Ottawa’s Cyclist Safety Crisis

Earlier this month, yet another tragic cycling accident made headlines in Ottawa: the death of 23-year old Nusrat Jahan, killed in a collision with a construction truck while bicycling in the Laurier Avenue bike lane on September 1st.

The accident was one in a rash of vehicle-bike collisions in the Ottawa area earlier this month. Reaction was swift: within hours of Jahan’s death, more than 100 people gathered at City Hall for an impromptu protest, joining city councillors and cycling advocates to express anger and sadness about the ongoing risks that cyclists face in “sharing the road”.

City councillors called the death unacceptable and preventable. A retired bike courier called it “an epidemic“. Residents expressed reticence or refusal to bike in traffic when the consequences can be fatal.  So what will it take to put an end to these avoidable accidents?

Many feel that better road design is critical to creating safe spaces for cyclists and pedestrians. Others add that a sea change in driver attitude is just as critical, along with enforcement of traffic laws. Improving infrastructure can be a long and expensive proposition — though it could be that adapting streets isn’t as complicated or expensive as one might think: there’s a strong business case for cycling infrastructure.

It’s clear that things can’t go on as they are, with people on bikes being seriously injured or killed every day. Stunning new statistics out of Toronto show that vulnerable road users are hit at a rate of one every two and a half hours. More than 1000 cyclists and pedestrians have been hit on Toronto streets since June 1, 2016. Urban planner Kyle Miller says those stats show a serious health issue. “If we had 10 people mugged a day, or 10 people shot, stabbed (there would be a bigger outcry) … But violence on the road has been so normalized, it’s not even news anymore.”

The situation is so dire that Gord Johns, Member of Parliament for Courtenay-Alberni, plans to introduce a private member’s bill calling for a national cycling safety strategy. Although many aspects of cycling safety that need addressing fall under provincial jurisdiction, vehicle design falls under federal regulation. Side guard rails on trucks are required in other countries around the world, and many believe they could prevent fatal accidents like the one that took Nusrat Jahan’s life.

Can Johns’ private member’s bill survive in the House of Commons? According to the Ottawa Sun,”[o]nly a small percentage of private member’s bills ever become law, but Gord Johns said he believes his can beat the odds. When a 2014 proposal to make side guards mandatory for trucks was defeated by the then Conservative government, Liberals MPs including Marc Garneau, now transportation minister, voted in favour, Johns notes.”

If there is one positive thing to keep in mind, it’s this: research shows there is safety in numbers. Collision rates actually go down when more people are walking or riding bikes. Cycling advocates urge nervous would-be cyclists to keep that in mind, and stay the course. In fact, Share the Road executive director Jamie Stuckless says that while there is always more that can be done, Ottawa is actually a leader in Ontario for cycling infrastructure.

In the wake of Jahan’s death, a safety audit is underway on Laurier Avenue. Let’s hope it results in concrete improvements to cyclist safety.