Transport Canada to look at bike safety benefits of truck side skirts

Renata D’Aliesio

The Globe and Mail

Published Wednesday, Nov. 07 2012, 1:14 PM EST

Canada’s transport regulator is assessing whether aerodynamic side skirts attached to trucks to boost fuel efficiency could also save lives in road crashes by preventing pedestrians and cyclists from falling beneath the bone-crushing big rigs.

The question is a key one and adds a new twist to the long-standing debate about whether the country should follow the example of Europe and Japan and require truckers to install side guards, which are heavier than skirts and often a drain on fuel but are specifically designed to protect people.

Ontario Chief Coroner Andrew McCallum made the case for these guards this summer and again in September after analyzing the circumstances of 224 cyclist and pedestrian deaths. The coroner pointed to a National Research Council (NRC) report, completed for Transport Canada, that noted cyclist deaths and serious injuries involving the side of trucks dropped substantially in the United Kingdom – deaths by 61 per cent and serious injuries by 13 per cent – after side guards were introduced.

Transport Canada, for its part, has continually rejected calls for a side-guard regulation, saying there isn’t adequate evidence to suggest the guards would significantly improve safety in Canada.

Not long ago, though, the regulator had planned to study side guards as rigorously as it is now examining side skirts, show government documents obtained through access-to-information legislation.

Those plans and several draft recommendations were shelved. According to Transport Canada spokeswoman Kelly James, the NRC study “did not provide sufficient justification to warrant further testing.”

Ontario deputy chief coroner Dan Cass finds the regulator’s position on side guards disappointing. Still, Dr. Cass, who led the probe of cycling fatalities, is encouraged that Transport Canada is looking at the possible safety benefits of side skirts. Working with the NRC, Transport Canada plans to start a cold-weather analysis of skirts this fall, a test that is expected to span two winters.

“This is an issue that obviously has grabbed a lot of people’s attention,” Dr. Cass said, adding he would support skirts if they prove as effective as guards. “Anything that’s done to try and improve public safety and lessen the likelihood of more cyclists being caught under the rear wheels of trucks … is a positive step in my mind.”

The contentious side-guard debate flared up last Nov. 7 with the death of Toronto cyclist Jenna Morrison. Ms. Morrison, who was five months pregnant, was on her way to pick up her five-year-old son from school when her bike collided with a truck turning right. Falling beneath the gap between the truck’s front and rear wheels, Ms. Morrison was crushed to death. Her family and friends believe a side guard could have made the difference between life and death.

They’re not alone. Between 2006 and 2010, 18 of the province’s 129 cyclist fatalities involved heavy trucks, with half of the victims dragged, pinned or run over by rear wheels after striking a truck’s side, the Ontario coroner review revealed in June. Side guards might have prevented these deaths, the coroner concluded.

For now, however, Transport Canada has no plans to resurrect its shelved side-guard study. After completing a look at countries that regulate guards, the NRC, a government agency, was planning to do a second phase of study that involved testing the effectiveness of different types of guards, but Transport Canada nixed that review. The NRC had also proposed a series of “next steps” in its phase-one draft. Those recommendations, however, were dropped from the final March, 2010 report after a review by Transport Canada.

According to the draft, also obtained through access-to-information legislation, NRC’s recommendations included performing crash tests with dummies to determine whether side guards can prevent serious injuries to pedestrians and cyclists and evaluating how the guards perform in heavy snow and ice. Another recommendation proposed the creation of a green trailer program to offset the added weight of the guards.

NRC declined to speak about its side-guard research, directing questions to Transport Canada. Ms. James of Transport Canada said the draft recommendations were not included in the final NRC report because “the draft report made it clear to Transport Canada that side guards were not demonstrated to be substantially effective or beneficial.”

There are other factors at play, too. The regulator is conducting a cost-benefit analysis of requiring side barriers on trucks. It has also raised the side-guard issue with the U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. With thousands of trucks streaming across the border daily, the two countries have pledged to harmonize their truck regulations. The United States does not require side guards and is not pursuing research or proposing a regulation on this front, Ms. James noted.

The Canadian Trucking Alliance, which is opposed to making side guards mandatory, won’t comment on Transport Canada’s study of side skirts until it is complete. The organization believes other safety measures, such as adding bike lanes and enhancing share-the-road education campaigns, would be more effective than regulating side guards.

But for Ron Freeman, a cyclist whose pelvis was crushed by the rear wheels of a furniture-delivery truck, installing side guards is part of the solution. A dozen years after his accident in Toronto, he still wonders whether a guard would have reduced the severity of his injury. He has undergone 10 surgeries and expects he’ll need another hip replacement soon.

“Had there been a side guard in place on the trailer, I would not have been crushed,” Mr. Freeman said. “My life would be different.”

Bicyclist and pedestrian casualties involving a heavy truck in Canada, 2004-2008

Cyclist fatalities
Total: 53
Known side: 6
Possible side: 4

Cyclist injuries
Total: 689
Known side: 114
Possible side: 166

Pedestrian fatalities
Total: 145
Known side: 7
Possible side: 6

Pedestrian injuries
Total: 1,080
Known side: 81
Possible side: 121

Source: Transport Canada