Cyclist's death highlights auto hazards
Cars are death traps in many ways.
October 19, 2009
by Albert Koehl
Darcy Allan Sheppard accomplished this year what almost 3,000 other Canadians will fail to do: get more than fleeting public attention for his death on our roads. If Sheppard's death had not occurred in downtown Toronto, in gruesome circumstances, and under the wheels of a car driven by Ontario's former top law-maker, the public would already have forgotten his name. While the tragedy on Toronto's Bloor St. may have highlighted the frailty of the human body in conflicts with the car, the fact is occupants of cars are hardly safe from the danger on our roads.
Polluting emissions from car and truck traffic claim 440 lives in Toronto alone each year.
Although cyclists are over-represented in road fatalities, the most common victims of road accidents are drivers and their passengers, comprising three quarters of all deaths. Motor vehicle occupants also count heavily among the 20,000 Canadians wounded so seriously by motor vehicles each year that they require hospital care, often for long terms. So routine are serious traffic accidents that we more often hear about them as obstacles in the morning traffic report than in news headlines. Cars aren't deadly just because of collisions.
Polluting emissions from car and truck traffic claim 440 lives in Toronto alone each year, according to the city's public health authority. Climate change, which is caused in significant part by transportation emissions, will claim more lives still. Over 35 percent of Toronto's greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions are from motor vehicles. The tragedy of these numbers is not that we accept them so willingly, but that we accept them despite the obvious alternatives.
First, buses and streetcars are many times safer than cars, while emitting a fraction of the air and climate poisons. A 30 percent reduction in traffic emissions would save 190 lives in Toronto each year and result in $900 million in health benefits, according to Toronto Public Health. Mass transit can be improved quickly with better and more frequent bus service.
Second, bicycles produce zero climate and air pollutants — while posing minimal risks to other road users. Cycling fatalities can be reduced. In certain European countries where bikes have been given dedicated space, cyclists (despite shunning helmets) are much safer.
"Good fences make good neighbours" wrote the poet Robert Frost. Painted lines for bikes make good relations on our streets.
Yes, cyclists must obey the rules of the road, although this doesn't help cyclists injured by motorists in so-called "doorings" that are all too common. When I cycle, I fairly diligently obey every rule of the road but sometimes marvel at the irony of it all: complying with the rules of a society that has already carelessly passed through urgent warning signs of climate change and unnecessarily wasted so many innocent lives.
Third, cars are transportation products, not necessities. Other personal transportation products would make our cities safer and healthier. Power and speed, along with polluting emissions, are car design features, and consequences, that kill.
We may be able to justify the use of a car to carry groceries, take kids to soccer practice, or pick-up grandparents but do milk and eggs really need to leave the mall in a machine capable of achieving 0-60kmph in 6 seconds? Low cost, low emission, low speed vehicles, similar to the electric ZENN car, provide another logical alternative, especially since city traffic doesn't average even 40kmph anyway.
Finally, when our roads are safer and more hospitable places, people will walk more. The car may be part of our culture but this is no reason to stand in the way of safer and more efficient options. The facts support a war on traffic deaths and injuries, traffic pollution, and vehicle GHG emissions that have made us all — motorists, passengers, cyclists, and pedestrians — victims.
Albert Koehl is a lawyer with Ecojustice (formerly Sierra Legal), a Canadian environmental law organization. In November 2007, Ecojustice and KAIROS: Canadian Ecumenical Justice Initiatives, a church-based social justice organization, demanded that Canada's Auditor General investigate the government's oil and gas subsidies and the cuts to programs for poor households.