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bicycle data

A cyclists walks by a bike lane symbol painted by activists at a memorial on Monday, November 14, for pregnant cyclist Jenna Morrison, who was killed after being struck by a truck at Sterling and Dundas in Toronto.

A few weeks after her husband was struck and killed by a cement truck, Karen MacNeil Hartmann was reminded of her grief at the Ministry of Transportation office.

A bulletin board listed bicycle fatalities. "There were two," she said, "and one of them was my husband."

Though the number of cyclists killed in Toronto is relatively low – averaging three per year out of the 1,200 collisions reported annually – for those who lose a loved one, it's too high a toll.

"It's not real to a lot of people, but it was real to me and my children," Ms. MacNeil Hartmann said, whose husband was one of three cyclists killed on Toronto's streets in 2006.

While traffic fatalities overall have declined, according to Toronto Police, data acquired by The Globe and Mail show cycling collisions have remained stubbornly consistent for the past decade. The number of reported collisions in 2010 was nearly identical in 2000. Since 1986, only one year has passed without a bicyclist fatality.

Toronto also has the highest percentage of bicycle collisions by population among major cities, a figure that's risen since 2008. Other cities, including Vancouver, Ottawa and Edmonton, have seen their percentages fall in the same time frame.

One obstacle to improving cycling safety is available collision data isn't as cut-and-dry as researchers might hope. In a quarter-century of cyclist collisions, no single street, intersection or neighbourhood can be labelled particularly unsafe. If you go searching for the deadliest street corner, you're not going to find it.

"Looking for patterns in traffic fatalities is very difficult, it's not like you're tracking a serial arsonist or a pickpocket," said Constable Scott Parrish of traffic services.

"As for clusters, the next fatality, I wish I could tell you what corner it's going to happen on because I'd be there to prevent it, but I can't."

City planners have trouble looking for patterns because the data are far from complete, said Mike Brady, manager of traffic safety for the city's transportation services. It's nearly impossible to keep a tally of how many people are cycling in the city, he said, making it difficult to judge percentages. City officials also estimate up to 90 per cent of bicycle collisions go unreported.

"I think intuitively we know that there is more cyclist traffic in the urban core ... but when you plot the data, it shows you that cycling collisions occur everywhere," Mr. Brady explained.

"The data really isn't truly sufficient to tell us why these collisions are occurring, unfortunately."

Other cities are trying to tackle bicycle safety by changing traffic conditions overall – a common sense approach that's found supporters in Washington, D.C., and London, England. Seattle's Mayor Mike McGinn is aggressively pushing for speed limits as low as 20 mph (32 km/h) on his streets.

In Toronto, data show excessive speeds were involved in fewer than 1 per cent of all reported collisions. Since 1986, only two cyclist fatalities involved a speeding motorist.

"It's not so much that road speeds need to be lowered, it's the driver behaviour," said Constable Hugh Smith, Toronto Police Services' bicycle specialist. He noted the police try to address this through education and enforcement.

"As far as saying, 'Let's change the speed limit on Bay Street or something,' ... I haven't heard anything in that sort of area."

When it comes to solutions, all eyes are on an upcoming coroner's report, which will look more thoroughly at the bicycle collision fatalities in all of Ontario from 2006 to 2010. Ontario coroner Dan Cass said he and his team are looking at more than 70 data points for each of the 126 deaths and trying to find what went wrong.

"Everything from the conditions the accident happened in, time of day, weather, lighting," Mr. Cass said – anything that will lead them to recommendations for making cycling safer throughout the province. His team of traffic and cycling experts, who met for the first time in January, is expected to release its recommendations this spring.

But for many cycling advocates, the recommendations will mean little if city officials don't act. A similar coroner's report was conducted in 1998, examining 12 years of bicycle fatalities in Toronto. The coroner made a litany of recommendations then, but the most substantive – including a network of bike lanes and off-street trails – never fully materialized, according to Andrea Garcia of the Toronto Cyclists Union. The bike lanes, she said, were not even halfway completed.

"The one recommendation that would really have made the most difference is still, even today, far from implementation," she said.

Ms. Garcia pointed to the priorities of city administration over the past few year as a reason behind the bike plan delays.

"It was stalled from the very beginning, pretty much due to a lack of political will."

In the Globe's data, reports of cyclist injuries actually went up slightly in the six months following the installation of the Jarvis Street bike lanes – slated to be removed this year. However, the lack of complete data makes it nearly impossible to understand what caused the increase.

Whatever the cause, the rate of bicycle injuries and especially fatalities shouldn't be brushed aside, Ms. Garcia said.

"We still believe that even one fatality is too much, especially when there's so much that the city could be doing to prevent that."

For Ms. MacNeil Hartmann, there's one recommendation in particular that she'd like to see implemented.

After her husband's death, she started pushing for side-guards: metal barriers on large trucks that prevent cyclists from getting pulled under rear wheels once side-swiped. It was recommended in the 1998 coroner's report, but has yet to be mandated by legislation.

Several other cycling activists joined her fight this fall after the death of 38-year-old yoga teacher and mother Jenna Morrison.

"I promised [my daughter]that I would see it get done in Canada," Ms. MacNeil Hartmann said. "If it kills me, I'll get it done."

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