Ontario Provincial Police Sergeant Greg Stobbart was riding along Tremaine Road in Milton, Ontario, a popular route for local triathletes and cyclists on June 9, 2006 when Michael Dougan, a 30-year-old driving a five-ton truck, decided he was going to pass. Dougan pulled out, only to see another vehicle coming towards him. He swerved back to the right, hitting the 44-year-old triathlete. Stobbart was killed instantly.
It wasn’t until Stobbart’s wife, Eleanor McMahon, sat through Dougan’s trial, though, that she learned about his abysmal, and criminal, driving record. The day he hit her husband Dougan was driving a commercial vehicle, despite the fact that he owed over $14,000 in driving-related fines, had already had five convictions for driving under suspension, four convictions for driving without insurance and, two months after he killed Stobbart, was involved in another incident.
“When Greg was killed on his bike, it was the worst day of our lives,” she remembers. “I had some knowledge of the process, but when we went through the trial and the man who killed him was convicted – it was then that we got a sense of his record.”
The insanity of the justice system becomes apparent when reading about the results of the trial as it appeared in the Hamilton Spectator on September 18, 2007:
In handing down the sentence yesterday, justice of the peace Barry Quinn ordered Dougan to do 100 hours of community service and attend driver’s education as part of his probation. He will probably also lose his job with Battlefield Construction — where he was working at the time of the collision — as a result of the suspension.
Crown prosecutor Maureen McGuigan had pushed for a one-month jail sentence as well as a two-year licence suspension for Dougan, who was earlier convicted of careless driving under the Highway Traffic Act.
She stressed cyclists are a “uniquely vulnerable class of road users” and must be protected against motorists like Dougan with a “short, sharp jail sentence.”
Turning to Stobbart’s widow Eleanor McMahon, Quinn suggested a jail sentence or another stiff fine would probably have little effect in curbing Dougan’s driving habits.
He concluded from Dougan’s record he was a “risk taker,” willing to push his luck when he didn’t have a licence or insurance.
He also noted that 62 days after killing Stobbart, Dougan was charged again in Wellington County under the Highway Traffic Act for following too close.
“He let it go (by not going to court to face the charge). He took a chance this will be swept under the counter. He let it slide,” Quinn said.
Outside the courtroom, McMahon said she had the impression Quinn had “thrown up his hands” because he didn’t know what sanctions he could impose to deter Dougan’s conduct.
She said she came to court with no expectations about what the sentence would be.
“I’m not a vindictive person,” she said. “I didn’t come here thinking causing Mr. Dougan pain will bring my husband back. But I do expect an amount of accountability and I’m sure the public expects accountability.”
In her victim impact statement, she described her husband as her “best friend” and “soulmate” who made her feel she could do anything.
As a result of his encouragement, she did several triathlons and ran two half-marathons.
“He was with me every step of the way,” she wrote.
Driving home from the trial, a devastated McMahon decided that something had to be done. As a communications and marketing professional, McMahon was all-too-familiar with the inner workings of government policy and laws. Her impressive resume includes time spent as Jean Chrétien’s press secretary. That background likely provides her the strength, patience and tenacity that most wouldn’t possess.
“We looked at the profile of a risk taker like that and decided we had to take on the process of changing the legislation,” McMahon says. “Our primary area of focus was to do something out of a tragedy that was meaningful.”
She founded the Share the Road Cycling Coalition to develop a provincial, grassroots cycling advocacy organization in Ontario. In just two years, November 2008 to be precise, Greg’s Law was tabled in the Ontario legislature as part of a larger Road Safety Bill, Bill 126. That bill passed on April 22nd, 2009. Greg’s law targets drivers like Dougan. It arms police forces in Ontario with the ability to take dangerous drivers off the road, and keep them off the road.
That was the first step, possibly the easiest. McMahon is hardly done, though. Now she’s taking on the daunting task of making cycling safer for us all.
It probably isn’t a stretch to say that almost every triathlete and cyclist has experienced at least one close call with a car or truck while out training. In the same calm, efficient manner that she managed to help change legislation, McMahon’s next goal is to make first Ontario, then the rest of Canada safer for all cyclists by “enhancing access for bicyclists on roads and trails and educating citizens on the value and importance of safe bicycling for healthy lifestyles and communities.”
Last September Share the Road hosted its first Ontario Bike Summit.
“I knew that if we could establish some really good working relationships, that we were good partners to government, I felt strongly that this would be a huge help to our future success,” she says. “The Ontario Bike Summit was our chance to talk to the communities to find out what they needed to make their community more bike friendly. They told us, to a person, that we need a forum for best practice. We also see that we need to build some expertise and capacity within the cycling community. We’re trying to find out how we can help. What do the communities need us to do, how can we build an agenda?”
One of the main results of the Ontario Bike Summit is a Green paper called “When Ontario bikes, Ontario benefits: A Green Paper for an Ontario Bicycling Policy.” The green paper outlines the changes that need to be made in order for Ontario to become a bike-friendly place. The broad-reaching document covers everything from cyclist and driver education to bike lanes. For triathletes and cyclists, it’s also a handy tool that they can use to take to their local politicians.
“What is your party willing to do about this,” McMahon suggests we ask our local politicians. “Politicians see that the public is ahead of them on this. It’s about building a movement among people. There are a growing number of politicians who are clamouring for ways to make their communities more bicycle friendly. We need to convince our politicians of the rightness of our arguments.”
It’s hard to imagine how hard it is to be as patient as McMahon has been. Most of us simply complain about the drivers who come to close. Most of us wouldn’t even be on a bicycle again had we lost our “soul mate” the way McMahon did. Instead she’s in training for The Ride to Conquer Cancer later this summer and slowly, but surely, making it safer for all of us to ride our bikes.
For more information about Share the Road, go to www.sharetheroad.com
Each year, Eleanor McMahon, Greg Stobbart’s wife, has organized “Greg’s Ride” to remember Greg, to remind us all to “share the road”, and to raise funds for Share The Road. The ride takes place on the last weekend in September in Milton, Ontario.
By participating in Greg’s Ride, you will join fellow cyclists from all over Ontario and beyond to deliver a powerful message: we must all work together – motorists, cyclists and pedestrians – to be aware of one another and travel safely on our roads together. You are also supporting Share the Road as it pursues its mission to make Ontario “bicycle friendly for all of us, and increasing awareness of the value and the importance of safe bicycling for healthy lifestyles, a more vibrant environment and sustainable communities.
Staff Sergeant Chris Whaley of the Ontario Provincial Police was invited to speak at last year’s Ontario Bike Summit. An avid cyclist himself (he rides his bike to work in Orillia almost every day, even in winter), Whaley provides some excellent insights on how to ride safely.
- In the Ontario Highway Traffic Act, bicycles are either defined as vehicles or as an operator of a vehicle. That means a cyclist has the exact same rights as a vehicle.
- When on the road, it’s important to stay as far to the right as is practicable. Riding two abreast isn’t against the law, but if you are a slower moving vehicle, it’s your responsibility to get as far over to the right as you can. You don’t have to forfeit your right to the road, but is is incumbent on the cyclists to single up.
- To be honest, many officers are not well-educated on cycling laws. Cyclists have an obligation to follow the rules of the road. Use the proper lanes, stop at signs and signals. When they don’t they detract themselves from being credible road users. Here in Ontario, the law requires that all vehicles have a signal device. If an officer pulls you over for riding two-up, he can’t charge you for that because it’s not an offence, but he could charge you for not having a bell or horn on your bike. At night bicycles need to have a light on the front and rear. Another rule is that all vehicles must have a braking system and, if there’s only one brake, it must be on the rear.
- The most important reasons for cyclists to follow the rules of the road is for their own safety and to avoid an adversarial situation between drivers and cyclists. It’s hard to expect much respect from drivers on the road if we’re breaking the laws at stop lights and stop signs.
- At the end of the day it’s all about safety. Don’t risk your safety to make a point.