EDMONTON—In the debate over whether cyclists are safer travelling single file or two abreast, a the lack of research one way or the other suggests opponents are spinning their wheels.
On Saturday a local riding club was involved in a collision where a pickup truck struck and injured five of 15 cyclists on the Sherwood Park Freeway resulting in serious injuries and hospitalization.
RCMP said the cyclists were travelling two abreast as opposed to single file, which is against the law in Alberta. According to section 78 of the Traffic Safety Act, cyclists must ride in a single file unless they’re passing.
Following the accident, cyclists and advocates criticized the law, arguing that cycling in pairs is better for visibility while making groups easier to overtake on the highway.
Gail Wozny, president of Edmonton’s Juventus Cycling Club, is one of those voices, and argues that Alberta’s law is out of step with other jurisdictions where cycling in pairs is permitted.
Patrick Brown, a Toronto lawyer and Canadian representative of the Bike Law Network, said Ontario’s Highway Traffic Act allows group cyclists to travel two abreast, unless municipal bylaws specifically prohibit riding in tandem, and cyclists aren’t impeding traffic.
“Essentially, the way it works here, you are allowed to ride side-by-side in groups, provided that you allow — if you are slower moving — traffic to proceed around you,” Brown explained.
In 2013, he added, Toronto repealed a bylaw requiring cyclists to ride single file.
“I think the reason that the law changed is because people realize that in fact tandem riding was becoming more prominent and tandem riding in fact can be safer,” Brown said.
A 2012 report that looked at cycling training materials in Canada found that messaging telling cyclists to ride single file except when passing were not supported by scientific evidence.
Kay Teschke, a co-author of the report and professor emeritus at University of British Columbia called the issue a “red herring.” So long as cyclists are sharing roads with motor vehicles, the likelihood of collisions are higher, and consequences of human error, such as distracted driving and speeding, are more dire.
Furthermore, there appears to be no evidence to support either side one way or another.
“It’s a hard thing to study, and because its so hard to study, its more likely not to be studied,” Teschke said. “How do you know how much time bicyclist are riding double file versus single file? Someone needs to be gathering data, and that data is not just sitting there available for study.”
In addition to data on rider formation during crashes, which isn’t always collected, she said researchers also need to know how cyclists ride when there are no collisions.
“It’s possible to do that kind of study, but it’s extraordinarily expensive to do it,” Teschke said.
Without evidence to backup one side or the other, she added that the question of riding side-by-side or single file is immaterial to improving safety so long as automobiles are sharing roads with cyclist — the exception being a parent cycling with a child.
“If they’re ahead of you they don’t know what direction to go, and if they’re behind you, you can’t see them to know they’re OK,” she said. “No parent in their right mind would ride on an 80 km/h road with their child, but then that means you can’t travel with your child in rural locations.”
Rather than fretting over files, Teschke said the discussion of cycle safety should focus on three words: infrastructure, infrastructure, infrastructure.
“The problem is we don’t provide proper facilities for people cycling in places where traffic speeds are way too high to combine people on bikes and people in cars,” she explained.
“Our research and that of others have clearly shown that physical separation is much superior, has a much better safety record than putting people in high speed traffic.”
Annie McKitrick, an avid cyclist and Alberta’s Member of Legislative Assembly for Sherwood Park said she understands why some cyclists feel safer travelling in tandem, but reinforced that doing so goes against the law.
In the meantime, she’s working on a private member’s bill to tweak the Traffic Safety Act and give cyclists some leeway. Like other districts, including Ontario, the proposed changes would require motorists to give cyclists a one-metre buffer when passing.
“Especially with pickup trucks and transport trucks, when you’re driving close to the cyclists, you create a draft,” McKitrick said. “It’s very unnerving and it really puts you off balance.”
She’s waiting to see when the bill will be on the order paper, and continues to consult with cycling groups for input on the proposed change.