John Ducker: All road users have role in keeping safe

A trial in North Vancouver this past April saw a motorist acquitted of charges around the 2019 death of a cyclist who was killed by the sudden opening of a car door. Knocked to the ground, the cyclist was propelled underneath the wheels of a massive transfer-style dump truck and died instantly.

The acquittal happened because the judge was not satisfied that witnesses were able to clearly identify the driver who allegedly opened his door. The witnesses were also uncertain about the actual vehicle involved in the incident. As there was reasonable doubt about the driver and vehicle involved, the judge did not rule on whether the door opening itself was unsafe. Lawsuits in civil court are still pending.

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This tragedy probably led the B.C. government last summer to quadruple the fine for “dooring,” or, more technically, opening a door into traffic when not reasonably safe to do so, to $368 from $81.

Finding blame is not the point here. It was actually the post-trial media coverage that brought this incident to mind. As part of their coverage, TV media showed a few jarring video clips from some other dooring incidents captured by cyclists’ helmet cams. They showed the danger and suddenness of how tragedy can occur when a car door is opened into the path of a cyclist. These videos and the huge rise in the fines might make you believe that car drivers now bear an inordinate amount of blame for this problem. However, they shouldn’t and they don’t.

While these news clips clearly showed cyclists flying off their bikes from bone-crunching door strikes, they glossed over the moments that also showed those cyclists illegally passing the cars whose doors struck them.

As the number of cyclists within the Capital Regional District grows, a strong understanding of the rules and responsibilities for cars and cyclists using the same roadway is more important than ever. B.C. motor-vehicle law states explicitly that cyclists bear the same rights and responsibilities as car drivers. B.C. courts have also made it very clear that cyclists and motorists must share our roadways and each will bear proportionate blame for their mistakes, despite cyclists often receiving much more serious physical consequences.

This road-sharing relationship was well explained in a B.C. Court of Appeal case about a cyclist versus car crash in the CRD and reported in the Times Colonist in 2017.

The cyclist was heading north on Admirals Road, at speed, passing by on the right of vehicles stopped in the afternoon rush hour. The cyclist rode on a fairly wide strip of pavement to the right of the white painted shoulder line. We see this happening every day. There’s room to pass so why shouldn’t a cyclist take advantage? The problem is that this strip of road, which was not specifically marked as a cycling lane, is considered as the shoulder of the roadway and not a lane designated for travel.

Near an intersection along that stretch, the northbound driver of a large truck stopped sufficiently to create a gap that allowed a southbound car to turn left into a small street and, unfortunately, directly into the path of the northbound cyclist. The cyclist struck the left-turning vehicle, was thrown over the hood and severely injured.

At trial, the civil court judge ruled that even though the cyclist was passing illegally on the right, the left-turning driver should have accounted for the large truck blocking visibility and used more caution while turning as the northbound cyclist approached along the shoulder. The car driver was initially found 100% at fault and the cyclist awarded $500,000.

The appeal court saw it differently. The justices ruled that a cyclist who proceeds at speed without slowing or stopping while approaching an intersection and while passing on the right “is not discharging his duty to ride with due care and attention and with reasonable consideration for others using the highway.” Both car driver and cyclist bore responsibility for the crash. The cyclist’s award was cut in half.

It’s clear the courts are saying everyone on the road has a role to play here. Cyclists need to start with the mindset that they are less visible and shouldn’t just ride right through any road or traffic scenario simply because they can. Car occupants must constantly do shoulder and mirror checks and use the “Dutch reach” technique with the hand farthest from the door to pull the handle.

Using small habit-changing tasks such as these every day might save you or someone else from life-altering injuries and death. In our Admirals Road case, ignoring them cost someone a quarter-million bucks.

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