The Cycle Life

Dump Trucks, Apparently, Have the Right of Way Over Bikes

Cyclists are badly hurt or killed in crashes with cars in every major North American city with regularity. Surely their lives mean more than maximizing the productivity of dump trucks.

Dump Trucks, Apparently, Have the Right of Way Over Bikes

Let's keep giving cyclists the right of way. Photo: fazon1/iStock

On a sunny Thursday morning in downtown Ottawa, Nusrat Jahan pedaled eastbound on Laurier Avenue toward school. It was early September and the 23-year-old had just recently begun taking classes at Willis University. Jahan, the youngest child of a Bangladeshi diplomat, had moved with her family to Ottawa three years earlier and hoped to become an accountant. 

That stretch of Laurier has a protected bike lane, a narrow strip of tarmac guarded by a short concrete curb that ends just before the busy intersection with Lyon Street. It was around 7:45 a.m., the morning rush. The light was green and she intended to pedal straight through the intersection. 

She never made it. As she approached the intersection, a dump truck with a white cab and red bed came up on her side and made a right turn. One witness at the scene, a woman who worked nearby, told a reporter that she heard a “very loud” braking sound followed by a scream. Jahan was struck and then crushed. (A typical three-axle dump truck weighs more than 33,000 pounds empty.) Paramedics pronounced Jahan dead at 8 a.m.  

The grinding realities of such a shocking incident, one that’s painfully familiar to urban cyclists, played out in the next week. Rallies and Facebook tributes and politicians hitting the right notes of tragedy. Family and friends gathered at a local mosque for a memorial service and a burial followed. 

Local cyclists and advocates had every reason to feel simmering outrage. Just a week earlier, another cyclist, a 24-year-old woman named Justine Charland St-Amour, had been killed by a dump truck in a Montreal intersection. And in Ottawa, two other cyclists were in critical condition after being struck by cars the same week as Jahan’s death. 

It is easy to categorize the resulting fury as a local or regional issue, but the sad truth is that tragedies like this—with cyclists badly hurt or killed in crashes with cars—play out in every major North American city with regularity. Here in Los Angeles County, where I live, at least 24 riders have been killed this year alone. The death toll in New York City so far this year is 17, already higher than all of 2015. I have read about dozens of nationwide cases in which allies have rallied to the defense of police officers, truck and bus drivers, and teenagers who have struck and killed cyclists and pedestrians—arguing that these people should not be charged for a crime because it was an “accident” or because the driver was on the job. And more often than not, serious charges never come.  The easiest way to get away with killing someone in North America is to hit them with a car.

Perhaps because tensions were so high in Ottawa, justice was served. Eight days after Jahan was killed by that dump truck, the driver, a 38-year-old man named Steven Bruce Conley, was charged with criminal negligence and dangerous driving causing death. These are serious changes; a conviction of the latter charge could bring a life sentence. Conley was released on bail and told to appear in court on October 3. 

But outrage truly hit full boil this past Monday, when a man named Ron Barr did a radio interview with a CBC affiliate. Barr is the general manager of the Greater Ottawa Truckers Association, an organization that calls itself “the voice of the dump truck independent operators in the Greater Ottawa region.” In that interview, Barr questioned the severity of the charges Conley was facing and portrayed the crash as an accident. “Any time we hear charges like that, it’s pretty drastic for our industry,” Barr told Robyn Bresnahan, host of the show Ottawa Morning. “So just to make a mistake and do a right-hand turn, and to have those kind of charges levied, it's pretty heavy damage.”

He neglected to mention that Conley made what cyclists call a “right hook” directly in front of a road sign warning drivers to look for cyclists. 

Barr did, however, mention that Jahan was pedaling with the right of way, and then declared that he would like to see that changed. “What amazes me is that the bikes have precedence over trucks or vehicles,” he said. “Because let's face it: I never believed that a bike should be equal to a truck. The tie goes to the truck every time, so we've got to use some provisions to make sure they're back, and that trucks have the right of way when they're going to turn right at certain designated corners.”

So essentially, Barr implied, dump trucks should get the right of way because they weigh 33,000 pounds empty. 

But Barr, seemingly aware that he was on the radio 11 days after Nusrat Jahan was killed, was not done unloading. “If I’m not at the table discussing with the bikers, we cannot be relegated to second or third class on the road,” he declared. “There’s no question about that. We need to move the city. Without a truck, nothing moves. That's all.”

The translation: Trucks deliver clean fill and important documents and pallets loaded with breakfast cereal and thus should take precedence over cyclists and pedestrians. 

I have not talked to Ron Barr so I can’t confirm whether he ever has heard of the international movement called Vision Zero. I doubt it. The core principle of Vision Zero, which has been adopted in some fashion by such U.S cities as New York, San Francisco, and Chicago, is to develop a roadway system that aspires to have no deaths or serious injuries. Rather than embrace a cost-benefit analysis that justifies occasional deaths as acceptable collateral damage, Vision Zero codifies that nothing is more valuable to society than people’s lives and health. And yet we live at time in which this seems provocative. 

What bothers me most about Ron Barr’s comments is knowing in my heart that they reflect sentiments that millions of people in our car culture hold dear or relate to. These sentiments underlie the complex reasons that many drivers hate cyclists. Folks want to get to the office or soccer practice as quickly as possible. They want to deliver goods in the most efficient manner possible. They want plentiful parking spaces and they want to peek at their Instagram feed. They don’t want to deal with pesky and seemingly unpredictable cyclists and pedestrians mucking things up. 

The cultural embrace of these ideals is leading to a lot of memorial services. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration last month published its annual overview of roadway-related deaths, and the trends are disturbing. In 2015, a total of 818 U.S. cyclists were killed by collisions with cars; another 5,376 pedestrians died due to crashes. Both numbers are about 10 percent higher than the past year and the highest figures recorded since the mid-90s. If anyone needs more rights and protections, it’s the people riding bikes and walking around town. 

It is too late to save the life of Nusrat Jahan, who surely perished in a flash of terror and pain. Like Jahan, every one of the 6,194 cyclists and pedestrians who was killed by a car last year had a life and a future that was cut short. Surely their lives mean more than maximizing the productivity of dump trucks. 

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