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  • Madeline Kerr

Sharing is caring when it comes to the road

For a cyclist on the road, a little bit of compassion can go a long way.

This is the message Andy Ball, co-chair of SAFE Chelsea – a group for Hills residents to share experiences and ideas related to active transportation in the community – wants to send to drivers on regional roads this summer.

Ball said he wanted to help address misconceptions and negative stereotypes about cyclists that continue to be prevalent on social media.

SAFE stands for Sustainable, Active, Fun, and Equitable and Ball is one of the founding members of the group, which got its start five years ago.

According to Ball, rhetoric on Facebook is sometimes dehumanizing of cyclists, and this has the potential to make motorists less likely to recognize the humanity of cyclists they encounter while driving. Although he said he believes it is a small minority of individuals engaged in conflict online, he finds the trend worrying.

“No cyclist is out there trying to bother drivers — that’s not their intention,” he told the Low Down recently. “These are our friends and neighbours,” he said, adding that “cyclists are people who just want to get home safely.”

Ball said he thinks attitudes have changed over the last 20 years and that drivers are generally more respectful when passing cyclists. But, he maintains, there is one common mindset that needs to change.

“I think drivers have the mentality: ‘Must get ahead of bike,’ but that’s the wrong way to think about it,” he explained, emphasizing the importance of slowing down when approaching cyclists on the road and waiting until the next left lane is completely clear before passing. He said he has seen cars drive into oncoming traffic to get around a cyclist, rather than waiting until it's safe to pass.

“It will slow you down a few seconds, maybe 30 seconds at the most,” he said.

The Québec Highway Safety Code requires drivers to reduce their speed when approaching someone on a bike and to give at least 1.5 metres distance when passing cyclists on any road with a posted speed limit above 50 km/h. The same code requires cyclists to ride as far to the right as possible and maintain single file when cycling in a group, although Ball said he believes that this is not always possible or safe.

Ball told the Low Down that he will occasionally ride his bike in a traffic lane, as opposed to the shoulder, if it means he will be more visible to drivers. He also said he believes that Québec’s rule prohibiting cyclists from riding two abreast is “an outdated law that is detrimental to safety.”

He cites a tweet from Ottawa Police in 2021 that endorses side-by-side riding. According to the tweet, “[riding two abreast] forces vehicles to properly overtake…instead of trying to squeeze by too closely in the same lane. In larger groups, it also allows drivers to overtake the group faster by not having a long line of cyclists in a row.”

It’s important to note that The Ontario Highway Safety Code does not include a single-file rule for cyclists, as Québec does.

Beyond changing hearts and minds, Ball said he believes that local infrastructure in the region has to improve in order to protect cyclists.

“Painted lines on the road don’t keep anyone safe,” he pointed out, adding that he would like to see more protected bicycle lanes like those along Notch Road in Chelsea. Intersections also need to be redesigned to consider cyclists, according to Ball. He cites the collision of a car and three cyclists at Meech Lake and Kingsmere Roads in Chelsea this spring, which left two of the cyclists injured, one of them seriously.

According to the Société de l'assurance automobile du Québec (SAAQ), 14 cyclists were seriously injured between 2017 and 2022 in the Outaouais, with between one and four per year, as reported by the CBC.

Online, and in the pages of this newspaper, some members of the community have voiced frustration with cyclists, who they say do not comply with road safety rules and put themselves at risk.

The Low Down spoke with one resident, Jennifer Hesketh, a cyclist herself, who expressed her concern about groups of cyclists on winding roads such as Highway 105 north of Wakefield. She said that safety needs to “go both ways,” but added cyclists frequently behave like the roads belong to them alone.

“They have the priority, or that’s what they think, at least,” she said.

According to the organization Vélo Québec, the province as a whole has seen an uptick in the number of cyclists in recent years. Here in the Hills, cycling – whether it be road, gravel, or mountain – has long been popular.

Sylvie D’Aoust, founder and president of CyclefitCHICKS in Chelsea, said she hopes to do more to capitalize on the fact that the region is a “destination location” for cyclists by organizing larger, multi-day riding events. She said this could be a boon for the local economy, as visitors will dine, shop, and rent a room for a few nights. But D’Aoust said she feels strongly that the general attitude of the community would need to shift towards embracing group cycling.

Both Ball and D’Aoust expressed that they would like to see the number of cyclists in the Hills continue to grow.

“I encourage people to get out and try it for themselves,” said Ball, adding that he said he feels fortunate to live, and be able to cycle, in a place of stunning natural beauty.

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