Cycling advocates in this city want you to believe they’ve got it pretty bad and in many ways they do. We have some decent bike paths, but too few of them by far; the bike lanes on surface streets are nothing more than painted lines, offering neither security nor exclusivity; and the relationship between cars and bikes is bitter and dangerous. But there’s a weird upside to being ignored by the powers that be…
While driving to work on Sunday with a friend, we passed a cyclist and a bike cop stopped at the corner of King and Bathurst and much to our surprise, the officer was issuing the cyclist a ticket. Although I’ve heard of this happening occasionally around the city, I’ve never seen it myself. The cyclist, in this case a young hippyish looking woman, was making that same annoyed, impatient face drivers have made a million times while waiting for a cop to finish their ticket and that’s when it hit me — the thing cyclists in this city take for granted is that because they aren’t getting the attention they deserve, it gives them the opportunity to break the law with relative impunity. Now I know most cyclists say they don’t, or that they only do things that they’ve deemed innocuous or “basically safe” but so many of us are horrible rule breakers. Rapid fire lane changes, quick darts through red lights and sidewalk shortcuts are just a few of the things I see cyclists do on a daily basis. And I’m no saint, either. There’s a T-intersection on Queens Quay at Harbourfront I rarely wait out. Why are we this way? Because we can get away with it. If drivers could speed without having to worry about being nabbed by a radar gun, you can bet average speeds would increase. But they can’t. Drivers have 50 or 60 years of speed traps and consequences reminding them to take it easier. As policing increases, infringement decreases…just look at the holiday weekend traffic “blitzes”. As cyclists we don’t have that culture of enforcement and as a result, we know we can bend and break rules and our risk of penalty is nearly nil. But that’s all changing.
There are huge bonuses to being relatively unregulated. You never have to worry about the man looking over your shoulder and that’s a level of freedom found in precious few corners of our society. But it means you have to stay out of the news and not ask for anything. Toronto cyclists may be starting to see that the downside of demanding a greater presence in the traffic planning of the city is that The Man starts to take a closer look at the habits of cyclists, both good and bad. Which brings me to the topic of the day, bicycle helmets…or rather the proposal to make bicycle helmets mandatory for everyone in the City of Toronto.
I think the response from cycling advocates, specifically the large Toronto Cyclists Union (TSU), against the adoption of a helmet law is truly fascinating; coming out as they have not only against the proposed law, but also against helmets in general. In a country where we’ve accepted the concept of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) into so many facets of our life, to reject it in the case of bicycles seems strangely inconsistent. Whether at work or at play, we are constantly putting on or taking off something that’s been invented to help us avoid or diminish the effects of an accident. A construction worker is compelled by law to wear a hard hat and safety shoes just as we all are compelled to wear a seat belt.
That being said, not all PPE is equal. It’s easier to click into a seat belt than it is to find and plop on a helmet and a seat belt doesn’t have quite the safe anti-stylish effect on one’s hair. A car comes with a seat belt, whereas a bike with a built-in helmet would be wonderful only as a piece of modern art. But if we agree that the intent of seat belts is harm reduction and that is something we can get behind, why don’t we feel the same way about bikes? Or maybe we do. Instead of going on about bike lanes yesterday, I would have loved to see some paper from the Toronto Cyclists Union about helmet use in the city. If it’s relatively high, there’s no need for a law and the issue could be dead. If, as I’ve observed, it’s quite low then I’d like to know why the TSU isn’t burning more calories to encourage cyclists to take greater responsibility for their own safety. Not that it isn’t more fun to blame “The Man…”
If that comes off as cynical, good. I’ve got the sneaking suspicion that Councillor Walker is more interested in scoring points with drivers, who see an inequality of enforcement between themselves and cyclists, than he is in saving the lives of riders. This suspicion is all but proven with his inclusion of a licensing scheme, a needless and destined to fail bit of bureaucracy that our cash-strapped city probably can’t even afford to properly staff or run. As such, the entire debate — regardless of its validity — is borne out of a cynical approach to public safety as a political weapon. And both sides are guilty, the TSU is using this as an opportunity to pin the responsibility of bike safety solely on the city while failing to address the perception (right or wrong) that some cyclists are willful rule breakers who flaunt traffic laws whenever it suits them. As long as drivers see this inequality and as long as there are cyclists out there to prove it you’ll have a tough time getting drivers and cyclists to play nice. And like it or not, cyclists need drivers and their votes to move the cycling agenda.
Cycling advocates MUST get their own house in order if they ever want the broad support they so need. You have to get bike couriers under control, you have to get people to wear helmets and ride safely and foremost you have to accept that cyclists break the law and when they do they deserve to be ticketed. Then, when cyclist are SEEN to be doing acting with the utmost responsibility, it’ll be a lot easier to point out the failures of city council. The bike issue is front and centre now, so everyone better put on their best face. That’s the price you pay for asking people to pay attention.
Oh, as a postscript…there’s an argument I’ve been hearing from the anti-helmet people that really pisses me off…
Saying that helmets are a barrier to cycling adoption is the same gloom and doom bullshit that bar owners used when they claimed that the smoking ban would put them all out of business. We’ve heard it a million times on a million different topics and it’s NEVER true. All those bars are still there and all those cyclists will be too. Humans have been adapting to new laws for about 4000 years…so please, dispense with that particular piece of shit argument.