On Canada and “Common Sense”


As I pedaled onto the two-lane highway the onus of my actions gathered like a thunder cloud. On that summer day in 1995 I had brought my wife along with me on a tour of Nova Scotia. We had ridden out of Halifax for a day of touring and lighthouses and sea food in this Maritime Province.

Then we realized we were due to ride 10 miles on a road with no shoulder and a precipitous drop off to the right.

I work and advocate for improved bike facilities but by practice I am a “vehicular cyclist.”  I firmly believe I deserve to be on the road as a vehicle and ride accordingly. I also have a semblance of courtesy for others; I ride to the right to allow motorists to pass with ease. I only use “lane blocking” when road conditions require such actions. This may be perceived as obnoxious to some motorists. Or it may perceived as illegal by some local constabulary who make up rules on the fly, often citing “common sense.”

In this circumstance, however, my cycling was not just MY cycling. For behind me was a Burley with my one-year-old son. With mid-summer tourism in full swing, this highway choked with Canadians in laden station wagons, campers, and towing all sorts of trailers. I braced, white knuckle, for the rage and fury and fear.

I gasped to think that my mission-based lifestyle had put this baby into harm's way. I braced for the honks of horns. I steeled myself for the insults and complaints. I readied for the certain confrontations. I even rode with a constant eye on the precipitous drop to the right to plot an exit should it be required.

And then....





Not a word. Not a horn. Not a single close call.

Then it struck me...They were Canadians!

Aside from what they did with bacon, those friendly folks to the north have somehow managed to create a driving culture that is far calmer that ours.

Here is a country that is so similar to ours in so many ways. And while bike nuts pine for Dutch and Danish engineering, Canada has a highway and roadway system that is remarkably similar to ours. So how come they are so much more patient than us?

Transportation is so much more than simply engineering. Enforcement and education prove equally – if not more – significant in fostering a safer streetscape for all users. In short, we get what we tolerate.

Or sadly, in my beloved state of Massachusetts, we get what we celebrate.

Consider the term “Masshole.” Locally we kind of embrace the moniker with pride. We love our sports teams, our revolutionary heritage, our competitive educational system, and our HTFU attitude. But when I looked up the definition of Masshole, what I discovered shocked me.

Turns out, the rest of the world views the definition of Masshole in a singular definition: a dangerous and rude driver. And we're selling T-shirts and bumper stickers to celebrate this. One can only imagine the heads held in shame over at the Office of Travel and Tourism. “Come see the 'Spirit of America' and get honked at, insulted, cut off, and threatened.”

Recently I was on Congress Street, near the Tea Party bridge on Congress Street, stopped at the center lane for a red light, when a driver pulled up in the right-turn-only lane and stopped. Horns lit up behind her as she ignored the green-turn arrow.

With her window half down, I politely said “You know you are in the turn lane.”

She blithely looked up, shrugged, and said, “It's Boston.”

When I first arrived in Boston in 1983 folks felt the same way about such things as segregation and murder. Hooligans not only ruled the streets, some got jobs writing for newspapers. Driving habits are perhaps the last vestige of that attitude.

Perhaps you are chuckling. But there is high price paid, both here and nationwide.

In 2012 we had more than 36,000 people die in traffic fatalities nationwide. Our friends to the North? They had just 2,075 traffic fatalities in Canada. When measured as fatalities per 100,000 citizens we hosted 11 funerals while Canadians only had to attend six, about half as many.

In his book Hot Flat and Crowded: Why We Need a Green Revolution – And How it Will Renew America, Thomas Friedman of The New York Times makes a lot of interesting arguments. His most compelling statement is that American consumer behavior is a force of global change. He is correct. After World War II, most of the world initially sought to emulate the U.S.A. in all things from Coca-Cola to Disney to Ford. And that included an attempt at high-speed automobile infrastructure.

By the end of the 1960s, however, the Danes, the Dutch, the Germans and the rest of Europe put on the brakes to this behavior.

Go to Europe today. Hold a cell phone in France and drive. They will not just stop you; they will draw automatic weapons. Pull over at the rest stop in Italy and see dozens of folks standing at cafe tables eating....There is no drive-through because eating while driving is not tolerated, let alone encouraged in advertising. And a group of cyclists in Spain rarely hears the honk of a horn.

And the results?  Here you go.

The Scandinavians have nearly eliminated traffic fatalities, with a traffic death per 100,000 of 3 or less.  In 2012 Norway had just 145, Sweden has 287, and Denmark just 165.

In Germany, the home of Porsche, Volkswagen and BMW, they had 3,520 traffic deaths and a rate of 4.3, for which they are embarrassed.

Canada, where I started this piece, had a death rate per 100,000 of just 6, with 2,050 total. One of the things that helps in Canada is a lot of messaging and education. Study this piece, for example, which the Canadian Automobile Association, working with that country's Share The Road Alliance, created this public service announcement.

Now back in my beloved U.S.A. we are ranked 67th in the world. We advertise cars showing them in four-wheel drifts and getting airborne. I suppose we should take some comfort knowing we are safer than the global average of 18 deaths per 100,000 citizen.

The data shows some true horror shows out there. With 1.24 million traffic fatalities worldwide in 2010 that comes down to a traffic death every 25 seconds.

China with a traffic death rate of 20.5 held nearly 276,000 funerals for victims of traffic violence. India had more than 238,000.

Ponder that. That is nearly half of all the world's traffic fatalities in two countries.

Over a third of road traffic deaths in low- and middle-income countries are among pedestrians and cyclists. And here is the rub: Less than 35 percent of those countries have ANY policies in place to protect those users.

So that logic, what some refer to as “common sense,” is get-the-hell-out-of-the-way. In short, the policies of too many countries is to “yield up.” If your idea of quality of life is in such places as Eritrea, Uganda, Nigeria, Venezuela and Brazil, those are the policies you wish adopt.

Our friends in Mississippi, Montana and North Dakota posted the same death rate as such socio-economic icons as El Salvador and Rwanda. In transportation terms, Afghanistan is safer than Mississippi!

We should take some pride that Massachusetts, with just 6.3, had the lowest death rate per 100,000 of all states with the exception of the District of Columbia. That's right, we did better than Oregon and Colorado and California.

What is curious is that DC is effectively a single city, where one using “common sense” would expect to see a more dangerous environment for pedestrians and cyclists that has a fatality rate on par with the Netherlands. Any recent visitor to DC will report a lot of engineering, but an equally impressive degree of enforcement. This writer has been popped for speeding via a camera. Run a red light, make a U-turn, or simply speed – all of the things we tolerate in Massachusetts – and you'll be stopped and ticketed. They adopted a “yield down” policy, which is proven effective in Europe.

This matter truly comes down to what we choose to tolerate.

This all came to mind when we received an e-mail here at MassBike from a Brookline resident. He asked us a question regarding a situation he encountered while riding with his Burley trailer containing his 2 year old son along Walnut Street, a secondary road in Brookline parallel to Boylston Street (Route 9) and a popular corridor for bicyclists. He was stopped by a local police officer for using a lane blocking technique, after being passed too close for comfort by a number of motorists. To him, it seemed the safer move, well within his legal rights on the road, but the officer cited that whatever the legalities are, that “common sense” dictated that he should right as close to the right as possible at all times.

Now we understand that this tactic may create a temporary inconvenience for motorists.. But when these same motorists are blocked by garbage trucks doing pick-ups, beer trucks making deliveries, a backhoe en route to a job site, or a bus with commuters, they idle in silent surrender. But heaven forbid a father with a two-year-old should get in their way.

That is what we call “common sense.” But common sense is malleable; advertising, lobbying, and law enforcement can warp what makes no sense into something that is common.

The true irony here is that the Town of Brookline focused on Walnut Street in 2003. That's when they hired engineers and implemented all sorts of traffic-calming designs on that road.

As the report states in its overview:
“The town of Brookline is committed to improving the livability and safety of its neighborhoods by mitigating the impacts of traffic and promoting safer conditions for residents, motorists, bicyclists and pedestrians.”

Unfortunately nobody in the Brookline Police Department got the memo. And this is the rub. We can pass the best laws. We can hire the best engineers. We can make the most lofty public declarations.

But it comes down to a poorly trained cop who mistakenly believes his mandate is to move people quickly instead of moving them safely.

Note: The Brookline Police Department did not respond to our repeated requests for comment.

Update 4/28/15: Via twitter The Brookline Police Department responded with the following to our post:
"Nice story, save this # 617-730-2603 or 2253 for comments next time. We work will with cyclist."

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