Saturday, August 22, 2009

Few options for victim of bicycle hit-'n'-run

MONTREAL – When a cyclist skidded into Léna Chabot while she was walking on Mount Royal, leaving her with cracked ribs, bruises and cuts in the shape of a bicycle chain, she was incredulous. She also soon discovered that as a victim of such an incident, she is nearly powerless.

“He said, ‘I’m sorry,’ ” Chabot, 26, recalled of being crashed into from behind on Aug. 3 on a crowded Olmstead Rd., the wide, gravel path that curves up the mountain.

“I was hysterical. I was screaming at him, saying, ‘You were going way too fast. You could have killed me.’ He was bleeding a bit, but he didn’t get hit by the bike like I did.”

The cyclist, who was sporting an iPod, wouldn’t give Chabot his name. “He was gone in about two minutes.”

In a city where cyclists and pedestrians are crossing paths more and more, Chabot was shocked to discover she couldn’t even ask police to look for the cyclist as a hit-and-run offender as they would had a motorist hit her.

That’s because while those helming cars, motorcycles mopeds, boats and planes are covered in the federal Criminal Code section dealing with hit-and-runs, cyclists are not.

“It added insult to injury,” said Chabot, a law-school graduate who plans to specialize in civil or commercial law.

“I’m not that badly hurt. What if someone is really badly hurt by a cyclist?” she said. “It’s very hard to pursue a cyclist for civil damages since he’s not obliged to stay at the scene of an accident.”

In an Aug. 10 letter to federal Justice Minister Rob Nicholson, Chabot asked: “What message is sent out to negligent cyclists with no empathy?” Sections 249 and 252 of the Criminal Code should be amended to include bicycles, Chabot suggested to the minister.

On Friday, an aide to Nicholson said an answer to Chabot hadn’t been formulated yet.

But Montreal police Constable Nathalie Valois, of the traffic and road safety division, said changing the federal hit-and-run law would be “almost useless,” since bicycles aren’t required to have licences, and fleeing cyclists aren’t as easy to spot as cars.

Police don’t even keep track of how many pedestrians are hit by cyclists, she noted.

“We take it down as an incident,” Valois said. “It’s like if a person hit their head while rollerskating. These events are in a big category labelled ‘Other.’ They’re accidents.”

If the Chabot collision had occurred on a street, police might have gone after the cyclist using the Quebec Highway Safety Code, Valois said. Article 327 forbids any speeding likely to imperil someone’s life or safety. That offence could result in a $300 fine and four demerit points.

Of course, that’s only if cops could apprehend the cyclist.

Pedestrians hit by bicycles are also out of luck if they seek victim compensation.

“We only compensate victims of accidents with vehicles that require a licence and registration,” said Audrey Chaput, spokesperson for the Société de l’assurance automobile du Québec. That excludes bicycles, all-terrain vehicles, snowmobiles and electric bicycles, some of which look like mopeds and can weigh 100 kilograms, yet can only go as fast as 32 kilometres per hour.

Claude Fabien, 66, a recently-retired Université de Montréal law professor, said it’s time the SAAQ considered compensation for pedestrians and cyclists who are hit by bicycles.

“The paradox is that cyclists and pedestrians hit by motor vehicles can get compensated, but if they are hit by a bicycle, they get zero.”

On the de Maisonneuve Blvd. bicycle path Friday, pedestrians and cyclists alike said that sharing the roadway is less about any law than about common decency.

“I’m stressed just heading up to Sherbrooke St.,” said Alexia Maschowsky, 25, as she rode a Bixi rental bicycle. “Drivers just don’t care and they drive so close they push cyclists to the side. Sometimes I have no choice but to ride on the sidewalk.”

Jackie, a pedestrian in her 40s who would only give her first name, said stiffer laws aren’t the answer.

“It’s more about being aware of what you’re doing and looking both ways. Just be conscious.”

Source: The Montreal Gazzette- by Max Harrold

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