The legal struggles to protect cyclists better
Patrick Brown, a critical injury lawyer in Toronto, is one of the strongest forces behind Bill 158. It’s a private member’s bill that would amend Ontario’s Highway Traffic Act to establish Canada’s first vulnerable road users (vru) law. Tougher measures and stricter penalties would be brought against motorists who hurt or kill pedestrians or cyclists through dangerous driving. Brown – the founder of Bike Law Canada – discusses what you need to know about vru laws.
What’s wrong with current traffic laws as they relate to cyclists and pedestrians? In case after case I’ve reviewed, there is a repeated pattern. Either the driver who hurt or killed a cyclist or pedestrian is never charged or, if there is a charge, seldom is it a criminal charge. When I looked at the penalties, they were ridiculously small fines. The driver would often use a court agent, so he or she didn’t even show up to court. You could drive your car, make an illegal manoeuvre, be given a ticket, and you would likely never have a suspension and nobody would check if you’re a good driver. You may have killed someone and you could walk away with a very small fine. We’re talking between $85 and $1,000.
“There’s a message to the driving public that we consider harming a cyclist more significant than a small fine.”
What’s a vulnerable road user law? How does it address the problems you mentioned? Because there are certain individuals on roadways who aren’t protected inside a car, they’re vulnerable. This includes any person outside of a car – cyclists, pedestrians and early responders on a scene– and little bumps can be deadly for them. The idea of a vru law is that we need an added deterrence to have people slow down and take care when they’re near one of these road users. Bill 158, which in my opinion is the most comprehensive vru law in North America, calls for added penalties to be imposed.
Why is it important to cyclists? Small hits can kill us. If you’re not going to drive with care and attention near a cyclist, when and if you do something illegal and you hurt a cyclist, you’re going to be penalized severely. With that message going out, we aren’t going to get things like the brush passes, the right hooks, the left hooks. We’ll get more one-metre passes and cars slowing down to pass safely. All of a sudden, there’s a message to the driving public that we consider harming a cyclist more significant than a small fine. How would a VRU law affect a driver who kills a cyclist? If you hit a vru and you’ve done something illegal – a bad turn, not giving one metre, running a stop sign – and you’re convicted, there is an added penalty. You’ll have to do community-service hours and take a driving course. If you don’t, your licence will stay suspended until you do. On top of that, you have to show up in court to hear the victim impact statement. This is about sending a message to everyone to take more care: you’re not getting away with a small ticket.
Tell me the effect of a Bill 178 amendment getting voted down in the Justice Policy Committee in December? What does that mean for Bill 158? Bill 158 is a private member’s bill brought up by [ndp mpp] Cheri Dinovo. It’s first reading was in September. Then the Liberal government brought out Bill 174, an omnibus bill including road safety. A government bill with road safety in it meant we could propose an amendment to it. We introduced sections of 158 into 174. It was a way of accelerating the ability to get this law into place. In December, the committee, which was controlled by Liberals, voted the amendment down for whatever reasons. It was disappointing. Now, unless the government supports Bill 158 or brings Bill 158 into one of its own bills, it will die in the spring. Is that it for vru law in Ontario? Even if all this dies, there can still be public pressure for someone to step up and bring this to Ontario, whether it’s Bill 158 or a new bill. Someone has to do this. We’re making the public aware. Support is growing. Maybe the word will get out. Someone might ask, “Why don’t we have that in Nova Scotia?” or, “Why don’t we have that in Alberta?” Hopefully, a vru law passes and you get momentum in other provinces. If Ontario doesn’t think this is a good idea, I’m sure other provinces will.