It was a study with life-saving potential. For the first time, federal government engineers were examining whether side skirts, attached to trucks to reduce fuel costs, could also prevent cyclists from getting crushed under the big rigs.
With funding secured and researchers in place, the innovative study was about to shift into its second phase when Transport Canada suddenly scrapped further testing last fall. The transportation regulator contended there was no point in moving forward because it had found no research to show truck skirts could make streets safer.
But that's not what the engineers found. A copy of the study's first phase, obtained by The Globe and Mail through access-to-information legislation, reveals the National Research Council (NRC) reported promising findings from its initial analysis of side skirts. All three models tested prevented bicycles from sliding underneath a transport truck in a collision – a dangerous scenario that has wounded or killed scores of cyclists in Canada over the past decade.
Transport Canada is standing by its decision to halt additional testing, but the study's sudden cancellation has irked some safety advocates. Without more testing, it's impossible to determine whether lightweight skirts can serve the same safety purpose as sturdier side guards. Both cover the side gap between a truck's front and back wheels, but skirts are designed to make trucks more aerodynamic while guards, generally a drain on fuel, bolster the safety of cyclists and pedestrians by preventing them from tumbling beneath a truck during a crash.
"It's disappointing that Transport Canada hasn't moved forward with this [study]," said Ontario's interim chief coroner Dan Cass.
The NRC, a government research agency, declined to make its lead engineer on side skirts available for an interview. In an e-mailed statement, NRC engineer Jeff Patten said he believes these were the first tests of their kind in the world.
"Although these tests were a critical step in understanding the behaviour of side skirts when impacted by a bicycle, they are but one step in what must be a rigorous multistep process," Mr. Patten noted.
Transport Canada spokeswoman Karine Martel said the decision to cancel the study was made at the scientific and technological level and not by Transport Minister Denis Lebel.
"The intention of the proposed investigation was to study whether side skirts might provide ancillary safety benefits for pedestrians and cyclists," Ms. Martel said in an e-mail. "A decision was made not to proceed with the study because the department was unable to find any research indicating that a similar technology, specifically side guards, was effective at improving pedestrian and cyclist safety."
Side guards have long been mandatory on most trucks in Europe and Japan. According to an earlier NRC study, completed for Transport Canada in 2010, cyclist deaths and serious injuries involving the side of trucks dropped substantially in Britain – deaths by 61 per cent and serious injuries by 13 per cent – after side guards were introduced. Transport Canada said there could have been other factors that contributed to the decrease in injuries and fatalities.
Dr. Cass has a different view. "I don't know what more evidence is needed before one just moves forward to do something which is known to save lives."
The Ontario chief coroner's office called for national side-guard regulation last year after reviewing 224 cyclist and pedestrian fatalities. Twenty-nine of the deaths involved heavy trucks, with nearly half of the victims dragged, pinned or run over after striking a truck's side.
The NDP and Liberals have both tried to push the side-guard issue onto the legislative agenda with separate private member's bills, but their bids to have truck guards regulated have not been successful.
The Canadian Trucking Alliance has opposed mandatory side guards, suggesting bike lanes and road-sharing campaigns are more effective at improving safety. The industry group, however, has encouraged its members to install side skirts because they reduce greenhouse-gas emissions, noted Stephen Laskowski, the organization's senior vice-president. Skirts are more common on tractor-trailers in North America, but they can also aid large straight trucks.
Which is why Transport Canada's study of the safety potential of side skirts was so intriguing: Could truck skirts save fuel and save lives?
The first round of testing, which cost about $100,000, involved mounting a block of steel to a bicycle's saddle to mimic the weight and centre of gravity of an adult rider. The mountain bike was then rammed into the side of a stationary semi-trailer at a speed of about 22 kilometres an hour.
"Under these conditions, the testing demonstrated that all three side skirts prevented the loaded bicycles from entering under the trailer. Furthermore, the bicycles did not become wedged underneath the skirts," states the NRC side-skirt report, completed in April, 2012 for Transport Canada.
The report stresses a lot more research and testing are needed to determine whether skirts can indeed protect cyclists in real life. A second phase of study was scheduled to begin last fall. NRC engineers were going to look at how the skirts performed in cold weather. Would they still prevent bikes from sliding under the big trucks or would the skirts, which are usually made of plastic or aluminum, break apart?
Transport Canada had set aside $200,000 for this round of testing, tapping the regulator's Ecotechnology for Vehicles Program, a five-year, $38-million initiative to test technologies that have the potential to improve safety and the environment. According to NRC research, side skirts increase driver stability and reduce a semi-trailer's annual fuel consumption by 4 per cent to 7.5 per cent. The skirts cost between $750 and $3,600, an investment recoverable in four months to two years.
While the safety benefits of truck skirts remain unclear, proponents of side guards point to the European experience as evidence truck guards work.
"Side guards are proving to save lives," said Jeannette Holman-Price in a phone interview from England. Her 21-year-old daughter, Jessica, died when a dump truck ran over her in the winter of 2005. The truck had clipped Jessica's brother as the siblings stood on a snow bank in Montreal. Jessica managed to push him to safety, but in doing so, she slid beneath the truck, through the side gap, and was crushed.
Their mother has been advocating for a side-guard regulation ever since.
"When you look at the event that destroyed my life and my family's life it was all because of the lack of a single piece of machinery that exists on every [truck] over here."