Special Report: Cycling

Police Enforcement Should Prioritize Risk, Not Annoyance

Evidence-based policy making means focusing resources where they will have the greatest harm reduction, not taking sides in the cars vs. bicycles culture war.

By Nicholas Kevlahan
Published March 07, 2013

A letter by West Town Crime Manager Scott Moreton of Hamilton Police Services states that the police are targeting cyclists in West Hamilton under a four-week "bicyclist enforcement program" called "Project Trauma Prevention". The letter reads in part:

Through information received from the area residents, local politicians, as well as the observations made by the police, it is evident that disobedience concerning the rules of the road for cyclists is a common occurrence that imposes a heightened risk on the safety of motorists, vehicle occupants, cyclists, and pedestrians. [emphasis added]

Ugh! Why is traffic law enforcement targeting only low-risk road users, i.e. cyclists, rather than high risk road users, i.e. motorists?

Have there actually been serious accidents in Westdale caused by cyclists not obeying the rules, or is it once again motorists and residents upset as a matter of principle by (student) cyclists 'flouting the rules'?

It seems this is another instance of some Westdale residents trying to get back at students for being 'disrespectful' and disrupting 'their' neighbourhood.

I can certainly believe that cyclists regularly disobey certain rules - as do motorists, although not necessarily the same ones cyclists disobey - but I have real difficulty imagining that this disobedience "imposes a [significant] heightened risk on the safety of motorists, vehicle occupants, cyclists, and pedestrians".

It is the actions of motorists that impose a significant risk on all road users. Most cyclist disobedience is annoying, but relatively low-risk to other road users.

The statistics bear this out: about 2,000 Canadians are killed and 20,000 are seriously injured by motorists each year; whereas injuries and deaths due to cyclists are statistically negligible. According to a study at the University of Toronto:

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.

As has been pointed out over and over, motorists break traffic rules all the time as well: almost no motorists come to a full stop at stop signs on Sterling either, and I've seen motorists speeding on Sterling and King Street in Westdale many times, as well as motorists running the red at Sterling and King.

I hope that the Hamilton Cycling Committee will object strongly to the selectivity of this strategy and insist that any education and enforcement strategy is applied to all road users, prioritizing those who pose the greatest real risk, and not those who residents find the most annoying.

Evidence-based policy making means focusing resources where they will have the greatest harm reduction, not taking sides in the cars vs. bicycles (or resident property owners vs. students) culture war.


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 cyclist (anonymous) | Posted March 07, 2013 at 17:03:26

There is a serious double standard at work here. When I come to a complete stop, I piss more people off than when I just slow down at stop signs. When I come to a complete stop, the person behind me has to wait longer, and if there is cross traffic approaching, their wait is lengthened too.

If there is a car behind me, I actually feel more threatened by coming to a stop than I do by slowing a bit and proceeding when safe. When I come to a stop, motorists ride right up onto my "bumper", or they swing way out and do a rolling stop around me. This often accompanied by aggressive engine revving, serving to notify me that I shouldn't have the gall to hold them up for 5 seconds.

Motorists say "cyclists should stop at signs" with their mouths, but their actions indicate otherwise.

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By cyclops (anonymous) | Posted March 07, 2013 at 17:24:57 in reply to Comment 87103

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By SpaceMonkey (registered) | Posted March 08, 2013 at 02:57:28 in reply to Comment 87105

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By cyclist (anonymous) | Posted March 07, 2013 at 20:05:58 in reply to Comment 87105

Not trying to justify anything, just giving a dose of reality to those who might not have experience obeying the law from a cyclist's perspective.

The police would do themselves a world of good if they rode plainclothes on unmarked bikes to get a sense for how real cyclists are treated.

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By keiff0rz (registered) | Posted March 10, 2013 at 01:40:29 in reply to Comment 87115

Guess what? Police are real people too. And some, actually lots of them cycle. They are well aware of how cyclists are treated on the road. Police enforcement targets all violators. Sometimes there is a focus on a particular action ie. seat-belts, cell phones and yes even cyclists. Enforcement does not always mean a ticket is given; sometimes violators are simply educated as to their wrong-doing.

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By Kiely (registered) | Posted March 07, 2013 at 19:22:15 in reply to Comment 87105

We have too many stop signs. Other countries (Australia for example) seem to get by with more yield signs than we do without any death and carnage ensuing.

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By Pxtl (registered) - website | Posted March 07, 2013 at 20:39:18 in reply to Comment 87111

I've honestly never seen a yield sign in Ontario other than a little highway-style ramp slip thingy (and drivers don't seem to realize those apply to pedestrians too).

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By GrapeApe (registered) | Posted March 07, 2013 at 17:16:54

To be honest, I think they are targeting a large problem and not taking sides. As cycling transit grows I think we will (and do right now) see the bulk of cyclists going to/from McMaster. Frankly I think if something is not done then someone will get killed -- cyclists are most at risk. Yes our motorists do need better education, but some cyclists are doing very dangerous and stupid things. Complete streets would go a long way to solve this and I think it's good that the police are bringing attention to the issues.

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By ViennaCafe (registered) | Posted March 07, 2013 at 18:13:13 in reply to Comment 87104

I think this is another case of this: http://raisethehammer.org/blog/2545

Roads are designed for cars; not cyclists and not pedestrians. Design the roads for cyclists and pedestrians as well as cars and we will see few problems.

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By 1234 (anonymous) | Posted March 07, 2013 at 18:02:49

If you look at some European countries where the automobile driver is automatically charged with a crime where there is an accident involving a cyclists. Then the driver must prove that they where not at fault and that they did everything reasonably possible to avoid it. This is because they recognize the power imbalance and vulnerability that exists between a person riding a bicycle and a 2 ton moving machine. The consequences and implications of any collision to the cyclist is obvious. There is a real need to for our policy makers to acknowledge this fact.
It just makes sense that we should find ways to encourage bike usage instead of marginalizing, radicalizing and to continue to criminalize that activity further by tax paid police stopping them from doing what is perfectly legal in Idaho. Rolling through a stop sign.

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By LOL all over again (anonymous) | Posted March 09, 2013 at 12:51:03 in reply to Comment 87106

Not so different from our laws. In Ontario if there is an accident involving a vehicle and a cyclist and/or pedestrian the vehicle is assumed to be at fault. If the eyes of the police at the scene there is no basis for a conviction then a charge is not laid. The onus is on the driver to prove his innocence. Kind of ass backwards from the rest of our legal system, taking into account the potential for vehicles to inflict damage.

This standard is pretty widespread around the world. I have not heard of countries that charges are laid automatically in an accident though it might exist.

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By kevlahan (registered) | Posted March 07, 2013 at 18:17:38 in reply to Comment 87106

Not to mention that motorists also roll through stop signs, at least when there is no other car at the intersection.

For example, at Hess and Duke during the evening rush hour I've noticed most cars barely slow down at the stop sign before turning left at Duke to head towards Queen. They treat it like a yield sign, and no one seems to get upset.

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By Stickler (anonymous) | Posted March 07, 2013 at 18:39:24

I happened to have to go into the central police station and there is a huge sign behind the front desk, with numbers of traffic fatalities for the year of 2012. The cyclist deaths were over 4 times those of the motorists deaths, something like 21 to 4. The number of cyclists deaths, compared to motorists deaths blew me away. I assume this is why they are focusing on this and if so, I agree with attempting to lower the number of cyclist deaths, but the approach is definately not inclusive. I agree the roads need to be made much more cyclist (and pedestrian) friendly. I would never cycle here in Hamilton, but I would in cities like Montreal, where the roads and cars are much more cyclist-friendly...however as a pedestrian in Montreal, cyclists can be dangerous...many do not pay attention to red lights and numerous times, I was almost run over by cyclists zooming through red lights. "1234" I couldn't agree more.

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By SpaceMonkey (registered) | Posted March 08, 2013 at 03:00:28 in reply to Comment 87110

Although cyclists deaths are higher, it doesn't mean that the cyclists were at fault for their deaths. I'd be more interested in seeing whether it was cyclists or motorists who caused those deaths. Whichever group is higher is the one that should be targeted.

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By kevlahan (registered) | Posted March 07, 2013 at 19:27:05 in reply to Comment 87110

Those statistics surprise me ... either 2012 was a very unusual year, or perhaps you mis-remembered.

The figures for 2009 and 2010 show that in both 2009 and 2010 there were 12 motorist fatalities (driver or passenger) and 2 cyclist fatalities.

In 2010 there were 48 major injuries for motorists, compared with 10 major injuries for cyclists, and 910 minor injuries for motorists, compared with 74 minor injuries for cyclists.

Overall, in 2010 2146 motorists were injured or killed, while only 142 cyclists were injured or killed. And don't forget that most of the cyclist injuries and fatalities were due to collisions with vehicles. Any way you look at it, vehicles are the major risk factor, and the number of motorists killed and injured far exceeds the number of cyclists killed and injured, by a factor of 15.


Comment edited by kevlahan on 2013-03-07 19:28:04

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By Kiely (registered) | Posted March 07, 2013 at 19:31:18

Ugh! Why is traffic law enforcement targeting only low-risk road users, i.e. cyclists, rather than high risk road users, i.e. motorists?

Huh??? Motorists have been targeted by these types of "blitzes on X" for years. Welcome to the club bicyclists.

If you want to see bicycling treated as an equal form of transportation Nicholas you may have to accept it being subject to the same laws and enforcement tactics as motorists. I certainly wouldn’t be expounding your exceptionalism to motorists… those are the minds you’re trying to change right? Or are we preaching to the converted here?

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By kevlahan (registered) | Posted March 07, 2013 at 22:46:00 in reply to Comment 87113

Of course, I meant "why is this particular campaign targeting only cyclists, and implying they pose an especially high risk".

There are good reasons why other enforcement campaigns exclusively target motorists (why would a speeding blitz target pedestrians or cyclists? drunk driving is a much greater threat to others than drunk walking or drunk cycling). And this exclusivity is justified by the level of risk a speeding or drunk motorist poses to other road users (including their own passengers).

I feel the same way about the campaigns the police have mounted in the past targeting pedestrians "jaywalking" in downtown Hamilton.

These campaigns are ineffective because they focus on the least risky users of the road network, and they haven't been shown to change the behaviour of either cyclists or pedestrians.

Comment edited by kevlahan on 2013-03-07 22:46:19

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By kevlahan (registered) | Posted March 07, 2013 at 20:27:01 in reply to Comment 87113

If we had unlimited resources, I would agree that we could put equal efforts into enforcement against drunk driving, stunt racing and cyclists rolling through stop signs.

However, we don't have unlimited resources. So I vote for using our limited resources were they will produce the greatest harm reduction.

We also need to remember that many rules are just not appropriate for cyclists, and are really only aimed at motorists (e.g. a speed limit of 60 km/h).

By the way, I am extremely rule abiding and don't mind enforcement personally, but I'm looking at the overall effect and the skewed priorities.

And once again, motorists break the laws in ways that are far more risky for other road users, and they do it blatantly, just a blatantly as cyclists. What proportion of motorists exceed the legal limit of 100km/h on the 401 when they can?

Comment edited by kevlahan on 2013-03-07 20:31:40

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By A Faithful Reader (anonymous) | Posted March 07, 2013 at 20:03:51 in reply to Comment 87113

I look forward to Nick's next article when police set up a speed trap, camp out at a stop sign, or beef up RIDE checks.

Oh wait, that happens all the time.

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By kevlahan (registered) | Posted March 07, 2013 at 20:30:33 in reply to Comment 87114

Uh, my article argues precisely that these enforcement activities are a better use of police time than a 4-week campaign against cyclists rolling through stop signs due to the risk they pose. We need more enforcement of motorists because of the higher risk driving poses to motorists and other road users.. What is your point?

Comment edited by kevlahan on 2013-03-07 20:35:25

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By Pxtl (registered) - website | Posted March 07, 2013 at 20:32:49

Honestly, I think the biggest step to improving cycling safety in Westdale isn't worrying about cyclists blowing through all-way stops (since traffic is generally going slow enough that the worst that can cause is some angry words exchanged) but the generally poor lighting on these bikes. It constantly boggles my mind that bike shops sell vehicles that are not legal to ride at night on Ontario streets. So many cyclists are practically invisible on the road. I'm not asking for reflective vests, just get the mandatory reflectors or magnetic tape and some front and rear lights on your bikes. Seriously. But either way, these days a set of front/rear LEDs are so cheap you could have bylaw officers flag down cyclists and give them away.

Comment edited by Pxtl on 2013-03-07 20:35:49

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By kevlahan (registered) | Posted March 07, 2013 at 20:34:23 in reply to Comment 87122

I agree entirely: why are bikes allowed to be sold without the full set of safety equipment required by law: bell, front and rear reflectors, front and rear lights for riding at night.

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By bikehounds (anonymous) | Posted March 08, 2013 at 15:51:13 in reply to Comment 87123

This is an unfortunate problem with the fundamental view of bicycles in North America. In Germany, for example, there are very specific bicycle lighting rules that go as far as specifying light output and beam pattern - just as with cars. In North America, the bike is considered a recreational vehicle, so lighting is an afterthought.

Another problem is that most aftermarket lights are too dim, too flimsy, too easy to steal and end up being borderline useless.

A proper lighting system would be made of good materials and would be permanently attached to the bike, instead of being lashed on with elastics or crappy plastic clips.

At one point, we had GST exemption for "bikes under $1000", in order to encourage people to buy bikes for commuting. The price limit was to avoid people getting a break on very expensive recreational bikes. This policy clearly showed a lack of understanding on the part of the province as it is very easy to spend over $1000 on a good commuting bike - or cargo bike, etc. We lost this perk when HST came in, but maybe there is a better opportunity here...

What would be interesting is if we tweaked our bicycle lighting laws to be stricter in terms of the light output - and then offered a tax incentive to purchasers who buy bikes which include lighting systems which meet the criteria. We would see more proper commuter bikes available with integrated lighting systems which run from the front hub, as most European bikes do. And it would be a much better way to differentiate between recreational and utility bicycles.

We have built up several lighting systems for dedicated commuters, but it is generally more expensive than most people can stomach. To retrofit a recreational bike with a proper system involves buying a new hub, lacing it to a rim and then investing in the light itself, with costs running into the hundreds. If a bike includes these from the start, they are MUCH more affordable. But since these aren't often available here, many people can't get them even if they want. Yet this is the kind of system the ministry of transportation should be throwing their energies behind. Not those single LEDs running off a watch battery.

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By Pxtl (registered) - website | Posted March 07, 2013 at 21:45:07 in reply to Comment 87123

To be fair, the bell is only useful on trails, and isn't relevant in this context. A bell can't alert anything but a pedestrian to your presence, and the only pedestrian path you should eve be biking on is a recreational bike path, not a sidewalk. So I don't give a darn about the bell.

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By AnjoMan (registered) | Posted March 08, 2013 at 14:22:30 in reply to Comment 87126

They also help if the car in front of you happens to have their window open...

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By moylek (registered) - website | Posted March 08, 2013 at 01:03:03

In the past two days - that's eight times up and down Sterling - I've seen a cop car with it's lights flashing five times.

Each time, the officer had stopped ... a car.

Take from that what you will.

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By Michelle Martin (registered) - website | Posted March 08, 2013 at 01:17:27

For the sake of accessibility, for those on foot or who travel using mobility devices who have other limitations including visual, hearing and cognitive disabilities (or a combination of two or three), it is crucial that all moving vehicles, including bicycles, behave in a predictable way, following all traffic laws, signs and signals. You may know what you are doing if you roll through a stop sign, but a pedestrian does not, and it can throw a person off in a way that increases risk for them, or indeed prevents them from traveling independently in their own neighbourhood due to fear and discomfort, especially if they have any or some of these limitations.

Comment edited by Michelle Martin on 2013-03-08 01:21:48

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By kevlahan (registered) | Posted March 08, 2013 at 13:08:09 in reply to Comment 87131

I agree entirely that cyclists should be sensitive to the fact that their unpredictable behaviour can be scary and surprising to the elderly and those with certain disabilities.

Cyclists should never ride on sidewalks for this reason, and if they are going to roll through stop signs (which I also do not agree with), they should not do it when pedestrians are trying to cross.

The same could be said of joggers, whose behaviour, weight and speeds are similar to that of most urban cyclists. Many elderly pedestrians are similarly upset by joggers quickly and closely overtaking them on the sidewalk as they are worried about being thrown off balance or hit.

However, it needs to be recognized that even this disrespectful cyclist behaviour poses a much lower risk to pedestrians than the actions of motorists, which kill up to 10 pedestrians and injure 200 pedestrians (especially elderly pedestrians) every year in Hamilton.

What I disagree with is the idea that cyclists (or jaywalking pedestrians, or speedy joggers) are dangerous menaces to public safety. It just isn't borne out by the facts (or the physics).

Comment edited by kevlahan on 2013-03-08 13:08:26

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By Mainstreet (anonymous) | Posted March 08, 2013 at 11:41:43

It would be totaly unfair to to hold people that have lived a life of selective responsibility to be held accountable now.After all, crybabying to get their way has worked up till now,so why fix it if it ain't broke.Women and children first,but mostly adult children.

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By g. (anonymous) | Posted March 15, 2013 at 08:12:38 in reply to Comment 87136

mainstreet, not ALL car drivers are selectively responsible crybabies; some also chose to cycle.

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By Robin (anonymous) | Posted October 29, 2013 at 14:16:16

The last time I road my bike to campus a van cut me off in an intersection while I was obeying traffic laws at King and Cline. I could have been very seriously injured and I am still very shaken up about the event. I would rather see Police laying fines on drivers who are not exercising caution around cyclists.

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By moylek (registered) - website | Posted October 29, 2013 at 14:47:34 in reply to Comment 93910

I would rather see Police laying fines on drivers who are not exercising caution around cyclists.

The HPS are doing another cycling scoff-law project around McMaster and Westdale in the coming weeks (in response to resident complaints about riding on sidewalks, running stop lights, etc.). Interesting to note that when they last did one of these in the spring, they ended up ticketing more motorists than cyclists.

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