Every night, thousands of cyclists, drivers and pedestrians on Toronto’s and Montreal’s major highways and streets share a safe, uncluttered passage, theoretically free from weapons or harm. If there are accidents, they happen only a few feet behind any of these parties. During peak times, the flow is certainly smooth, but at slow, stop-and-go traffic, the things that happen – sometimes quite violently – often go on for a long time.
Last week, Danielle Ovens, a 25-year-old art student, was the latest victim of one of those calamities. Walking her new bike, she was caught up in a vicious cycle of confrontation between two cars. “I’ve seen worse,” says Ovens, who had been struck five times before. As the bike continued forward on a busy highway in the RM of Windsor, her handlebars were ripping in a way that at first she didn’t see. Ovens was knocked off the bike.
Fifteen minutes after her fall, Ovens was walking to the hospital – but by the time she reached the doors, emergency personnel had already come to take her away. Her newly insured bike was gone. “I was more panicked about getting my bike back than getting myself home. It makes me less comfortable, as a woman, riding with a bike.”
How to improve city bike safety – a conversation with Dennis Throstun Read more
When a cyclist is struck in Toronto, it’s not uncommon for the incident to make news. Every year, about 10,000 cyclists are injured, with 1,000 of them hospitalized. And most of the time, that’s what happened on Ovens’s night. Ovens had been approached by a security guard riding a motorcycle on a busy stretch of Highway 401. The man, who sounded drunk, had requested she exit the highway, at which point they began arguing, so much so that the guard tore her bike away and fled.
Ovens, who had recently been hit by another car (the motorist was never charged) and now has a full set of bruises, won’t forget this encounter. Her main takeaway is that this kind of incident happens frequently and happens without warning, in broad daylight.
More than 700 cyclists a year are injured on Toronto’s main streets, most often because they’re not well enough made for riding safely or because they don’t use far-enough advanced technology – lights, hubless fenders, bell or horns.
The city’s municipal police force, which polices both the downtown and wider, poorer-dense areas, makes up only 8% of Ontario’s entire police force. By contrast, in Toronto, highway patrol officers make up almost half of all police officers, with local courts rarely prosecuting either drivers or cyclists, although both groups have been shown to be involved in three out of four collisions.
Against that backdrop, Toronto police are particularly concerned about the bike commute in the city, in part because less than 10% of its small, poorly equipped police force can adequately protect that portion of the population. Between 2009 and 2014, a staggering 904 cyclists were killed in Toronto’s collisions, the vast majority of them in accidents with cars.
Ovens, who had only recently moved from rural Canada, had no idea she was not covered by a provincial cyclist-designated guard on the closed highway she passed. When she called her insurance provider, Ovens discovered she was not covered because she hadn’t lived in Ontario for 18 months.
Every day, I navigate traffic and city lanes. Drivers harass me and treat me like a dog
Ovens’s fight to get her bike back was upended by the few weeks of legal fuss that followed. After a long legal battle, Ovens finally got her bike back. But that might not have been the right thing to do for her, she said. “I wanted my bike back, and I got it back. But in reality, it’s an easy answer, and I would do the same thing. The right thing to do is not to give up, but you also have to be prepared for the case to go the other way.”
Ovens – now independent and drawn into activism to fight for street-safety improvements for cyclists – will continue to climb