Ottawa is a very safe place to cycle. But sometimes things go wrong. Terribly wrong. People die.
Traffic deaths declining
About 20 years ago, Canada counted 3963 fatal traffic accidents, in 2009 it dropped to 2209. That is still 6 people every day, or one every four hours. Day after day, week after week. In 2005, 53 cyclists died on Canada’s roads, in 2006 (73) , 2007 (65) in 2008 (42) and in 2009 (41). There appears to be a downwards trend, and I am hoping that -considering the increase in cycling popularity- there are also relatively less and less cyclists dying. Now, relative is not good enough, we have to get the absolute numbers further down too.
There are way more pedestrians. Pedestrians are theoretically somewhat more protected than cyclists as they often have their own side walks. They also go slow, at 6 km per hour, so they are not likely to cause collisions. Yet, on average, about 350 pedestrians die in Canada every year. It is sometimes their own fault unfortunately (think jay walking, reading email while crossing, running red lights to catch a bus), but more often it is not. We all remember people killed while waiting for a bus for example. In Ottawa about 37 pedestrians lost their lives between 2007 and 2011, that is 7 a year, or 2 to 3 times more than cyclists. Yet, cycling deaths attract way more attention, everyone has an opinion on cycling all of a sudden and uninformed people call for helmet laws. Somehow, there is a lot less interest in dead pedestrians.
While Ontario is doing pretty well, with about 4 traffic deaths per 100,000 population, Saskatchewan is by far the worst province, with numbers that equal Greece’s. Yes, Greece. Saskatchewan is Canada’s Greece in terms of traffic deaths. Ontario nearly equals The Netherlands, one of the safest countries -after Malta- in the world in terms of traffic.
Ottawa doing well
In Ottawa, we are generally doing very well. Although people’s reactions are often that “cycling is too dangerous here“, it is actually not true. We average out two to three traffic deaths a year, which is obviously two or three too many. Since I am involved in cycling, I do remember nearly all deadly traffic accidents of the last three years. They vary from cycling into a pole, to misjudging oncoming traffic, to being hit by drunk drivers.
The death of John Barton in 2010 is one of those deaths that I will never forget. He was my age, cycled through a quiet neighbourhood in Ottawa West, when he got stuck somehow between a car and a curb. The driver heard a sound, looked over her shoulder, turned the wheel and hit John. I never met John, I met some of his family members, but I cannot erase his accident from my head, and I don’t try to. Citizens for Safe Cycling received lots of donations after John’s death (in the thousands) and we still receive donations from his family and colleagues: quiet supporters of the safe cycling cause.
Another accident that shocked many people in 2011 was the death of Danielle Naçu. Danielle’s cycling death was the only one in Ottawa that year. Everyone in Ottawa knows the story, not the least because a week after her death, a friend had organised a ride through Queen St. Her death had a huge impact, perhaps because it was such a silly death. Someone opened a door without looking over her shoulder and knocked Danielle off her bike.
Take the lane
Ever since, I take the lane even more than before, I stay away from parked cars even further and I look into parked cars even more if I see any movement in the car that might point to a door being opened. Frankly, I cycle less comfortable passing parked cars in Bank Street, Richmond Road in Westboro and Wellington Street West. I certainly don’t avoid them but if I can I stay away from main streets.
First Danielle Ride
Next Thursday, on October 11, 2012 there will be a community ride for Danielle. I noticed on the special Facebook page (see email below), that only 69 people of the 601 people invited confirmed they will go (update: on October 8, the number of confirmed names climbed to 91); that is a lot less than last year’s, when 299 confirmed. I assume that the large turn out was party fed by strong emotions. This year it might be harder to assemble such large crowd, so do get this post out to your cycling and walking friends.
Through Richard Guy Briggs, a Citizens for Safe Cycling member, I received this email:
In honour of the anniversary of the tragic death of Danielle Naçu, Ottawa cyclist and beloved community member, all residents of Ottawa and the National Capital Region are invited to participate in the first Annual Danielle Naçu Community Bike Ride.
Participants will leave the corner of Sparks and O’Connor at 11:30 a.m. on Thursday, October 11th , with the procession of cyclists and walkers making their way to Queen Street to mark a pause at the “ghost bike” and then continue through the NAC ramp to end up at City Hall for a few words from Danielle’s family, the Mayor and some other guest speakers (the speeches will be inside in case of rain). The procession is expected to arrive at City Hall around 12h10. Participants can walk as well or meet the group directly at City Hall for speeches if they wish to do so.
This event follows the success of an unofficial ride that took place last year a week following Danielle’s death, where a crowd of over 500 participants made their way down Queen St, some having known Danielle personally, while others were simply touched by her story and joined along to offer support and solidarity among the community.
Organizers plan to kick off a future memorial project with a call-out to local artists for their design ideas for permanent artwork that will serve as a tribute to all those hurt or killed following a cycling accident. More will be announced soon on the process to select the work of a local artist to develop the final memorial, which the family and friends hope can be unveiled in October 2013, in time for the second Annual Danielle Naçu Community Bike Ride.
The event was inspired not only by Danielle’s irresistible and irrepressible spirit and dedication to her community but by Ottawa communities and the recent and growing commitment to promoting road and cycling safety as well as the importance of cycling to our environment. Speakers include members of Danielle’s family, Mayor Jim Watson, and Cathy Anderson, survivor of the 2009 Kanata accident involving five local cyclists.
Participants are encouraged to wear yellow – armbands, t-shirts – and to bring only compostable tributes, such as flowers, to the event. For more information, please visit the Facebook page created for this event: http://goo.gl/59cty
As you read, last year, about 500 people participated. That was the equivalent of about 3-4 city blocks. I remember the CBC started reporting along the lines of “a few dozen cyclists have gathered etc...”. But by the time it was closer to 9 am, people poured in from everywhere; it was very impressive.
Not only one day a year
It is important though, that the message of a memorial ride doesn’t get lost in the weeks to follow. People move on again, busy with their lives, city councillors discuss casinos and sink holes, biweekly diaper collections and ten lane road widenings. Therefore it is important that you too stay involved after a ride. Point out dangerous cycling and walking conditions to your councillors, ask for traffic calming measurements, read up what other countries do. City councillors don’t always have the solution, but there is a battery of city engineers who are able to make adjustments. And if they can’t because of some building code from the 70’s, Nancy Schepers personally cycles to Toronto to talk to the Ministry of Transportation. At Citizens for Safe Cycling, we know that a positive dialogue makes things happen. Perhaps not always as quickly as we ‘d like, but things are changing.
Sadly, we lost three cyclists this year. A statistical average, but three families lost a loved one. Every four hours some one dies in traffic and families are left behind wondering why it was their son, their daughter, their father. So if you want to change things in the city, don’t stop after October 11.