British Columbia·Analysis

Cycling safety: Too often, bikes still ignored on Canadian roads

Despite years of advances in urban centres, two deaths on a road north of Whistler, B.C., reveal the danger that still exists for cyclists on many Canadian roads and highways.

Death of 2 Whistler, B.C., cyclists a reminder of lack of biking infrastructure outside urban centres

Whistler cyclists Kelly Blunden, left, and Ross Chafe, right, were struck and killed north of Whistler, B.C., on Sunday. (Facebook)

There's a part of cycling that is intrinsically an act of faith.

It happens the first time a child launches off on a two-wheeler. Not just on the part of the girl or boy asked to believe they can stay upright. But of the parent who has to finally let go of the saddle.

The more you bike, the more you and everyone who loves you has to put the faith part of the safety equation into the background.

But every once in a while, it rears its ugly head, as it did for Patrick Brown this past weekend.

The Toronto lawyer lives far from the winding rural road north of Whistler where an allegedly impaired driver plowed into two descending cyclists.

But Brown is a biker too. And that's enough.

"We've all been on those downhill descents. We've all come around a corner. And we're always thinking and hoping that people driving their vehicles are conscious that we are on the road and we are there," he says. 

"And if you ride and you've been in that situation, you do understand just how close you are to bad consequences."

Roads made for cars

Kelly Blunden and Ross Chafe died when a car apparently veered into their lane. A passenger in the vehicle also died and the driver was badly injured.

The incident is a sad reminder of just how dangerous Canadian roads and highways remain for cyclists — despite advances in urban centres.

Cities like Vancouver and Montreal have introduced separated bike lanes and campaigns aimed at getting people out of their cars.

Ontario member of the legislature Eleanor McMahon has been fighting for change in Ontario to make cycling safer since her husband was killed in a 2006 crash. (CBC)

But many cyclists would like to go further afield. And unpaved shoulders, breakneck traffic and a lack of respect from drivers mean they are taking their lives in their hands when they do so.

"I think it's in part based on our infrastructure," says Brown.

"I think it's the way our laws have been focused primarily on cars, as opposed to recognizing that the roads are increasingly used by cyclists." 

'We need to ask for more'

Brown was one of the forces behind a groundbreaking 2012 Ontario coroner's review into 129 cyclist deaths between 2006 and 2010.

The review called for legislative and legal changes, as well as a "complete streets" approach to road safety throughout the province, taking into account the needs of all road users in street and community design.

As a lead investigator with the Cycling in Cities research program, University of British Columbia. professor Kaye Teschke says Canada lags behind European countries in recognizing the needs of cyclists.

She says research shows Canada has higher traffic injury rates for all modes of transport per capita, per trip and per distance than the United Kingdom, Norway, Sweden, Denmark and the Netherlands.

And when accidents do happen on fast roads, the research shows, they're inevitably more catastrophic for cyclists: bike helmets and Lycra being no match for tonnes of metal and glass.

"We need to ask for more," she says.

"At one time in cities, we asked for painted bike lanes on our main streets. Now cyclists are saying: 'No, we need physically separated bike lanes in the city.' We need the same thing alongside highways."

1-metre passing law

Ontario member of the legislature Eleanor McMahon became a cycling advocate after a motorist with five convictions for driving while suspended struck and killed her husband, Greg Stobbart, during a training ride in 2006.

She spearheaded provincial legislation, set to be passed into law Tuesday, which will force motorists to give cyclists one metre of space when passing.

"Part of what makes us vulnerable when we're on a bicycle, in the country anyway, is the fact that we haven't had the infrastructure in place to create the kind of society that sees cycling as a benefit," she says.

"We're still really struggling in Canada with the cars versus cycling conversation."

McMahon says the potential involvement of alcohol may ultimately make the Whistler tragedy as much about impaired driving as cycling.

But drunk drivers are sadly still part of the mix cyclists face.

Brown says that's one of the reasons many advocates want cyclists designated "vulnerable road users": "If a cyclist is killed on the streets, the law would reflect an added penalty."

Teschke says cyclists have a right to feel safe on the road, no matter where in the country they are. Her heart is with the families of the Whistler victims.

"It's heartbreaking," she says.

"It shouldn't happen. It shouldn't be a consequence of getting around."


Jason Proctor


Jason Proctor is a reporter in British Columbia for CBC News and has covered the B.C. courts and the justice system extensively.


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