Maritimes cycling advocates call for stiffer laws for drivers who hit cyclists

Maritimes cycling advocates call for stiffer laws for drivers who hit cyclists
Just before Christmas last year, competitive cyclist Ellen Watters was badly injured when she was hit by a vehicle while training on a stretch of New Brunswick highway — she died days later, prompting renewed calls for stiffer laws for drivers who kill cyclists.

Watters was hit on Dec. 23 and her death announced Dec. 28. Last month, the RCMP said no charges would be laid as there was not “sufficient evidence” to support charges.

Since then, cyclists and cycling advocates have demanded stiffer laws for drivers who kill cyclists.

At the beginning of June, one such law did come into effect in New Brunswick, named after Watters — Ellen’s Law.  The law requires drivers to keep a minimum distance of one metre from cyclists. Many cyclists applauded the passing of the bill and what it would mean for them on the road.

However, cyclist Mike LeBlanc said the law isn’t working.

“Do I want someone to go to prison for their life, I mean, no.”

Trudi Mason of Lethbridge, Alta. was cycling with her best friend when a truck hit the both of them. Mason’s friend died. Mason says the court process ignores the fact a person was killed.

But LeBlanc said he would like to see changes, and it’s a call being echoed across the Maritimes.

In Nova Scotia, a similar law has already been in place since 2011 and only last month, Prince Edward Island passed its own one-metre law for drivers on the Island.

Cycling advocate Kelsey Lane said though the law in Nova Scotia has been in placed for more than five years, there’s still not enough being done to keep cyclists safe.

“The provincial government is not protecting vulnerable road users,” she said. “It says they are not taking the issue seriously and if we keep calling it an accident, it sort of takes away the responsibility we have as a government to ensure the safety of all road users.”

Her group, the Halifax Cycling Coalition, is working with the government to update the Nova Scotia Motor Vehicle Act, including removing the words “motor vehicle” from the title. She said in addition to this, more emphasis needs to be placed on road safety for cyclists and pedestrians, as well as more deterrence.

“There should be consequences if you strike and kill someone with your vehicle,” Lane said.

Despite the calls for change, both the governments of Nova Scotia and New Brunswick say the current laws are fine.

“Enforcement is just one tool used to address driver behaviour,” the statement reads. “Education and ingraining safe driving habits is also key.”

New Brunswick’s Department of Justice and Public Safety, in a statement, referenced the various guidelines vehicles, cyclists and pedestrians should abide by when on the road.

“Current legislation allows for a wide range of sanctions that can be levied against a driver who comes into contact with a pedestrian/cyclist.”

Currently, in both provinces drivers who hit a cyclist can be charged with careless driving under the Motor Vehicle Act as well as face penalties including a loss of demerit points and fines.

If a driver does collide with a cyclist, they can also be charged with dangerous operation of a motor vehicle causing bodily harm or death under the Criminal Code which carries a maximum penalty of 14 years in prison. But it’s not often that drivers face this serious charge.

Jim Goguen, who has repaired several bikes that were heavily damaged by careless drivers, supports the notion of stiffer laws but that’s not the key issue.

“I really don’t believe that will solve the problem,” Goguen said. “We need to become aware of each other on the roads.”

He said better public education would help in reducing the number of incidents on the road.

LeBlanc, however, said without stiffer penalties and proper enforcement, it could lead to the death of more cyclists.

“I see a lot of dangerous things out there.”

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