This morning, a coalition of groups held a press conference in the vicinity of Queen’s Park to call for a Vulnerable Road Users’ Law. These types of laws increase penalties on automobile drivers who have injured or killed a pedestrian, cyclist, a person using a mobility device, or other vulnerable road users.
Here are Patrick Brown and Albert Koehl, talking to the press. In the background from right to left are Joey Schwartz, representing both Advocacy for Respect for Cyclists (ARC) and the Toronto Bicycling Network, Jared Koehl for Cycle Toronto, a representative of Kids at Play, and then some friends and family members of people (both pedestrians and cyclists) who have been killed in a collision with a car.
Other member organizations of the coalition include United Seniors of Ontario, walk Toronto, Bikelaw, Hoof&Cycle, and TCAT.
Both Albert and Patrick related heartbreaking stories of cases where a driver got off with a reduced fine, or even avoided being in court to hear victim impact statements. Patrick made the point that in some cases, the fine imposed was the same as the current fine for a cyclist riding without a bell.
Tom Samson’s Parents.
I had the very great privilege to talk to Maisie (third from right in pink) who is Edouard Le Blanc’s widow. She said the family was upset that his ghost bike had been removed sometime in the past month. She still walks along the Gatineau trail. She would pat the ghost bike when she went by. I told her that ARC would replace the bike.
Yu Li, a friend of Peter Kang‘s talks to Joey.
It was very moving to have the support of families in this initiative. Hopefully, some change will happen.
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What follows is a written statement from Patrick Brown and Albert Koehl:
Better protection for cyclists and pedestrians on our roads
[Patrick Brown, Albert Koehl, Marie Smith: 858 words; June 16, 2015]
Your father is struck and killed when a car veers across the oncoming lane and into his path. The police charge the motorist (who was trying to unhook her sandal from the gas pedal) with careless driving under the Highway Traffic Act (HTA). Months later you attend court. The prosecutor and driver’s representative have negotiated a $500 fine for a lesser offence of “leave road not in safety.” The motorist isn’t even in court to hear the Victim Impact Statement, which you struggle to read: “We hope that we will wake up, and it will all have been a bad dream”.
This very scenario, involving cyclist Bruce (Stanley) Tushingham, recently occurred in Markham, Ontario. Lamentably, the outcome is hardly unusual. The fine, even when a pedestrian or cyclist is killed, is often lower; in fact, the amount may be little more than a parking fine. The penalty is another indignity to the victim’s family. The motorist’s absence from court is also lawful, and common. There may be a civil suit against the motorist but that battle is left to the insurance companies.
Emergency room visits by occupants of cars have been decreasing but the same isn’t true for pedestrians and cyclists struck by those cars, according to a recent Ontario Public Health report.
When a motor vehicle collides with a person on foot or on a bike, we know who will lose the encounter: metal trumps flesh and bones.
Some jurisdictions now specifically recognize the vulnerability of cyclists and pedestrians in the law. New York, Oregon and Washington have passed Vulnerable Road User laws, which impose harsher penalties and consequences when a motorist injures or kills a vulnerable road user, defined as a pedestrian, cyclist, road worker or person using a mobility device.
Pedestrian and cycling deaths in Toronto alone over the last several weeks make clear that it’s time for Ontario to implement similar measures. A generation ago harsher penalties for impaired driving changed conduct and attitudes – and saved lives.
A new law or changes to the HTA would include:
- Treating road infractions differently when a vulnerable road user is harmed so that an offence becomes, for example, ‘making an improper left turn that caused physical injury to a vulnerable road user’. (The onus to prove reasonable care would in all cases fall on the motorist.)
- Requiring the motorist to attend court for the trial, guilty plea, or sentencing, and
- Adding new penalties, including:
– a requirement to take road safety training courses;
– the imposition of community service hours related to road safety;
– the suspension of a driver’s license for a meaningful period of time;
– the availability of a jail sentence, particularly where there is another aggravating factor, like driving with a suspended licence; and
– the requirement to return to court one year later when the penalty has been fulfilled.
Treating offenses involving vulnerable users in a special manner also gives a clear direction to police, prosecutors, and judicial officials to deal with such occurrences as preventable events instead of unfortunate “accidents”.
The new regime would serve as a deterrent – a stern reminder to all drivers to think twice about going 45 km/h in a 30 km/h residential area, racing through a light that is turning red, opening a car door into traffic, or texting or taking a cell phone call.
Bicycles, as “vehicles” under the HTA, would also be covered by the new law when a cyclist seriously injures a pedestrian or another cyclist.
The changes would complement existing initiatives such as lower speed limits, bike lanes, and school safety zones, but not apply when there are Criminal Code charges like dangerous driving.
Underlying the new approach is a recognition that a motor vehicle is potentially and often lethal, which makes it fair and effective to call on operators of those vehicles to exercise particular caution when vulnerable road users are nearby.
Driver conduct is directly responsible for many road deaths. A 2012 review by Ontario’s Chief Coroner found:
- In one third of pedestrian deaths, where a cause could be identified, the motorist’s traffic infraction preceded the fatality; and
- In one third of cyclist deaths, the motorist’s conduct alone was identified as the cause (the most common shortcoming being speeding or inattention), while in 62% of the cases it was the conduct of both the motorist and the cyclist that contributed to the death. (The Coroner noted the inherent bias in these figures since the victim obviously could not provide his or her own version of the events.)
Jim Kenzie, a writer for The Toronto Star’s Wheels section recently commented in an article relating to auto collisions: “The No. 1 problem? We can’t drive… the vast majority of traffic fatalities are caused by driver error and occur under what would be considered ideal conditions.”
As population concentrations in our cities grow, ensuring that shared road spaces are safe for vulnerable users saves lives while also promoting otherwise healthy physical activity.
Since a victim may equally be the loved one of a pedestrian, a cyclist, or a motorist, we all benefit from strengthening laws for safer road conduct.
Patrick Brown of McLeish Orlando, and Albert Koehl served on the expert panel for the Ontario Chief Coroner’s 2012 review of pedestrian and cyclist deaths. Marie Smith is the former president of the United Senior Citizens of Ontario.
Jan 2016 update: the title of this article says it all: “In our system you can kill a cyclist, pay $500“