy’ – which was amongst a number of formal recommendations ARC made to the coroner’s inquest.

All sorts of road safety statistics are collected by various organizations, and recommendations are put forward to various decision makers, but it’s still tricky to measure “safety.” even when you focus on measurable information like cycling deaths, it’s difficult to assess trends. In the 27 years between 1986 and 2012, Toronto saw an average of just over three cyclist deaths a year. Although even one is too many, from a strictly statistical point of view, the numbers are small.

If you try to estimate the chance that an average Toronto cyclist will be involved in a collision, you’ll see it may be impossible even to count cyclists. The City of Toronto estimates that there are more than 900,000 year-round adult cyclists in Toronto. Statistics Canada reported 24,690 regular bike commuters in 2006 (a 30% jump over 2001). Neither figure counts children nor occasional cyclists.

How many collisions happen every year? In 1998, when the Regional Coroner for Toronto released his Recommendations for Reducing Cycling Injuries and Death, he showed an annual average of 1,125 reported collisions between bikes and motor vehicles in Toronto between 1986 and 1996. In 1997 and 1998, the City of Toronto’s Bicycle/Motor-Vehicle Collision study showed an annual average of 1,286 reported collisions, but it’s impossible to know whether that increase represents an increase in crashes or an increase in reporting from a more engaged cycling community. These figures say nothing of the number of unreported collisions.

So we can only make a rough stab at estimating “safety” There may be at least one million total cyclists in Toronto; very roughly, this suggests that about 15 cyclists in a thousand are involved in a reported collision in a given year, and about three in a million die. Again, a single preventable death is too many, but to place this in some context, Statistics Canada’s Health Profile for January 2013 tells us that 1,399 Torontonians in a million will die of cancer; 1,273 of circulatory diseases (like heart attacks), 367 of respiratory diseases, 69 by suicide and 22 of HIV.

The Public Health Agency of Canada’s Injury in Review, 2012 edition: Spotlight on Road and Transport Safety seems to show that, even with increasing congestion, our roads are getting a little safer every year. This study of injury to Canadians under the age of 25 shows that between 1994 and 2008 there were “significant and similar” average annual percentage drops in hospitalizations of pedestrians (6.3%), motorcyclists (5.9%), cyclists (5.8%) and people in motor vehicles (5.7%).

Death rates also fell among pedestrians (6.1% lower), motorcyclists (7.2%), cyclists (7.1%) and people in motor vehicles (4.6%). The report attributes this improvement to many factors, including seatbelt laws of the 1970s, tougher penalties for impaired drivers in the ’80s, graduated licensing programs beginning in the ’90s, and legislation banning cell phone use in cars around 2010.

How can we cut the risk even further? Of course, the first thing many people mention is bike helmet use. In 2012, the Canadian Medical Association Journal published an analysis of the 129 deaths studied by Ontario’s Chief Coroner that seems to show that cyclists without helmets are over three times more likely to die of head injuries. But, as some other researchers have pointed out, there are so many uncontrollable variables at play in such a sample that one could interpret the evidence differently.

The 1998 Toronto Coroner’s report stated “[it] is unclear in these cases whether helmets might have prevented fatal injuries.” Referring to pro- and anti-helmet debaters, it adds that “both sides would agree that helmets are an asset, but not a panacea. The helmet does nothing to prevent a collision.”

It seems unlikely that a helmet would have saved the Toronto cyclists who have been killed by very large vehicles like dump trucks, garbage trucks, transport trucks, buses and cube vans. Grouped together, these types of vehicles may present the greatest risk of death for cyclists. A too often repeated situation involves a cyclist riding or stopping to the right of a right- turning truck; because the back wheels swing much farther to the right than a cyclist might expect, and because the driver has such limited visibility around the perimeter of the truck, it’s all too easy for the cyclist to become trapped under the rear wheels.

The 1998 coroner’s report found that a cyclist is about four times more likely to die in a collision if a large truck is involved. In 2010, when Transport Canada took "A Quick Look at Fatality Injured Vulnerable Road Users," it drew attention to the finding that "almost one in five bicyclists killed in a traffic collision [in Canada between 2004 and 2006] was struck by a heavy truck"

In July 2012, the British Medical Association published a report called Healthy Transport = Healthy Lives which shows that, in the UK as well, “freight vehicles are a major risk to cyclists, and are 20 times more likely to be involved in cyclist road traffic injuries than cars, per kilometre travelled.” This despite the fact that trucks in the UK are equipped with side-guards to prevent people (and small cars) from ending up under the back wheels, a measure that caused an immediate 5.7% drop in cyclist fatalities and a 13.2% drop in injuries.

In 1998, the Toronto Coroner suggested truck side-guards should be explored; since then, nine Toronto cyclists have been killed by large vehicles. Ontario’s Chief Coroner has now recommended mandatory side-guards for heavy trucks, and MP Olivia Chow is championing the issue. One manufacturer – Shu-Pak equipment Inc. of Cambridge, Ontario – has announced it will be installing them on all models. even if they are introduced, the cyclist’s best strategy is to keep as far away from large vehicles as possible.

If health and safety advocates most often suggest helmets as a top priority, cyclists themselves tend to champion infrastructure – especially bike lanes of one sort or another. A study of 690 injured cyclists in Toronto and Vancouver by the university of British Columbia’s Cycling in Cities program finds that bike lanes do make a difference. Whereas their study shows streetcar tracks increase the risk of injury by a factor of three, off-street bike paths like the Martin Goodman Trail cut injury risk to 60%; bike routes on residential streets and bike lanes on major streets with no parked cars cut the risk in half, while cycle tracks that separate cars and bikes, like the new installation on Sherbourne, are the safest of all, cutting the risk to about 10%. (Like the findings of the helmet study, these numbers should be considered as estimates rather than hard-and-fast truths.)

However, the pro-cycling,anti-bike lane advocates point out that designated lanes offer no protection at an intersection, and little against car doors. Meanwhile, the Toronto collision study found that most collisions happen in intersections and, away from intersections, the most frequent type of collision downtown involves car doors.

All of which goes to reinforce what most cyclists already know: that biking is inherently safe, but the presence of motor vehicles makes it less so. Because many people, like Mayor Ford, believe that “roads are built for buses, cars and trucks, not for people on bikes,” it’s taking a long time to put in place the various components of infrastructure, education, legislation and enforcement that will make cycling in Toronto as safe as it could and should be.

But there’s one more consideration. The British Medical Association in its Healthy Transport = Healthy Lives publication, which is essentially a passionate plea for active transportation modes, states that “in spite of the harms cyclists face in terms of safety and exposure to air pollution, a number of studies have found that the health benefits of cycling, such as improved quality of life, weight control, and protecting against major chronic diseases, greatly outweigh these risks, by up to a factor of 20 to 1.”

In the end, the question may not be whether it’s safe to ride a bike in Toronto, but how long you’ll live if you don’t.


To read the story in its original form (and more great safety related content), pick up a copy of our Summer 2013 Safety Issue here.



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