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Opinion: The Toronto Sun telling cyclists to smarten up is paternalistic and privileged

The Biking Lawyer weighs in on a recent opinion piece critical of riders

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On Sunday, Liz Braun of the Toronto Sun wrote an article titled: “Cyclists need to smarten up when they’re on Toronto’s streets.” The article begins by asking a question: “When you’re out on your bike without a helmet, weaving in and out of traffic and running red lights, do you ever worry about the police? They worry about you.”

The author then does a shallow dive into road safety for cyclists. “Toronto Police have a whole wish list for cyclists, starting with the wish that you get home safe and sound every day,” she writes. “After that, the wish list includes mandatory helmets, proper lights, an education in the rules of the road and freedom from ebikes.”

The article then mentions that during the past three years, the police have given 1,076 tickets to bike riders, seemingly to infer that vulnerable road users are to blame for collisions with motorists. What wasn’t mentioned in the Sun piece were stats about how often vulnerable road users are hit by cars. A 2016 study revealed the disturbing frequencies of collisions by vehicles: cyclists and pedestrians are hit at a rate of one every two and a half hours.

Toronto’s David Shellnutt, also known as The Biking Lawyer, represents victims of traffic violence or collisions. After reading the article, he had some thoughts on the matter.

“Cyclists need to smarten up? What a paternalistic and privileged position to take,” he said. “It’s as if Braun has never driven a car. I had the unfortunate task of driving to a bike race near Port Hope this past weekend. On the highway, the number of lane changes made in front of me without indicating was the norm, not the rarity. Before I even got in my car, a Tesla drove through a stop sign causing me to yank my dog off the road on our early morning walk.”

While stats and figures of cyclists not having lights or bells are meant to shock, the stats and figures of motorists breaking the law dwarf those numbers, Shellnutt said. “As do motorists causing harm to pedestrians, cyclists and other motorists. The numbers aren’t even in the same stratosphere.”

“Braun feigns lamenting the war between cars and cyclists but her piece stokes the very flames that egg the car lobby on and encourage drivers to be aggressive around cyclists,” Shellnutt said.

Shellnutt, who commutes daily, has seen his fair share of bad drivers. “I have two bells on my bike. I ring them incessantly but I still get cut off and almost doored weekly,” he said. “That increases in the winter when windows are rolled up.”

In the Toronto Sun piece, Braun spoke to Police Constable Sean Shaipiro. “On a bike, you have to be the better person, more switched on and aware, because you are more vulnerable.”

This was an odd choice of words, Shellnutt thought. “Perhaps Constable Shapiro was misquoted, but his focus on cyclists being the authors of their own misfortune strikes the victim-blaming tone we’ve become accustomed to,” Shellnutt said. “It does nothing to call accountability to the real menace on our roads: motor vehicles. We need more articles like this, but about drivers and encouraging them not to maim and kill people in the thousands this summer.”