'Trying to cross the street': Family of cyclist killed by truck wants safer streets

When Herman Ohrt got on his bike to ride to a medical appointment last August, he thought it was just the start of his day.

The city needs a better plan for heavy trucks traveling through Hamilton, says family of Herman Ohrt

Russ, Sandra Jean and Heather Ohrt hold a photo of Herman Ohrt, who was killed when a cement truck hit him on his bicycle last year. "He was a very intelligent man," Heather says. "It’s not that he wasn’t paying attention. He was trying to cross the street." (Samantha Craggs/CBC)

When Herman Ohrt got on his bike to ride to a medical appointment last August, he thought it was just the start of his day. He had plans.

The 77-year-old was headed from his Strathcona home to a bone density test at St. Joseph's Hospital. 

"He said, 'I'm going for a bone density test, and then we're going to go to the library, and then we'll go and do some food shopping,'" recalls Sandra Jean, his wife of 45 years. "That was his plan, and I never saw him again."

Ohrt was hit and killed by a Lafarge cement mixer on Aug. 17 at the corner of King and Queen streets. On Tuesday, his family sat quietly as a city council subcommittee discussed a new master plan for the city's truck routes. 

Truck routes don't often get a lot of attention, but for the Ohrts, it's been brought into focus. Why, they say, was a cement mixer on that street in the first place?

"He was a very intelligent man," said daughter Heather. "It's not that he wasn't paying attention. He was just trying to cross the street."

"He was just a really positive force," says Russ Ohrt of his dad, Herman. (David Williams)

As pedestrian and cyclist deaths mount, Hamilton truck routes are an increasingly heated subject. There's a growing call for pedestrian and bicycle-friendly streets, and the city has responded. At least somewhat.

City council adopted a Vision Zero plan this year, although one activist said it was a lot of "fluff." It's implemented more bike lanes. It's adopted the motto "complete-liveable-better streets" in its transportation master plan. 

The new plan, a staff report says, will balance neighbourhood safety with the need to move goods.

Currently, city street signs have green or red circles. Green circles mean trucks are OK there. Red circles mean they're prohibited.

But streets are changing, the report says. More and more, there are "ongoing community concerns" about heavy trucks cutting through neighbourhoods.

The presentations Tuesday outlined some. Robert Iszkula from the Beasley Neighbourhood Association showed a video of big rigs running over bike lanes and rumbling a heartbeat away from pedestrians. If a truck isn't local, or delivering goods, he said, then it shouldn't be in residential areas at all.

Barton Street is coming back to life, said Rachel Braithwaite of the Barton Village BIA. But that's happening slowest on stretches with heavy trucks.

In some areas, she said, "it's basically you and a tanker."

Staff will keep working on a terms of reference. Coun. Maureen Wilson of Ward 1 (west end) wants better wording. People's safety, she said, should be "the first sentence."

She still carries Ohrt's memorial card in her wallet. It includes some of Ohrt's favourite phrases. "The squeaky wheel gets the oil." "You're only half dressed without a belt." "The answer is always closer than you think."

Herman Ohrt, says his daughter Heather, was "a wonderful, kind, caring man." (Ohrt family)

Ohrt loved the outdoors. He was involved with the Bruce Trail Association. He skiied, camped, snowshoed and travelled the world.

He used to cycle 17 kilometres from his Burlington home to Dofasco, where he worked as a mechanical engineer. He knew heavy trucks, said Russ Ohrt, Herman's son.

"There's an increasing idea that life is happening within houses, that that's where the living space is," he said. "But does the living space end at that sidewalk curb? Suddenly, that street area is a commercial and technological zone that's unsafe for people. That's not a place that I want to live in."

Sandra Jean said she looks at her late husband's photo every night before bed.

"My mom lived to be 98," she said. "I may live a long time before I get to see him. So it's going to be a long climb."

About the Author

Samantha Craggs is a CBC News reporter based in Hamilton, Ont. She has a particular interest in politics and social justice stories, and tweets live from Hamilton city hall. Follow her on Twitter at @SamCraggsCBC, or email her at samantha.craggs@cbc.ca


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