Globe & Mail

Spate of cycling deaths sparks fear in Quebec’s commuter culture

Les Perreaux

Montreal From Monday's Globe and Mail

Cyclists in Canada’s most bike-friendly province are riding in fear and disbelief after four riders were run down and killed in less than 48 hours.

Leading a group of a about 100 cyclists on a weekly 70-kilometre Sunday tour, Steve Abramson noticed a change in attitude this weekend among drivers, too, on the suburban streets and quiet country roads just west of Montreal.

“We noticed right away that drivers were suddenly extra careful, way more observant than usual, stopping to let us pass,” said Mr. Abramson, 77-years-old and a long-time member of the Club Cycliste Beaconsfield.

“It’s early in the season, so drivers still aren’t used to us being out there. It takes three or four dead to suddenly wake them up, it seems. It’s unbelievable. . . It’s scary, alright.”

A cyclist died after a collision on a rural highway in the Laurentian Mountains north of Montreal Saturday evening, on the heels of a ghastly accident south of the city on Friday in which six riders were run over, killing three triathletes and injuring three others.

Police reported the 44-year-old driver in the Saturday accident on Highway 117 near Val-Morin had two times the legal limit of alcohol in her bloodstream. Jacques Michaud, 57, died in hospital Sunday morning.

Alcohol was not a factor in the Friday accident involving six cyclists and a 29-year-old male driver. No charges have been laid as the investigation focused on driver inattention and the condition of the road.

The provincial government promised on the weekend to immediately pave the gravel shoulder on the busy secondary Highway 112, which was supposed to have been completed years ago.

“I have no doubt the lack of a paved shoulder played a role in this accident, but it’s truly an extremely exceptional, almost unbelievable event. I’ve never heard of anything like it in Quebec,” said Suzanne Lareau, the president of Vélo-Québec, after returning from her own Sunday ride.

While Quebec has a longstanding image associated with potholes and fast, reckless drivers, no other province has proportionally more cyclists or spends more money to make room for them.

Quebec has spent $200-million over 15 years promoting the sport and creating dedicated bike lanes, including the systematic paving of shoulders on small highways. About $88-million has gone into creating a 4,000-kilometre provincial network known as the Route Verte.

Municipalities have spent millions more creating their own networks.

More than half of Quebec adults identify themselves as cyclists who ride at least once a week, about 50 per cent more than the two provinces next on the list, Ontario and British Columbia.

Quebec has a critical mass of cyclists that makes the province safer for the sport than most places in North America, experts say. Quebec has had 12-20 deaths per year since 2000 – about a third the number of deaths in the 1980s, when there were about half as many cyclists on the road.

In Canada, about 52 to 73 cyclists died each year from 2003 to 2007 according to the most recent tally available from Transport Canada.

“Quebec is the envy of the rest of Canada, the province is much farther ahead in promoting the sport and reducing injuries and fatalities,” said Eleanor McMahon, an Ontario cycling safety activist. “Cyclists there have political champions, effective legislation, money invested, they’ve done so much to encourage the sport.”

The Quebec accidents were all cyclists were talking about in Burlington, Ont., where Ms. McMahon was wrapping up her Sunday ride.

“We really do have a shared vulnerability. Do you know of another pastime where you pack ID before you head out on the road in case you get run over and don’t see your loved ones again?” said Ms. McMahon, who founded the bike safety lobby group, Share the Road, after her husband, OPP Sergeant Greg Stobbart, was struck and killed by a vehicle in 2006.

Riding in a group dramatically improves cyclist visibility. Multi-bike accidents are rare but trigger a shockwave when they happen.

In 2008, two bicycle tourists were killed and two others injured when they were struck by a Honda Civic on the Trans-Canada Highway in Manitoba – a province where paved shoulders are rare on rural highways. Manitoba is one of the shortest stretches for cross-Canada cyclists, but it is often cited as being among the scariest.

Last summer, five cyclists were struck but survived after a hit-and-run near Kanata, a suburb of Ottawa. Charges were laid against the vehicle drivers in both cases.