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bike safety

A memorial on Nov. 14, 2011, for pregnant cyclist Jenna Morrison, who was killed after being struck by a truck at Sterling and Dundas in Toronto.Michelle Siu/The Globe and Mail

When Hailee Morrison is in the car with her daughter, they often play one game in particular: Count the cyclists with helmets and those without. The helmet-free riders always win.

Ms. Morrison, 47, a frequent cyclist herself, is in the minority. She wears a helmet when she rides, even though it's not mandatory for adults in Ontario. She feels safer with one on.

"I don't think Toronto has the infrastructure to support a cycling community," said Ms. Morrison, executive director of Lung Cancer Canada. "It's the responsibility of cyclists to ensure that they're safe. We're not going to change the infrastructure of the city overnight."

The contentious debate over making helmets mandatory for all cyclists is on the forefront again after Ontario's chief coroner recommended the measure Monday in a sweeping review of 129 cycling deaths in the province since 2006. Four other provinces – British Columbia, New Brunswick, Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island – already require children and adults to wear helmets, but Ontario's law only applies to riders under 18.

"When you start looking at the number of head injuries … it's hard not to make a case that helmets should be worn by every single person cycling in Ontario," said deputy chief coroner Dan Cass, who led the cycling review.

The review resulted in 13 other recommendations, including developing a provincial cycling plan, boosting bike safety education, and requiring heavy trucks to install side guards. The latter are to help prevent riders and pedestrians from falling underneath and getting crushed beneath a truck's rear wheels, as was the case in Torontonian Jenna Morrison's death last November.

Ontario Transportation Minister Bob Chiarelli said the government endorses the principles of the coroner's recommendations, but he did not commit to making any changes. Some of the proposals, such as adding bike lanes and increasing enforcement, would put pressure on government budgets.

A provincial cycling strategy, meanwhile, is already in the works. Mr. Chiarelli said the government will review the coroner's report before releasing its plan this summer.

Making helmets mandatory for adults is not really a matter that affects the public purse. Rather, opponents of the law contend that regulating helmets can create a false sense of safety, infringe on personal rights and drive down the number of people cycling at a time when many cities are desperately trying to ease vehicle congestion on their roads.

"We're against mandatory helmets simply because the studies are so conflicting," said Jared Kolb, director of membership and outreach with Cycle Toronto, one of the city's largest advocacy groups.

While recognizing bike helmets are controversial, the province's chief coroner believes requiring everyone to wear them would reduce deaths and head injuries. In the study of 129 cycling deaths across the province, the coroner found only 26 per cent had on a helmet.

The chief coroner last looked at cycling fatalities in 1998, but that probe focused only on Toronto. Since then, cycling has grown in popularity in many Ontario cities, not only for recreation but as a greener, healthier and, in some cases, faster mode of commuting.

But as the number of cyclists increases, so has tension between riders and motorists. Eleanor McMahon, who started Share the Road Cycling Coalition after her husband, Ontario Provincial Police Sergeant Greg Stobbart, was struck and killed by a truck while cycling near Milton, believes the coroner's recommendations, if adopted, would curb collisions and the war of words between riders and drivers.

"We need to stop finger-pointing and start finding solutions," she said. "We have built our cities around cars, not around people and we're trying to vigorously catch up and add cyclists to the conversation."

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