Coroners are trained to put emotions aside, to examine death without prejudice or partiality, which is why in the often-tense relationship between motorists and cyclists, Ontario coroner Dan Cass is emerging as a voice of reason.
Dr. Cass will lead one of the most extensive reviews of cycling deaths ever undertaken in Canada, probing the circumstances behind roughly 75 fatalities on Ontario roads and sidewalks from 2006 to 2010. He will look for common factors and propose potential solutions to improve cycling safety and to prevent similar deaths.
The Office of the Chief Coroner last looked at deadly cycling crashes in 1998, but that probe focused only on Toronto. Since then, cycling has become more popular in many of the province’s cities, not only as recreational activity but as a greener, healthier and, in some cases, faster mode of commuting to work.
For some, safety concerns loom larger now, particularly in cities choking with traffic.
“This continues to be a public safety issue,” Dr. Cass said after the review was announced Monday. “Cycling deaths are all preventable in one way, shape or form, so what we can learn from that to try and prevent this going forward?”
Many cycling groups have been pushing for a coroner’s review and for myriad safety changes, such as expanded bike lanes and lower speed limits on some roads. They believe Dr. Cass will offer an objective outlook on cycling safety, an issue that often descends into finger-pointing, pitting driver against cyclist and cyclist against pedestrian.
The corner’s review will include the 2009 death of Toronto courier Darcy Allan Sheppard, who died after an altercation with former attorney-general Michael Bryant. That incident highlighted tensions between cyclists and motorists in Canada’s largest city.
“The coroner brings a neutral voice to a debate that is often very volatile,” said Albert Koehl, part of a coalition of cycling groups that advocated for a coroner’s review.
Deaths of cyclists in Ontario over the past two decades have fluctuated from a high of 36 in 1998 to a low of nine in 2000. Toronto, though, has the highest cyclist collision rate among eight major Canadian cities – 47 crashes per 100,000 people, according to the City of Toronto’s traffic safety unit.
Toronto and other Ontario cities aren’t the only communities grappling with growing demands for safer cycling and increasing tension between cyclists, motorists and pedestrians.
A University of British Columbia-led study is in the final stages of examining cycling injuries in Vancouver and Toronto. It has already offered some observations.
For one, cycling risks are greater than in Europe. The design of bike lanes appears to be a significant factor: Cycling routes segregated from vehicles and pedestrians with curbs, for instance, are more common in Europe.
Jamie Beblow welcomes the Ontario coroner’s review and hopes it will recommend European-style bike lanes for the province.
Mr. Beblow, father of a young girl, was seriously injured four years ago while riding his bike home to Pickering from his sports administrator’s job in Toronto.
“Cycling can be safer,” said Mr. Beblow, 34. “But it just takes a lot of money and infrastructure.”
Dr. Cass, regional supervising coroner for the Toronto West Region, expects to complete his probe in the spring.