Commentary

Myth and Reality of Cycling and Safety

Too much of the car-vs-bicycle debate is overrun by myths and rank misinformation.

By Nicholas Kevlahan
Published October 01, 2009

The perpetual argument about whether cyclists or motorists violate traffic laws most frequently is not helpful - especially as it is usually backed up only by anecdotal evidence. This article debunks some of the common myths about cycling and safety.

Myth: Most car-bicycle collisions are the fault of cyclists.

Reality: At least in Toronto, in about 90 percent of cases the motorist causes the collision, according to to an analysis of Toronto police reports by University of Toronto professor Dr. Chris Cavacuiti:

While there is a public perception that cyclists are usually the cause of accidents between cars and bikes, an analysis of Toronto police collision reports shows otherwise: The most common type of crash in this study involved a motorist entering an intersection and either failing to stop properly or proceeding before it was safe to do so.

The second most common crash type involved a motorist overtaking unsafely. The third involved a motorist opening a door onto an oncoming cyclist. The study concluded that cyclists are the cause of less than 10 per cent of bike-car accidents in this study.

The available evidence suggests that collisions have far more to do with aggressive driving than aggressive cycling.

Clearly, trying to get cyclists to obey the laws is not going to have much effect if the vast majority of cycle/car collisions are the fault of motorists!

Myth: Cyclists aren't law-abiding road users like motorists. The police should crack down on them to prevent accidents and teach them a lesson.

Reality: Everyone should be able to agree that cyclists, pedestrians and motorists will flout laws or good practice when it feels safe and convenient, although which laws are flouted differs (e.g. motorists tend to exceed the posted speed limit, especially on freeways, and cyclists tend to disobey stop signs).

Instead, we should focus on reducing the violations likely to cause the most harm.

It should be obvious that when a motorist flouts the law - especially by speeding, which drastically increases the risk of death and injury - this is far more likely to cause death or injury than when a cyclist doesn't stop at a stop sign.

According to Statistics Canada, "From 2000 through 2004, 14,082 people died in a motor vehicle accident in Canada."

The Canadian Council of Motor Transport Administrators reports that in 2003 there were 2,778 deaths (including 378 pedestrians and 45 cyclists) and 222,260 injuries due to motor vehicle collisions. About 35 percent of drivers involved in fatal crashes had been drinking.

So clearly, we should be concentrating on serious violations like speeding and drunk driving which have been shown to actually cause death and injury.

While we can argue about which road users are most law abiding, we already know that motorists do in fact cause thousands of deaths and hundreds of thousands of injuries in Canada each year. This is where we should be focusing our efforts in enforcement and improved road design (to encourage lower speeds).

At the same time, we should also encourage cyclists to ride safely and improve infrastructure (e.g. by building cycling lanes) to reduce conflicts between motorists and cyclists. However, ticketing or licensing cyclists would not be a good use of limited resources if the goal is to reduce death and injury on the roads.

Myth: Cyclists don't pay for the roads and therefore have no right to use them.

Reality: Municipal roads are paid for out of property taxes, which are paid by all residents. Fuel taxes pay for freeways and highways that cyclists cannot use. As the Ministry of Transport's, Guide to Safe Cycling reminds us, "Bicycles are prohibited on expressway / freeway highways such as the 400 series, the QEW."

Myth: Bicycles are not vehicles.

Reality: The Guide states, "A bicycle is a vehicle under the Ontario Highway Traffic Act (HTA). This means that, as a bicyclist, you have the same rights and responsibilities to obey all traffic laws as other road users."

Myth: Cyclists must always stay as close to the curb as possible so motorists are not slowed down.

Reality: Cyclists should generally ride 1m from the curb "unless they are turning left, going faster than other vehicles or if the lane is too narrow to share", according to the Guide.

In particular, "In urban areas where a curb lane is too narrow to share safely with a motorist, it is legal to take the whole lane by riding in the centre of it," and "You may occupy any part of a lane when your safety warrants it. Never compromise your safety for the convenience of a motorist behind you."

Myth: Cyclists should ride on the sidewalk.

Reality: Riding on the sidewalk is illegal.

Myth: Cyclists can't be charged for disobeying traffic law.

Reality: The Guide reminds us, "Cyclists charged for disobeying traffic laws will be subject to a minimum set fine and a Victim Surcharge fine of $20.00 for most offences."

Nicholas Kevlahan was born and raised in Vancouver, and then spent eight years in England and France before returning to Canada in 1998. He has been a Hamiltonian since then, and is a strong believer in the potential of this city. Although he spends most of his time as a mathematician, he is also a passionate amateur urbanist and a fan of good design. You can often spot him strolling the streets of the downtown, shopping at the Market. Nicholas is the spokesperson for Hamilton Light Rail.

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By A sign of the times ... (anonymous) | Posted October 01, 2009 at 17:24:59

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By g. (anonymous) | Posted October 01, 2009 at 19:12:51

dear a sign of the times,

unfortunately, your comment is not the start of a debate. it is a good indicator of lower intelligence however. please try talk radio next time.

your sincerely,
g.

p.s. there is a good wikipedia entry on debate that you might want to look at. i would have said read, but i don't want to challenge you too much. baby steps.

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By A sign of the times ... (anonymous) | Posted October 01, 2009 at 21:04:55

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By A Smith (anonymous) | Posted October 02, 2009 at 05:51:10

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By rusty (registered) - website | Posted October 02, 2009 at 07:57:49

Great post. I'm sure even when you lay out the facts though, that some folks will balk at believing them. The 'them' and 'us' ethos between cyclists and drivers is deeply in-grained...

I have one point of contention with the piece - speeding. I don't believe there is a lot of evidence to support the notion that speeding contributes significantly to accidents. Speeding in residential neighbourhoods is a no-no obviously, but on the highways? So long as you've had your brakes checked and don't drive too close to other cars I fail to see how driving 20-30k over the limit is going to do any harm.

Cheers

Ben

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By kevlahan (registered) | Posted October 02, 2009 at 10:13:46

Rusty, that's exactly my point.

Most cyclists and motorists justify their rule-breaking based on social norms and their own perceptions of what's safe.

Anyone who drives on the QEW or 403 knows that the actual average speed is at least 120km/h (if traffic levels allow), and this flagrant flouting of the law is even tolerated by the police.

The fact remains, however that a crash at 130 km/h is much more serious than a crash at 95km/h (since the energy is almost twice as much). Of course, crashes aren't all that common so people don't think of this. In addition, at least on highways you are less likely to hit a pedestrian.

This is why I am mystified as to why people get all worked up about cyclists rolling through stop signs ...

If you look at police reports the two factors that come up again and again are speed and alcohol.

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By urban (anonymous) | Posted October 02, 2009 at 10:28:14

That's right Smith, bikes should get ticketed for impeding the flow of traffic, just like loaded trucks, backhoes and tractors, buses, streetsweepers (that are no sweeping even)... oh wait, my bad, NONE of those slow-moving road users get ticketed for going slow. I guess you have no point then.

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By A Smith (anonymous) | Posted October 02, 2009 at 10:59:55

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By despairing sci guy (anonymous) | Posted October 02, 2009 at 11:45:40

Who else guessed that an article that tries to take a fact based approach to the rediculous bicycle/car war would be overrun by comment trolls that ignore the reality and re-spew the myths? I think the real problem is our society is still full of magical thinkers. You can't convince them with facts and arguments because they literally don't know how to think logically. They see what they see and that's that. They know how to act like they're being logical like structuring their sentences in logical-sounding "if X and Y then Z" syllogisms but under the hood there's no reasoning going on. It's logical fallacies all the way down. Maybe it's not as bas as I fear and I'm just feeling depressed. But after listening to that interview with RTH and Scott Thompson and reading these comments above ^^ I wonder how much hope there is for us as a society to overcome our prejudices.

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By nobrainer (registered) | Posted October 02, 2009 at 12:03:46

Despairing sci guy, I feel your pain -- but I don't think it's as bad as it seems. Loudmouth talk radio dj's and internet trolls are good at making a lot of noise and hijacking the debate but their NOT the majority, don't let them drown out the sane voices that support bike lanes and sustainability.

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By A Smith (anonymous) | Posted October 02, 2009 at 12:24:59

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By grassroots are the way forward (registered) | Posted October 02, 2009 at 12:41:10

despairing sci guy: There is always hope to overcome the prejudices we find in society.

If we look at this post: If cyclists are the majority in Hamilton, why do so many more people drive cars? Is this some kind of secret logic that only people on the left are privy to?

I would like to know where taking a chosen political spectrum or side is a deciding factor whether one rides a bike or not? Some people like to ride, some ride because they care about the environment, others, well it may be their only form of transportation given financial constraints or tranportation issues, such as no bus service in a particular area. Some may not ride because of age or a disability or health issue.

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By mikeonthemountain (registered) | Posted October 02, 2009 at 13:03:55

"Face it, cycling is nothing more than a moderate improvement on walking. I know cyclists don't like hearing this, but that's reality and you know it."

What I know as reality is gathered data, so just for something to do over lunch break, here is some empirical data to falsify your argument. These are actuals gathered (except walking is extrapolated but I do a lot of hiking)

Commute to work from Hamilton mountain to Appleby and Harvester during rush hour:

Car via Kenilworth/QEW: Distance = 33km (odometer) Time = 45m Avg speed = 44kph

Bike via Jolley/York/Plains: Distance = 27km (gps) Duration = 1h05m Avg speed = 24.9kph

Walking: Distance = 27km Duration = 4.5 hours Avg speed = 6kph (brisk walk)

I'd say the bike is a lot closer to the vehicle than to walking. But that's not even the point, that was just for fun ...

Why would anyone want society run like the death star ... roads for speeding chariots with no other options, narrow scary sidewalks on which people get run over anyway, angry people devoid of compassion and sense always in a hurry to no meaningful purpose, and every other stupid thing we're doing ... it's better in the sunshine, I hope we smarten up otherwise this can't end well for any of us.

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By mikeonthemountain (registered) | Posted October 02, 2009 at 13:21:01

Forgot one:

Bike/Go Train/Bike: Distance = 30km Duration = 1h15m Avg speed = 24kph

From door to door, via GO, biking is the same. Faster if the train has any delay.

Moderate improvement over walking?

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By A Smith (anonymous) | Posted October 02, 2009 at 13:55:16

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By mikeonthemountain (registered) | Posted October 02, 2009 at 14:45:30

What do I think ... see the comment by despairing sci guy ... he's exactly right

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By Undustrial (registered) - website | Posted October 03, 2009 at 19:12:06

"I guess what I'm saying is that this boils down to evolution. In this case, cyclists are a dying branch of the evolutionary "transportation" tree."

That's why prices for bikes and bike parts have jumped by at least 30 percent in the last year? And why, in the meantime, prices for cars, used or new, plummeted in the same time?

Mark my words: the bicycle will outlive the automobile. Cars may be "faster" over long distances, such as the mountain to burlington, but I doubt anyone here could beat me door-to-door anywhere downtown. The speed of cars is a prime example of false economy, anyway, as cars tend to cost many times what bikes do and cost far more over their life (gas, insurance, depreciation, car loans and repairs versus inner tubes, tires and chains). Even if you drop $5000 on a bike and ride it heavily, the likely repair costs over the next 5 years are a fraction of what even one visit to the shop with a car often costs (hell, you could even buy a new $5000 bike a good chunk of the time). Bikes can be produced in very small workshops, out of less than 30lbs of material, from very basic stock (steel tubing, chains, some basic parts machining etc). Cars require vast factories. Cars require massive amounts of dwindling fossil fuels, or even more massive amounts of farmland. Bikes require no fuel. Cars contribute to horrific rates of illnesses related to sedentary lifestyles (heart disease, obesity etc) as well as smog, whereas bikes, in the absence of cars, tend to make their riders a whole lot healtheir. Cars cause virtually unavoidable sprawl because of the land requirements of parking, roads etc., and enable far more by their ability to travel large distances. Bikes, on the other hand, tend to help local communities because it's far easier to interact with passers-by on bikes than in cars. I could go on and on...

Roads are not made for cars, they are made for transportation. There were roads thousands of years before there were cars, and the notion that cars should be the exclusive users of roads is a far newer. We've already in many cases criminalized pedestrian use of roads (jaywalking, marching without a permit, "obstructing traffic" etc), to do the same to cars would be an absolute affront to public health.

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By lukey (anonymous) | Posted October 03, 2009 at 20:41:18

@ A Smith, despairing sci guy:

“There is more to life than simply increasing its speed.”
Mahatma Gandhi

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By A Smith (anonymous) | Posted October 04, 2009 at 07:03:31

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By Brandon (registered) | Posted October 04, 2009 at 08:15:33

An interesting concept. Prejudice being the fault of the victim of the prejudice.

Roads are maintained by property taxes, not gas taxes. Where do you think cyclists live? Do they all live in Toronto and then ride to Hamilton for its idyllic cycling environment?

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By A Smith (anonymous) | Posted October 04, 2009 at 09:56:01

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By JonC (registered) | Posted October 04, 2009 at 11:46:00

Your mom still pays the taxes for her basement, do I believe it is you, who should zip it.

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By JonC (registered) | Posted October 04, 2009 at 12:35:33

But in all seriousness. I originally came to post about this article about stop signs.

http://www.treehugger.com/files/2009/09/...

"It is ridiculous to complain about bikes going through stop signs when the system was designed to control cars. Fix it so that it works for both, saving fuel for drivers and ending this whine that bikes don't obey the rules when the rules were not written for bikes.

The road system was not designed for cars; it predates them. But it has been modified to adapt to and control cars at the expense of all other modes of transportation. If anyone in City Hall gave a moment's thought to the needs of cyclists, they would look for other means of traffic control than a stop sign every 266 feet. But they don't, and then people wonder why cyclists don't stop for the signs."

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By Brandon (registered) | Posted October 04, 2009 at 15:55:01

Alright, let me see if I get this. Essentially since cars are bigger than bikes and bikes inconvenience cars, they should get off of the road.

Does this mean that if we're walking you need to get out of my way if I'm bigger than you?

Might makes right is far from the best way to run any sort of system.

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By J Morse (anonymous) | Posted October 04, 2009 at 16:03:42

Quote: "one cannot reason with fools"

Which wise person in history was so perceptive? It's obvious. In order to reason with someone, they must be capable of understanding.

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By A Smith (anonymous) | Posted October 04, 2009 at 18:04:26

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By J Morse (anonymous) | Posted October 04, 2009 at 21:29:46

Bikes are allowed on highways. Bikes are not allowed on freeways, freeways were built for cars and trucks only. City streets, however, were built for people to use according to the laws that apply to them.

It's amazing that this debate always generates the argument for cars having ultimate supremacy on the roads. Shouldn't it be about the needs of people and not their choice of transportation mode? We tend to forget that cars have people in them, bikes have riders, and so on. The goal of these people are the same, getting from A to B. How can we allow that because cars are bigger and go faster that their drivers are more important than the people that aren't in cars. It's a form of discrimination.

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By sara (registered) | Posted October 05, 2009 at 00:38:43

Hi... Thank you for sharing such a nice information. I like this site very much. I will surely bookmark it for future use. Good Work! Keep it up!

jeu pour enfant

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By A Smith (anonymous) | Posted October 05, 2009 at 06:36:03

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By Brandon (registered) | Posted October 05, 2009 at 07:39:30

There are three kinds of drivers on the road.

The good drivers will never bother a cyclist as they are aware of them and respect their right to be there. I figure this makes up about 10% of the drivers on the road.

There are sociopathic drivers who feel that cyclists have no right to be there, in fact that their very presence, their daring to offer the slightest potential inconvenience to the naturally superior driver, is an insult that cannot be allowed to pass. The milder of these will yell "Get off the road", the worst will actively run you off the road. These make up about 1% of the drivers.

The other 89% are pretty much clueless. If the cyclist hugs the curb, they assume that they're being invited to pass. They have no real idea how fast a cyclist moves so will try and pass them to turn and accidentally cut them off. These drivers are the reason you always take the lane as you must force your presence onto their consciousness in order to be safe.

Bike lanes are designed to protect cyclists, who have the full legal right to use the road and take the lane as well, from the latter two groups.

A Smith, you don't want bikes on the road, get the law changed. Till then, argue with the lawbook.

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By A Smith (anonymous) | Posted October 05, 2009 at 08:15:41

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By zookeeper (registered) | Posted October 05, 2009 at 08:49:53

OK folks, if anyone still thinks ASmith is ANYTHING other than a persistent troll, then what will it take to convince you? Please stop feeding the troll, you only encourage it and you end up with a debate that goes nowhere, wastes everyones time and prevents useful discussion among non trolls. (xpost from copenhagen thread)

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By A Smith (anonymous) | Posted October 05, 2009 at 12:46:55

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By z jones (registered) | Posted October 05, 2009 at 13:48:27

So I gotta say, I sure am enjoying this new comment fading. If that makes me a shoe polishing lemming then lemme grab the Kiwi and I'll meet you at the cliff!

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By J Morse (anonymous) | Posted October 05, 2009 at 19:55:45

Let's not discourage people like A Smith from posting his somewhat extreme arguments. Being able to examine such viewpoints provides vital insight to the minds of the nothing-but-cars portion of our society. If our civilization is to be advanced beyond this odd phase of cities being built for cars instead of people, we need to know the nature of the challenges.

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By seancb (registered) - website | Posted October 06, 2009 at 11:31:49

Bike lanes benefit drivers too - because it reduces the number of instances a driver has to change lanes to pass a cyclist.

I love the roundabout arguments of the anti-cyclist. It always starts with: 1. "You have no right to be on the road, stop asking for special treatment. Just ride on the sidewalk or get a car or something." Then, because the laws (and society in general) support cyclists being on the roads, it moves to: 2. "OK well if you are supposed to be on the road, then why don't you ride in the lane like traffic does - and by the way, obey all laws - and stop asking for special treatment!"

Then in reality, when cyclists ride in the full lane and obey the laws, and the anti-bike driver gets "stuck" behind a law abiding cyclist, they get annoyed and revert back to argument #1.

And repeat for as long as the person hates bikes (usually forever). It is a no-win argument when you fight against a wall.

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By JonC (registered) | Posted October 06, 2009 at 13:02:36

You forgot the argument that there is no demand for cycling based on the current ratio of cars to bicycles on main street. It's like saying people hate swimming based on the number in Hamilton Harbour.

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By highwater (registered) | Posted October 06, 2009 at 13:23:19

J Morse wrote:

Let's not discourage people like A Smith from posting his somewhat extreme arguments. Being able to examine such viewpoints provides vital insight to the minds of the nothing-but-cars portion of our society.

If it were anyone but ASmith I would agree, but ASmith is not advancing an authentic pro-car viewpoint, he is merely an attention-seeking troll who wishes to damage the discourse on this site. You can tell his heart is not really in it this time because his anti-bike arguments have been even more absurd than his usual arguments. When it's his pet topic, he drags up lots of cherry-picked stats to twist around as only he can. He's not really trying on this one, he just wants to get a rise. Don't give it to him.

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By A Smith (anonymous) | Posted October 06, 2009 at 14:50:12

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By seancb (registered) - website | Posted October 07, 2009 at 08:19:24

I wasn't talking to you.

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By frank (registered) | Posted October 07, 2009 at 10:28:22

lol nice sean... yeeps. I find myself visiting less. I wish that comments would be scaled down as their downvoted. Until they're so miniscule that you have to copy and paste into a word processor to see them. That way I wouldn't have to scroll so far down to get to some sensible material...

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By frank (registered) | Posted October 08, 2009 at 09:43:54

They're* and I'm not sure what the yeeps was for lol. Wish I could edit my comments.

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By llb (anonymous) | Posted October 11, 2009 at 09:12:33

I suspect that the statistics quoted are misleading. When an accident involving a motor vehicle and a cyclist occurs it is deemed to be the fault of the motorist and the burden of proof is shifted to the motorist. Unless it can be proven that the cyclist is at fault the accident will always be the fault of the motorist. This was done for a variety of reasons including motorists have insurance which cyclists typically do not. Look for that to change in the years to come.

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By Con Black (anonymous) | Posted October 11, 2009 at 19:11:49

*it is deemed to be the fault of the motorist and the burden of proof is shifted to the motorist*

WTF? llb it is your interpretation that is misleading.

maybe this might occasionally happen in Holland. Not on this continent. Police don't have to find fault, and they are surely not out to preferentially defend cyclists in this city.

*it is deemed to be the fault of the motorist* generally because is IS the fault of the motorist!

Not because all drivers suck, only that they really do not appreciate the large difference in kinetic energy (mass times velocity squared) between vehicles and cyclists / pedestrians. Human sensory perception is logarithmic and will not appreciate that large difference unless the concept of kinetic energy (which is precisely related to trauma when things go wrong) is understood and frequently reinforced .

One must be a good student of physics to be a good driver.

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By JonC (registered) | Posted October 13, 2009 at 07:37:32

I remember that part of the traffic act, "Tie goes to the bike".
I wish people would at least make up plausible excuses for hitting bikes.

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