Ghost Bikes and Bike Safety

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Last Updated on June 30, 2021 by Cory Kawa

With more kilometres logged this year than last, it’s safe to say that, for me, 2020 has been the year of the bike. While spending so much time on the bike, I’ve been thinking more and more about the dangers of the sport, and the importance of bike safety.

Going down this rabbit hole has caused me to self-reflect, and further research, what the best practices exist to protect ourselves, the best ways to ensure we are seen, and how do we change driver perceptions towards cyclists.

Ghost Bikes and the Dangers of Cycling

I started down the rabbit hole late last month, when I discovered this newly installed Ghost Bike, on Keele Street just north of King City.

If you are not familiar with the term, Ghost Bikes are roadside memorials setup where a cyclist has been killed or seriously injured. 

Ghost Bike for Daniel Bertini located on Keele Street a little north of King St. in King City
Ghost Bike in Memory of Daniel Bertini

I remembered seeing a blog post, about this exact bike and decided to learn more about it when I got home.

Via the Biking in a Big City blog, I learned that this particular Ghost Bike was in honour of Daniel Bertini. Daniel was a 54 year old cyclist from Richmond Hill, killed just after 7 am on July 24, 2020, as a driver was fleeing a York Regional Police Officer.

“Daniel was a father, husband, teacher, brother, son, and a dearly beloved friend. He was an avid cyclist and a cross-country skier”.

Daniel Bertini GoFundMe Page

Unfortunately, since Daniel’s bike was installed, numerous other Ghost Bikes have gone up. These include bikes for Ahmed Kamal killed on August 6 in south Mississauga, Pasquale Alonzi killed on August 12 in Bolton,  and Nicholas Ramdeyall killed on September 1 in Mississauga. Then on September 7, John Ruffalo was paralyzed from the waist down while cycling north of Markham.

While thinking about all of this, I stumbled upon this Google Map, produced by ARC, (learn more about ARC below) which shows GTA area cycling fatalities since 1989.  

So far this year we are either in, or very close to, double digits for cyclists killed in the GTA.

I want to congratulate the City of Toronto for creating their Vision Zero Mapping Tool. Via the tool, I can confirm that in 2020 there have been zero deaths and nine serious injuries in the City of Toronto, as compared to one death and around forty serious injuries in 2019.

I also came across several Canada wide stats published on CAA’s Bike Safety Page:

  • 7,500 serious injuries a year
  • Most injuries and crashes occur during the afternoon rush hour
  • 1 out of 3 deaths occur at night or with artificial lighting
  • Most deaths or injuries occur at an intersection
  • 19% of fatalities were by a heavy truck
  • 64% occurred on city roads with speed limits up to 79km/hr
  • July is the worst month for cyclists

Accidents Can Happen to Anyone

I have personally been in two serious bike accidents that could have easily made me a statistic

When I was in elementary school, I rode through a stop sign and was hit by a motorcycle. The result, a severe concussion, a chipped bone in my ankle, and two weeks of my memory that I will never get back.

The interesting thing about this incident is that it happened way before concussions were top of mind. From what I know, the paramedics sent me home telling my Dad I was a little dramatic, but all in all okay. My Dad, having recently learned about concussions, checked me into the hospital where I stayed overnight. It wasn’t until late the following morning that I fully regained my senses and any perception of reality.

The second was only a couple of years ago, when for reasons still unknown I suffered a severe crash while travelling about 35km/hr on a residential street in Thornhill. This result included a cracked helmet, a mangled ear, and only a few minutes of memory loss.

This time, despite not knowing where I was, or what happened, I was assuring witnesses, and myself, that I was fine, only to be told by another witness that I wasn’t, to lay down, not move my neck, and that an ambulance was on its way. Thank you, random stranger, who was also so kind to drive my bike home.

Thankfully, after an overnight stay in the hospital, it was determined that there was no lasting damage and that all was well. All that said, I very strongly believe that if it wasn’t for this helmet, I might not be writing this today.

In case you are curious, I don’t know why crash number two happened, I even attempted my best crime scene analysis. My best guess was that my front quick-release was loose causing my wheel to come off. Although I think this is highly unlikely, nothing else makes sense. All I know is that my wheel was both bent and off, my fork was ruined, and I went headfirst into the ground at full speed.

A quick side note, during the second crash, I was riding without ID or any other items that would identify me. I now ride with the Road ID app broadcasting my location, Road ID also triggers non-movement alerts to my emergency contacts if I stop moving for more then five minutes. I also wear a Road ID Identification Bracelet 24/7 that lists my emergency contacts and critical details.

Why Helmets?

According to Stats Canada, only 13% of cyclists involved in fatal events were wearing a helmet.  

A similar study by the NTSB showed that wearing a helmet reduced the likelihood of all head injuries by 48%, and serious head injuries by 60%.

Despite the effectiveness of helmets, the NTSB reports that 46% of people never wear helmets, with both the NTSB and Stats Canada reporting a notably lower usage among young people.

If you’re under 18, it’s the law. HTA-104 of the Ontario Highway Traffic Act states that every cyclist under the age of eighteen must wear an approved bicycle helmet. Parents or guardians shall not knowingly permit cyclists under sixteen to ride without a helmet. 

If you don’t already, please make sure to wear a helmet on every ride. In my mind wearing a helmet has two benefits, one it protects you, and two it changes the culture for everyone around us. I hope that by wearing a helmet even for a short, slow, ride around the block, that I am helping to promote this behaviour for everyone else that sees me, young and old.

Be Seen With Bike Lights and Bright/Reflective Clothing

The importance of lights, clothing, and reflectivity when riding at night.

Whether day or night, using lights, and your choice of clothing will have a huge impact on how easy it is for drivers to see you.

In a paper from the Queensland University of Technology, they concluded that when riding at night:

  • cyclists overestimated their visibility to oncoming drivers at night-time
  • they underestimated the effects of clothing choice
  • they overestimated their visibility by a factor of seven when they wore fluorescent clothing

The colour of the clothing you choose can make a huge difference. In the study, The Effect of a Yellow Jacket on Cyclist Accidents, they found that wearing a yellow jacket reduced the number of accidents per month that resulted in personal injury by 55%, for accidents involving motor vehicles. 

According to Be Outdoors, the three recommended colours are fluorescent yellow-green, fluorescent orange-red, and fluorescent-red, or the best option, something that combines all three.

Day Time Running Lights

A flashing daytime light has a noticeable impact on rider safety. 

The incidence rate, including all recorded bicycle accidents with personal injury to the participating cyclist, is 19% lower for cyclists with permanent running lights mounted; indicating that the permanent bicycle running light significantly improves traffic safety for cyclists.

Safety Effects of Permanent Running Lights for Cyclists

When using daytime lights, it is essential to use a daytime mode that uses a randomized pattern of flashes to maximize visibility, rather than a steady light, or a constant flash pattern.

How to Maximize Your Visibility When Riding at Night

Driving at night is inherently riskier than driving during the day, with more accidents happening at night, despite drastically lower night time ridership.

Being seen is the most effective way to protect yourself at night, and the best way to do that is with effective lighting and bright strategically placed points of reflectivity.

Increasing Visibility with Night Lights

The setup of your lights will have a noticeable impact on how easily you can be seen.

According to Bike Radar, a flashing rear light can distort depth perception, and a steady light can be lost in a sea of other distracting lights. Their recommendation is to run both a flashing rear light on your helmet and a steady-state rear light attached the bike itself.

According to the Bike Light Database, if you choose to use a forward flashing and steady-state light at night, the forward flashing light should not emit more then 200 lumens to avoid disorienting drivers. It is also recommended that the two front lights should be positioned as far apart as possible, better enabling the drives eye to distinguish them.

Although there is little research I can find, it is also safe to say, that if riding at night, it would also be worth investing in some sidelights and/or spoke lights to further increase your visibility.

Bright Reflective Clothing 

When riding at night, bright clothing is not enough. To best improve your chances of being seen, you should combine your bright fluorescent clothing with multiple points of reflectivity as well. In the study, Cyclist visibility at night: Perceptions of visibility do not necessarily match reality, they discovered:

  • Drivers recognized more cyclists wearing the reflective vest plus reflectors (90%), than the reflective vest alone (50%), fluorescent vest (15%), or black clothing (2%)
  • The findings suggest that reflective bands are particularly valuable at night, while fluorescent clothing is not
  • Cyclists wearing fluorescent clothing may be at particular risk if they incorrectly believe themselves to be conspicuous to drivers at night

According to the same study, the most significant thing you can do is to wear reflective bands on the major joints. That reflective strips on the major joints are highly effective at improving drivers ability to recognize human movement, making it easier for them to identify us from much further away.

Another side note, according to HTA62(17) a bike must have a white front light and a red rear light or reflector if you ride between ½ hour before sunset and ½ hour after sunrise and white reflective tape on the front forks and red reflective tape on rear forks.

Where should you position yourself on the road?

According to the Ontario Ministry of Transportation, Cycling Skills Booklet, cyclists should ride about one meter from the curb or parked cars. However, they can use any part of the lane when avoiding obstacles, or crossing railway tracks at a ninety-degree angle, or discouraging passing where the lane is to narrow to be shared safely.  

“When your safety warrants it, it is legal for a cyclist to take the whole lane by riding in the centre of the lane. Never compromise your safety for the convenience of a motorist behind you.

Cycling Skills: Ontario’s Guide to Safe Cycling

In an excellent piece put together by the Morning Glory Cycling Club they further recommend that when riding in a group setting that riders should ride two abreast, making the best effort to move to single file when a car approaches. They also share information out of the UK which concludes that riding two abreast is safer because it forces motorists to overtake in a proper manner, while also enabling them to pass the group of riders more quickly.

Supporting Cycling Advocacy and Changing Driver Perceptions

In many ways, 2020 has been the year of the bike, with more people riding than ever before. I hope that this continues to drive awareness, and leads to a safer place for all users of the road.

Having more cyclists on the road is probably the most effective way to drive advocacy, but complimenting that are all the great organizations amplifying our voices across all levels of government.

Two excellent organizations I am aware of are Cycle Toronto, and ARC (Advocacy for Respect for Cyclists).

Cycle Toronto and their affiliate Friends and Families for Safe Streets have tirelessly advocated for building out expanded bike lanes across the city and promoting safer cycling by advocating to change the laws, enforcement, street design, public attitudes, and culture.

ARC is another excellent organization which advocates on behalf of cyclists and is also responsible for installing the ghost bikes that we see located across the GTA.

If you don’t already, I encourage you to follow these organizations on Facebook, and when possible, to help amplify their messages. We need to do everything we can to ensure our voices are heard!

Changing Perceptions by obeying the rules of the road

No matter who I speak to, the most common comment I hear is “its not drivers, it’s cyclists, if cyclists want to be safe, they should obey the rules of the road”, and it’s true. 

In an excellent piece on Road Rage by The Conversation, they talk about how cycling has created an Us vs Them mentality on the roads. That many drivers perceive themselves as the In Group, and cyclists being the Outgroup.

By being in that Outgroup we are prone to dehumanization, and error group attribution, where the acts one cyclist are applied across the whole group, for instance, if one cyclist runs a stop sign, then all cyclists run stop signs.  

By seeing road users as rivals, we take mental shortcuts about how we treat them, even though our assumptions might well be wrong.

Road Rage: Why Do Bike Riders Make Car Drivers See Red

By not obeying the rules of the road, we enable drivers to diminish our concerns, to shift blame to cyclists, to dehumanize us, and to feel that any safety concerns, are us, not them. 

Final Thoughts on Bike Safety 

If you take away anything from this article I would ask that you focus on the following things:

  • We are not as visible to drivers as we think we are
  • A helmet is the number one thing you can do to limit the chance of severe injury or death
  • Wear bright coloured clothing at all times of the day
  • Use lights both day and night, and know how to use them effectively
  • When riding at night also wear reflective bands on your arms, knees, and ankles
  • Change perceptions by obeying the rules of the road
  • Make your voice heard by supporting cycling advocacy

I would also like to ask that you join me in making the following commitments while driving:

  • Put the phone away, there is no excuse, ever to use it, even if you’re stopped at a light
  • Stop, fully and completely at any and all stop signs

Thanks for reading,


One comment

  1. This is an amzing post. Thoughtful. Layered.

    I wanted to add one thing that I thought as I read. My father had a really bad accident when he was in his misd forties. Riding a bike that had bad tires and missing the handgrips. I used the term “accident” loosely because I think it could have been prevented. Tires go. and crashes happen.. It was the not doing the grips that cause the most problem. it cookie cuttered his liver. What I guess I thought should maybe be included here.. or in another post is “maintenance” and upkeep.It is like fire prevention and having routes out of your house planned and detectors. CHeers.

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