Death of New Brunswick cyclist prompts push for 'Ellen's Law'
Drivers must learn to give one metre of passing clearance, say cyclists
Cyclists devastated earlier this week by the death of competitive cyclist Ellen Watters are renewing their push for a one-metre rule on New Brunswick roads.
One-metre laws are already on the books elsewhere in Atlantic Canada. Under Nova Scotia's Bill 93, drivers can be fined up to $800 for failing to leave proper clearance for passing cyclists. Cyclists, too, face fines of up to $225 for not using bike lanes.
Ontario passed a one-metre law in 2015. Watters trained in that province as a member of the Ottawa racing program called the Cyclery.
On Thursday, New Brunswick's Minister of Justice and Public Safety Denis Landry issued a statement saying that "the safety of New Brunswickers on our roads and highways is our priority and our thoughts are with the [Watters] family during this difficult time."
While unable to speak to the specifics of the Watters case, Landry said "government has been aware of this policy proposal for several months and is giving it serious consideration."
But Wayne Arrowsmith, a long-time cyclist and advocacy chair for the cycling organization Velo NB, said he and other cyclists first submitted a formal proposal for a one-metre rule in New Brunswick in November 2015.
The proposal, he said, received a "lukewarm" response from elected officials.
While the attitude was "receptive," Arrowsmith said, "it was basically like, 'the laws that we have in place are good enough, why do we need this?'"
"We've been working on this for a year and a half," he said. "I am at a loss to understand why they haven't done it already."
Many in the cycling community have expressed their support for the proposed legislation on social media using the hashtag #EllensLaw.
Tragic to see an athlete's life taken while pursuing their love. Hoping we will begin to see changes to increase cyclist's safety <a href="https://twitter.com/hashtag/Ellenslaw?src=hash">#Ellenslaw</a> <a href="https://t.co/vZwnxGGoaU">https://t.co/vZwnxGGoaU</a>—@urbanecyclist
Why does everyone think segregated bike lanes are the only solution? Safer roads can/must happen. <a href="https://twitter.com/hashtag/Ellenslaw?src=hash">#Ellenslaw</a>—@OttSnowCyclist
Arrowsmith said it is "unfortunate" that "it has taken the death of a prominent New Brunswick cyclist for [government] to start possibly moving on legislation."
"If they don't do anything," he said, "it will happen again."
Since Ontario passed its one-metre legislation in 2015, some drivers have decried the law as unfairly placing blame for collisions on drivers, rather than cyclists. Other motorists are frustrated by having to drive at low speed behind cyclists until it is safe to pass.
In addition to upsetting drivers, enforcing one-metre laws can also be an issue.
Bicycle police officers in Ottawa are equipped with sonar devices that sound an alert when drivers get too close, however one investigation found only 19 Ontario drivers were ticketed in the entire first year the law was on the books.
Despite enforcement issues, such legislation would, according to cyclist Holly McKay, encourage drivers to learn to safely share the road.
"Some drivers say they just don't know what to do when they encounter a cyclist," said McKay, adding that information on how to safely overtake cyclists should be part of New Brunswick's driver's ed curriculum.
While a law won't prevent all accidents, Arrowsmith said, "it's a heck of a lot better than what we have now — which is nothing."
While only an RCMP investigation can determine whether passing clearance was a factor in Watters' death, a one-metre law "doesn't cost anything to implement, and it would give people more of a sense of safety while they're out," said Arrowsmith.
"It's what's good for cyclists, it's what's good for New Brunswickers. It is totally beyond me why they've been dragging their feet on it," Arrowsmith said.
McKay is one of the organizers behind One Metre For Ellen, an event that aims to increase awareness of passing clearance for drivers.
On Sun., Jan. 1, 2017 at 1 p.m., Saint John cyclists will meet at 100 Prince Edward St. and ride to City Hall at 15 Market Square. Helmets are mandatory.