A Cost Too High
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A Cost Too High

How the tragedy of Jenna Morrison's death could, and should, have been prevented.

It’s every cyclist’s worst nightmare: you come to an intersection alongside a gigantic truck, and as the light turns green, you both ease forward. But as you crank towards that first gear change, still wobbly as you gather momentum, the truck is already half its length into the intersection. It’s slowly turning right, directly into your path. With its enormous blind spot, or because the driver’s attention is fixated on traffic approaching from the left, he or she can’t see you; you make contact.

Maybe the side of the larger vehicle just brushes against you as you’re moving forward, but that’s all it takes. Suddenly you’re swaying, struggling to maintain balance. The truck’s still turning, picking up speed, and as the space between you, the truck, and the curb narrows, you feel that unsteadiness pulling you to the left.

In altogether too many cases, the most recent of which being the morning of November 7, 2011, the story ends there.

The tragedy of Jenna Morrison casts its shadow over Toronto’s cycling community for a lot of reasons. The 38-year-old died Monday morning at the corner of Dundas and Sterling, an intersection notorious among cyclists. The heartbreak of a young life cut brutally short is bad enough, especially when children are involved (Morrison had one small child and was pregnant with a second), but what makes it so palpably, infuriatingly overwhelming is the knowledge, shared and sometimes shouted by others, that it shouldn’t have happened at all.

“I’ve heard many people in the aftermath of this issue saying, ‘I’ve always thought that was a really dangerous zone,'” Yvonne Bambrick, urban cycling consultant, told Torontoist, “and I’m sure it’s been identified to City staff by cyclists that are regularly in the area.” As any cyclist familiar with the neighbourhood is aware, the intersection is near where College Street meets Dundas, ascending over the rail line into Roncesvalles, with confusing turns, a cross-hatching network of streetcar tracks to trip up cyclists, and frighteningly blind corners. “There’s a lot of heavy traffic, truck traffic, that comes in and out through Sterling as well,” Bambrick adds, “just because of the industrial nature of the space down there. There’s been a number of collisions in and around that area, specifically the Dundas/College/Lansdowne triangle.”

This density of industrial traffic in the area and elsewhere underscores another way that Morrison’s death could have been prevented, highlighted by years of advocacy, official endorsement, and a startling lack of government initiative: the installation of side guards, or “under-run guards,” on trucks this size. When Jack Layton first made the push for a thousand kilometres of bike lanes in Toronto, it was after two identical deaths in 1996. Recommending that Transport Canada move forward with the initiative, the regional coroner for Toronto, in a 1998 report, pointed to the status of side guards as a compulsory, beneficial requirement in the United Kingdom and Europe. “I never failed to be surprised by the fact that, during my time in Canada, I rarely if ever saw a semi with side underrun bars attached,” says John Ivory, an Irish ex-pat and medical science student, and also a long-time former Toronto resident. “You never see trucks here in Ireland without side and back under-runs.”

Locally, the campaign to see side guards on Canadian trucks hasn’t lost any steam. Before the case of Jenna Morrison, an accident outside the Gladstone in 2006 had Torontoist, among other publications, calling for their immediate introduction. Mike Layton shares the goal at the council level. “I like this idea of making trucks install these,” he told us. “It can be pretty scary when you’re next to a big truck.”

Notably, Dave Meslin has been on the front lines of this issue for years. A local activist and co-founder of the Toronto Cyclists Union, he was an early arrival at the scene of the tragedy. “That is the most frustrating thing,” he told us, addressing the decade-plus foot-dragging over the installation of side guards. “I spent a lot of time at the site, beside the truck, and the gap on that truck is so high. You can almost walk underneath these trucks; they’re four or five feet off the ground.” Considering the side guards’ proven effectiveness, stories like Morrison’s, he says, are “totally, one hundred percent avoidable.” But in their absence, cyclists remain vulnerable.

“If you lose your balance and fall to your left,” he says, “you’re toast. Nothing will help you.”

But even with stories like Morrison’s over the last 13 years, cyclists are still pressuring their government to act on the issue, albeit with prominent support. In May 2006, Olivia Chow, then co-chair of the Toronto Cycling Committee, presented a petition to Parliament to have the use of side guards legislated nationwide. As MP for Trinity-Spadina in 2010, her efforts were renewed with her seconding of a private member’s bill, C-512, which died after its first reading when the government fell in March 2011. Starting from scratch, she presented a letter earlier this week to Denis Lebel, Conservative MP for Roberval-Lac Saint-Jean and Harper’s minister of transport. Demanding that “Transport Canada finally make truck side guards mandatory,” she condemned the Ministry’s position that “side guards would result in ‘decreased competitiveness for Canadian trucking companies.'”

This, despite years of vociferous support from cyclists, activists, and the Ministry’s own statistics showing that 19 per cent of all bicycle fatalities in Canada involve heavy trucks. (The Toronto area coroner’s report found the rate to be 21 per cent in the city.)

Punctuating the tragedy, this happened during the first year that Toronto has seen a net loss of bike lanes, Meslin noted, sacrificed for similarly shallow, cynical purposes. At one level, we have the resistance of a federal government to what may be the least costly of infrastructure changes; at the other, the willingness of a municipal government to compromise cyclists’ safety in the name of efficiency. Torontonians, and indeed Canadians, are under governments preoccupied with the wrong numbers.

One cyclist died on Monday. That should be the only number that matters.

Advocacy for Respect for Cyclists (ARC) will hold a memorial bike ride for Jenna Morrison on Monday, November 14, starting at 7:30 a.m. at Bloor and Spadina. The ride will arrive at Dundas and Sterling at 8:00 a.m., after which a ghost bike memorial will be installed.

A trust fund has also been set up for Morrison’s family. TD Bank customers can make a donation using branch number 0246 and account number 637 2358. All others can send donations via their own banks, using the following information: transit number 02462, institution number 004, account number 02466372358. The name associated with the account is Kimberlee White. To donate by phone, call TD EasyLine Banking at 1-866-222-3456.