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Legal Ease: Quebec Highway Safety Code requires updates

Winter is over, the bicycles and joggers are out. The pedestrian-cyclist-motorist competition for road space has begun. Which pedestrian has not almost been hit by a rogue cyclist? Which cyclist has not almost been hit by an opening car door? What motorist has not almost collided with a cyclist trying to pass on the right?

The rules of the road for motorists, cyclists and pedestrians are set out in detail in the Quebec Highway Safety Code, which provides rules governing traffic lights, stop signs, vehicle equipment, signaling, permits, etc. The Code emphasizes the obligation of the pedestrian, cyclist or motorist to yield the right of way. One example of this is that motorists and cyclists must yield the right of way to a pedestrian crossing a roadway facing a steady, white signal representing a walking figure, a flashing pedestrian light or a green light. Anyone who walks in Montreal knows this does not always happen.

Another example is the provision that no person may open the door of a car until it has stopped and the driver has ascertained that it is safe to do so. Some motorists seem to have a problem with this, resulting in injured cyclists.

In November 2013 following three fatal bicycle accidents in Montreal, the coroner’s office suggested to the Quebec government that the Quebec Highway Safety Code be modernized and adapted to the realities of today. Quebec invited about 30 organizations to form a discussion group. From this came several reports containing recommendations for changes.

The philosophical basis for the suggested changes is the introduction of the principle of prudence. Although the principle of prudence is inherent in the existing Highway Code, these reports emphasize that the new rules must provide specifically for respect for the most vulnerable users of the roads.

The principle of prudence was set out in the Vienna Convention of 1968 and has been adopted in Belgium and France. It states that drivers must establish great prudence with regard to the most vulnerable categories of users such as pedestrians, cyclists, children, and older and handicapped persons.

The greatest prudence is to be exercised by the user who can cause the greater damage to the other as the result of an accident. In other words, the motorist must protect the cyclist and the pedestrian, and the cyclist must protect the pedestrian. Each user has his place on the road no matter how he travels and other users must respect that right.

Many rules contained in the Highway Code date back to the 1970s when use of bikes was much less frequent than today. Opinion is that new rules are required which will result in a harmonious and fair sharing between all road users.

Some specific changes have been suggested. One pertains to the rule that in no case may a cyclist ride on a sidewalk except where necessary or where so directed by a sign. It is proposed that this law be changed so that certain underground passages, bridges and aqueducts are defined as cases of necessity, as well as all situations which make using the road difficult and insecure for the cyclist. Another change suggested by some groups is that bicycles should be subject to registration similar to that of motor vehicles.

The Highway Code permits municipalities to make their own rules of the road and the City of Montreal has come out with its own list of recommendations based on the overall precautionary principle that drivers are to watch out for more vulnerable forms of transport, including cyclists.

The City would permit the “Idaho stop,” which would allow cyclists to treat stop signs like yield signs. In the hope of reducing the problem of “dooring,” it would no longer require cyclists to stay on the far right of the road. It would require passing cars to stay at least one meter from cyclists, increase penalties for Code violations, include cyclists in Highway Safety Code prohibitions on cell phones, screens, and headphone use, allow cyclists on the sidewalks in specific cases, for safety reasons and allow cyclists to ride in designated bus lanes. Most importantly it would increase reflector requirements on bicycles and require that trucks be equipped with special devices such as lateral truck guards to improve the driver’s capacity to detect cyclists.

What the City does not recommend is mandatory helmets for cyclists, “Idaho stops” at red lights, removing the requirement that cyclists make hand signals before turning, and making snow tires mandatory for bikes.

In spite of the law that those who can cause greater damage yield to the more vulnerable, the Principle of Prudence and the obvious need to share, motorists continue to speed while talking on their cell phones, cyclists ignore lights and stop signs, and pedestrians run across the road on red lights and in the middle of the street.

Whether we walk, drive or cycle, common sense requires that we exercise prudence and that we yield our right of way so as to protect the most vulnerable and minimize damage.

We could even co-operate and help each other in the war against a common enemy, namely potholes. The twisted ankle, the fractured arm, the broken axle are evidence of a danger which we all share and against which we can unite together as we learn to live in harmony and to protect and respect each other.

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