Amid war of words, MP seeks national safe-cycling strategy

Gord Johns in the news

Source: Ottawa Citizen

Even as the investigators arrived with their cameras and tape measures to try to determine how the young bicycle commuter had gone under the wheels of the dump truck, the online comments were unfurling as fast as fingers could strike keys.

Cyclists don't follow rules. Drivers break the law. Cyclists should stay off busy streets. Drivers need to share the road. Around and around it went.

Driving expert Tim Danter sees the same argument, with the same hostility, play out on the streets.

"It is a war," the longtime panelist on the Canada's Worst Driver TV series says before pausing to consider the emotions that surround the topic and the need to choose words carefully.

"I don't know if you want to call it a war," Danter continues. "But there just isn't a mutual sort of co-operative strategy between all drivers and all cyclists."

In coming days, an MP from Vancouver Island will rise in the House of Commons to propose just such a strategy on a national scale.

Gord Johns, a New Democrat representing Courtenay-Alberni, says the death of 23-year-old Nusrat Jahan in Ottawa recently and another cyclist fatality in Montreal were motivation for his private member's bill.

"It just hit close to home," says Johns, 46, who once operated a bike rental agency in the town of Tofino, B.C., and who rides to Parliament Hill daily, through summer and winter, when the House is in session.

"We need to do more to make Canada a better and safer place for cyclists."

Still, because road design and traffic law are the responsibility of provinces, not the federal government, Johns is limited to seeking such general measures as "bringing stakeholders together" and "encouraging cycling-friendly infrastructure."

But in one area that is federally regulated, vehicle design, he's able to get specific: Make mandatory the truck side guard rails that might have saved Jahan's life on Laurier Avenue on Sept. 1. Joining him in that call is fellow New Democrat MP Alexandre Boulerice of Montreal, where a young cyclist died in a collision with a truck in August.

Of 148 people killed between 2010 and 2014 on Ottawa roads, 15 were cyclists. The city government is determined not to see that toll rise even as it adds more designated cycle lanes and other features with a goal of doubling bicycle use by 2031.

Somerset Coun. Catherine McKenney says all road users need to abandon their us-against-them attitudes.

"Attaching blame allows us to continue to do nothing to end deaths and serious injuries on our streets," McKenney wrote in a recent op-ed column.

Ending the antipathy, however, won't be easy. Ron Barr, head of the Greater Ottawa Truckers Association, says he was called "dangerous" and a "bigot" for opining that cycle lanes don't work on some streets and questioning why the driver in the Sept. 1 fatality faces the severe charge of criminal negligence.

On Twitter, Mayor Jim Watson reposted without comment Barr's Facebook post from April voicing support for U.S. presidential candidate Donald Trump. Barr called Watson's move "a cheap shot."
Barr favours the call for consultations on a national strategy, but says success would depend on the willingness of a vocal and well-organized cycling lobby to listen to others.

"They have a lot of power. As long as they check the power at the door and sit down as equals with a clean slate — open to ideas on all sides — I think it's a great idea."

Without a co-operative approach — in government, and on the street — "You're not going to win the battle on this," says Worst Driver judge Danter, who between tapings helps novice drivers prepare for their licence tests in Oakville, Ont.

Road users, he says, need not just to know their responsibilities, but to be ready to see from the other's perspective.

For a driver overtaking a cyclist, then: "It's not like rush hour where you are going to have to engage with this bicyclist for your total commute. it's a matter of seconds and you are by the cyclist. And that matter of seconds is the difference between life and death sometimes."

And for the cyclist, "understand that all the vehicles are not going to comply all the time, and because they're not, what can I do as a cyclist in order to leave myself the out and be safe?"

Only 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.

He's optimistic, too, that cyclists, truckers, regulators, local governments — everyone with a stake in road safety — would welcome the chance to discuss ways to protect all users while encouraging cycling.

"This will provide the framework for that conversation and it's important that we do it sooner rather than later," he says.

"It will save lives."