Cycling advocacy: How a little self-evaluation can help our fight for safer roads

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Photo:  joshua_putnam / flickr

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Cyclists are often vilified, particularly by motorists, for ignoring the rules of the road. Ironically, cyclists can take heart from the experience of another group once considered far more villainous: motorists.

In the popular media of North America in the 1910s and '20s cars were often characterized as ruthless killers for taking the lives of thousands of pedestrians, especially children. In the U.S., safety councils worked with auto clubs to deal with the problem, sometimes sending vigilantes out to arrest reckless drivers. When the safety issue began hurting sales, the well-heeled auto industry got directly involved. An important part of their eventual success, as documented by historian Peter Norton in Fighting Traffic, involved reframing the safety issue by focusing on pedestrian conduct and by defining motorists' rights in the context of liberty and individualism. (The safety issue was never actually resolved: since 1920 about 250,000 people in Canada alone have been killed in collisions involving automobiles.)

Cyclists today don't have to be nearly as clever or half as well financed to succeed in their struggle for a greater share of the public roadway. Most people already own bicycles while the fitness and communal health advantages of cycling are widely appreciated. The cycling community would benefit, however, from acknowledging that some cyclists' behaviour -- especially where the safety of pedestrians is involved -- falls short of an acceptable standard of conduct (and courtesy).

A bit of thoughtful self-evaluation among cyclists is as an opportunity to win broader public support in our fight for safer roads.

True, cyclists properly feel short-changed by a society that expects us to respect the rules of the road while treating our safety demands with cavalier indifference. Many politicians fail to see the contradiction between promoting cycling and rejecting pleas to install simple safety measures like bike lanes or truck side guards, which might have saved the life of Toronto cycling mom Jenna Morrison.

Many cyclists also believe that governments preoccupied with minor traffic violations are dramatically out of kilter on a planet that faces, and largely ignores, the growing upheaval and misery caused by climate change, to which automobiles contribute heavily.

Even strict adherence to the rules of the road gives cyclists no assurance of being spared a tragic end. Let's say you are cycling home, carefully signalling turns, and cautiously slowing for meandering pedestrians. A distracted motorist opens the door of his parked car throwing you into the path of an oncoming truck. The ambulance carts away your broken body while the police reluctantly ticket the driver -- it is, after all, an "accident." In response to the news of your death some cad will write a letter to the editor about how he won't be shedding crocodile tears for you because cyclists don't respect traffic laws -- as if to say you deserved to die because of the conduct of other cyclists.

Injustices visited on cyclists are simply perpetuated, however, when cyclists ignore the safety concerns of pedestrians, the most vulnerable road and trail users. The fact that many motorists likewise ignore traffic laws (with more dire consequences) misses the point -- and mires us in futile debates. When a cyclist rides on a sidewalk and surprises a mom with a baby-stroller or brushes past a senior in a crosswalk the credibility of our call for greater safety is compromised.

It doesn't matter that six pedestrians in Toronto are injured by automobiles every day compared to the much rarer harm caused by cyclists … it is the latter which attracts the headline. Cyclists' misdeeds are scrutinized with more attentive eyes because we are fighting for change, while taking on powerful auto and petroleum interests, and their massive PR budgets.

Conceding that we must do better as a cycling community in no way diminishes the energy we bring to the fight for a transport model where clean, affordable, healthy bicycles play a serious role. Yes, vocal detractors of cycling -- who don't plan to cede a centimetre of road space anyway -- will exploit any admission of fault. Then again, the conduct of some cyclists is already exploited to far greater effect by defenders of the car-dominated status quo, thereby opening the door for all of us to be painted with the same brush.

The way forward really isn't very complicated.

First, simply acknowledge that some of us need to take the rules of the road more seriously. Cycle Toronto, for example, has implemented a Street Smarts program that promotes safety and respect. (Motorists won't feel any similar obligation to take responsibility for the conduct of other motorists -- but we're the ones pushing for change.)

Second, be a positive example to other cyclists.

Finally, consider directing a polite admonishment to a cyclist whose behaviour imperils the safety of a pedestrian or other vulnerable road user.

Cyclists aren't expected to be saints but addressing behaviour that ignores pedestrian safety will remove an unnecessary impediment to broader public support -- and focus attention squarely on our demand to make roads safe for cycling.


Albert Koehl is an environmental lawyer. Wayne Scott, now retired, worked for 25 years on the streets of Toronto as a foot and bike messenger. Michael Black is a founder of Walk Toronto. All three are avid cyclists.

Photo:  joshua_putnam / flickr 

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