Just a few of the hundreds of cyclists who took to downtown streets last September in an impromptu memorial for Darcy Allan Sheppard. Photo by Andrew Louis/Torontoist.
“If we can establish that a car is being used for the unlawful purpose of street racing,” read the news of June 21, 2007, “we will seize it and you will never see it again. We will crush your car; we will crush the parts.”
The quotation’s source was commenting on the death of David Virgoe, a truck driver killed by street-racing youths on the 400 that summer. “He was a total good guy,” said his brother to the Star, adding, “That’s who it always happens to.” Virgoe’s evasive driving, the OPP concluded, likely saved the lives of others. Struggling with his northbound tanker while avoiding southbound traffic, cut off by the madly careening racers, Virgoe slammed into the centre guardrail before finally losing control, plunging down an embankment.
The grandfather of five died a hero.
Virgoe’s death, with others, brought the issue of street racing into sharp relief, sparking a law enforcement maelstrom intended to curb the use of automobiles as multi-tonne joyriding bullets. We were inundated overnight with news about which driver was apprehended where and at what speed. We were soberly reminded that our streets, for reasons of negligence as much as youthful recklessness, can be deadly shooting galleries. That aforementioned quotation was repeated across a spectrum of media: “We will crush your car,” read headlines and abstracts, “We will crush the parts.”
The cowboy resolve behind those words was that of Michael Bryant, then–Attorney General and a rising star of Ontario’s legislature, the embodiment of a government apparently fed up with the whole issue, all but promising that the gloves had come off with respect to dangerous driving of any kind.
Two years later, Bryant found himself on the wrong side of his own policies: handcuffed in the back of a police cruiser in Yorkville, apprehended for the August 31, 2009 death of Darcy Allan Sheppard, a thirty-three-year-old bicycle courier. The details of the incident, familiar if not lucid to most Torontonians, were the subject of immediate controversy. Some claim that Bryant was attacked by Sheppard, the courier clawing at the steering wheel as Bryant desperately tried to shake him off. Others attest that Bryant’s westbound Saab appeared to deliberately target mailboxes and trees on the east side of Bloor, a wild, cross-lane manoeuver meant to knock the clinging courier from the driver’s side door.
Police pored over forensic evidence and surveillance tapes to see which outcome was the real one. Bryant stared stone-faced into the lenses of the national media, his legal experience serving him well. Sheppard, meanwhile, who fell at high speed following whatever altercation took place, died from his injuries.
To some, Sheppard died a hero, like Virgoe; to others, not so much.
Sheppard, born into poverty in Alberta, later a troubled would-be comic with a history of alcoholism and substance abuse, was the posthumous target of widespread scrutiny for his lifestyle and whether or not it contributed to his death. Already fractured along divisions like those between cyclists and motorists, the city’s response was evenly split between those who lionized Sheppard and those who vilified him. Cyclists occupied the intersection of Bloor and Avenue in mourning and protest, a jangling cacophony rising from their bells as they called for justice and recognition as equal stewards of the road. Others took his drug use and drinking as evidence that Darcy Allan Sheppard, in contrast with the sparkling, buttoned-down success of Michael Bryant, suffered only the inevitable. Like anyone caught in the path of a moving vehicle, they suggested, Sheppard—an icon, for better or worse—didn’t stand a chance.
A man on the perceived fringes of society in conflict with its upper echelons, a class war epitomized. Cars on one side, bikes on the other, and never the twain shall meet. And when they do, critics noted, the supposedly even meter of justice will invariably tilt in favour of the heavier, costlier, dirtier machines with four wheels.
With one of their own lost, it’s hard to blame cyclists for feeling this way, seeing conspiracy in everything. After all, cyclists, fully exposed to the elements and the impact of every vehicle—in ideally figurative terms—become convenient whipping posts for motorists, many of whom attribute their own angst to the pesky, obstructive presence of bikes on their roads. Some motorists point fingers at cyclists for sailing through stop signs, or for having a similarly cavalier attitude toward the rules drivers follow, despite their incomparable physics. A dangerously reactionary attitude engendered in both parties results, with cyclists accusing motorists of a cavalier attitude for the former’s lives.
It’s a circuitous Cold War of the streets, and with the consequent altercations that happen every day on the checkerboard gridwork of T.O., most going unreported to either police or the media, the likelihood of another Bryant–Sheppard incident grows.
“Our conclusion is that Mr. Bryant had been attacked by a man who unfortunately was in a rage,” said Richard Peck, a B.C. prosecutor brought to handle the case. “In such circumstances,” he said, alluding to Bryant’s actions, “he was legally justified in attempting to get away. The case could not be proved.” Adding that he wasn’t trying to “demonize” Sheppard by raising the issue of substance abuse, Peck nonetheless indicated that alcohol, drugs, and psychiatric problems lead to six prior altercations, indicating “a pattern of escalating behaviour with motorists leading to the fateful incident.”
Bryant, meanwhile, speaking to press in Toronto on May 25, assured his former constituents that the preceding nine months had not been a “morality play” of rich versus poor, cyclists versus motorists, or anything other than a simple matter of “twenty-eight seconds that changed everything.”
Still, despite the focus on a man whose meteoric rise was evinced in his rhetoric of June 2007, waging all-out war on the use of cars as potential weapons, the political history of Michael Bryant has been entirely lost. Here’s a politician with the terrible evidence of what happens when a car, guided less by a brain than by octane spiked with adrenaline, forces a tractor trailer off an Ontario highway. We’ll never know for sure what went through Bryant’s head for those few seconds at the end of last summer, but with an angry or fearful foot on the accelerator, ignoring or forgetting the obvious difference between a car and a ten-speed, he used his vehicle’s inertia to force a thirty-three-year-old man into the other lane, to the curb, and ultimately, to his death.
To many, Sheppard didn’t die a hero. But the young courier’s death, like that of anyone killed when their thirty-pound bike comes into contact with a two-tonne car, was the result of dangerous driving, propelled by the same recklessness for which Bryant would have seen a hundred Hondas mangled beyond repair. Even in self-defence, as Peck insisted it was, a car used to allegedly fling a human being to the sidewalk is still being used as a brutally disproportionate weapon, and it sets an unacceptably dangerous precedent for every other cyclist in Toronto.
If nothing else, the memory of Darcy Allan Sheppard deserves recognition of that much.