Skip to main content
cycling safety

Ghost Bikes indicating where cyclists have died are seen here at the corner of Colborne Lodge Drive and Lakeshore Bvd. West Monday Oct. 24, 2011.Tim Fraser/The Globe and Mail

It's a debate that's gone on for years: Should truck drivers be forced to install side guards to help prevent pedestrians and cyclists from being crushed under their rear wheels?

To families and friends of the victims, it's a life-saving measure, a position reinforced after the tragic death of a cyclist in Toronto last week. But the trucking industry and the federal transportation regulator argue the evidence of the side-guard's effectiveness isn't clear.

The debate moves to Ottawa on Monday when opposition MP Olivia Chow will press the government to make the protection mandatory on trucks across the country.

A report from 2010, commissioned by Transport Canada and made available to The Globe and Mail, shows that since the introduction of guards on the side of most trucks in Europe in the late 1980s, the number of cyclists and pedestrians killed or seriously wounded in crashes with large vehicles has dropped.

However, the National Research Council Canada, which produced the study, found it unclear whether the safety measure was entirely responsible for the decrease in deaths and injuries, or one of several factors. Transport Canada spokeswoman Melanie Quesnel said in an e-mail that her department would be open to examining the issue further "should any valid information become available in the future to support the use of side guards as a significant means to improve safety."

That's not going down well with friends and relatives of people who might have been helped, if not saved, by these protective guards.

"The truck that was involved in Toronto's incident [last]week would have cost $800 for a side guard," said Jeannette Holman-Price, whose 21-year-old daughter was crushed by a snow-removal truck in Montreal six years ago.

"Do you think that company wouldn't have wished that they had that side guard in place? Do you think that driver wouldn't have wished to have had that in place?

"Eight hundred dollars to save that woman's life."

The Canadian study cited a British probe that zeroed in on crashes involving the sides of trucks. A substantial reduction in cyclist deaths (61 per cent) and serious injuries (13 per cent) occurred 10 years after side guards were introduced.

Still, the government research agency cautioned side guards are only part of the solution and an uncertain one at that. "It is not clear if side guards will reduce deaths and serious injury or if the guards will simply alter the mode of death and seriously injury," it concluded.

Several of Jenna Morrison's friends believe safety guards might have saved her life.

The 38-year-old yoga instructor was five months pregnant, and on her way to pick up her five-year-old son from school, when her bike collided with a truck turning right on a major Toronto street last Monday. She was pulled under the truck and crushed beneath its back wheels.

Toronto police are investigating the circumstances of the crash to determine whether charges should be laid.

At a downtown Toronto intersection Monday, bike riders will gather to ride in honour of Ms. Morrison. The cyclists will pedal to the intersection where she died and stop for a moment of silence.

Later in the day in Ottawa, Ms. Chow will reintroduce a private member's bill urging the federal government to make side guards mandatory on most trucks in the country. This is the NDP MP's third try at changing the regulation.

From 2004 to 2006, 77 pedestrians and 24 cyclists died nationwide as a result of collisions with heavy vehicles in urban areas, government statistics show. Another 1,410 people were injured.

Estimates on the cost of side guards range from $600 to $2,600, depending on the type of truck and guard. In some cases, the cost could be recovered through improved fuel efficiency, the National Research Council study said.

"The cost would be minimal, compared with the lives that could be saved," Ms. Chow contended. "It's just a tragedy all these senseless deaths."

Ontario's chief coroner's office recently announced it would review cyclist and pedestrian deaths in the province. The probe will look at what has changed since a 1998 examination of fatalities involving cyclists. That coroner's review recommended Ottawa examine the life-saving potential of side guards.

The 2005 death of Toronto bike rider Ryan Carriere, a father of two young girls who was crushed beneath a truck, also sparked demands for change: the City of Toronto requested that Transport Canada introduce side guards on trucks in 2006.

Mr. Carriere's widow, Megan Holtz, said she believes the safety device would have saved his life and added she hopes the latest coroner's review presses the federal government to act. She also wants the city to build bike lanes separated by barriers.

"He was not riding recklessly. He was riding carefully, and yet he was killed," she said. "It terrifies me that my children want to ride in the city."

For now, the federal government has no plans to regulate side guards.

Prominent Toronto neurosurgeon Charles Tator wants the federal and provincial governments to take a closer look at the safety tool. But Canadian Trucking Alliance president David Bradley doesn't believe sufficient evidence exists to support making side guards mandatory. He maintains there are better measures to explore, such as adding bike lanes and education campaigns on sharing the road.

"Everybody feels badly for what's happening," Mr. Bradley said, "but too often people jump to conclusions about things that really might sound like they would work but don't hold up to empirical scrutiny."

Ms. Holman-Price has no doubt side guards work. The Newfoundland mother said they would have prevented her daughter's death and her son's brain injury.

The pair were standing on a snowbank in Montreal, waiting to cross the street, when the 10-year-old boy was snagged by a snow-removal truck and pulled underneath in December, 2005. His sister scrambled and pushed him to safety, but in doing so, she slid under the truck and was crushed by its wheels.

Their mother has been campaigning for safety guards on trucks ever since.

"I'm 100-per-cent positive that they would have made a difference in my daughter's case and my son's as well," Ms. Holman-Price said. "Had there been a side guard there, they wouldn't have been able to get underneath the truck."