Making Safe Cycling Laws Meaningful

August 12, 2011

With a provincial election in the fall, Ontario politicians are starting to line up their platforms. Yesterday, NDP leader Andrea Horwath unveiled her party’s environmental policies, and most of the attention seems to have gone to a proposal that would require drivers to give cyclists at least one meter when passing.

It’s not a new idea – 19 America states have a similar law. But while “passing at a safe distance” is the sort of thing most people can get behind, it’s hard to say how much the law is needed, or how effective it might be.

The Highway Traffic Act currently has this to say about passing a bicycle:

147 (6) Every person on a bicycle or motor assisted bicycle who is overtaken by a vehicle or equestrian travelling at a greater speed shall turn out to the right and allow the vehicle or equestrian to pass and the vehicle or equestrian overtaking shall turn out to the left so far as may be necessary to avoid a collision.

Granted, it’s a little vague. Strictly speaking, a driver can speed past a cyclist as close as he wants so long as he doesn’t cause a collision. It’s highly impractical to enforce the law in the absence of an actual collision. But is the new law any better?

Probably not. According to the CBC,

Horwath admitted such a rule would be hard to enforce across the province, saying it was meant more as an educational and awareness tool than a way to punish drivers.

The Toronto Sun has an odd, possibly badly-transcribed, explanation by Horwath of when it might be important to follow the law and when it would be okay to ignore it.

(Commute Orlando has some interesting comments on the difficulty – or reluctance – of enforcing the law.)

What the NDP is proposing, then, is less of a law than a guideline. It’s important for motorists to pass cyclists safely, but there may not be any consequences if they don’t. It’s a nice idea, but not much of a platform. Thankfully, the NDP has a few more things to say about cycling. They promise to:

… promote planning for complete streets on municipal and provincialroadways, ensuring the safety of all users when roads are developed or redeveloped. We will create a province-wide cycling infrastructure fund for investments in bike lanes, bike storage and bicycle tourism.

That’s more helpful, but kind of vague, as campaign promises often are.

If the NDP, or any other politician, really wanted to take significant steps towards safe cycling, they could learn a thing or two from Los Angeles, a city known for having lots and lots of cars. LA city council recently passed an anti-bicycle-harrassment law, aimed at motorists who harrass, threaten, or intimidate cyclists. Not only does it specifically prohibit aggression directed at cyclists, it also makes it easier for cyclists to take aggressive motorists to civil court.

It’s hard to say how the LA law will play out, but it seems like a far more definitive defence of cyclists than the NDP’s nod towards safety.