Canada's transport regulator has scrapped plans to study whether aerodynamic side skirts attached to trucks to bolster fuel efficiency could also save lives in road crashes by preventing pedestrians and cyclists from falling beneath the big rigs.
Working with the National Research Council, Transport Canada had intended to begin this fall testing how the skirts perform in the snow and cold after already gauging their effectiveness in warm weather. The study was being funded through the federal government's Ecotechnology for Vehicles Program, a five-year, $38-million initiative to test technologies that have the potential to improve safety and the environment.
The cold-weather analysis of the skirts – which cover the potentially deadly side gap between a truck's front and rear wheels – was supposed to span two winters. But Transport Canada revealed this week it has decided to nix the study.
Few details on the sudden shift were available. In an e-mail, Transport Canada spokeswoman Kelly James said: "The intention of the proposed investigation was to study whether side skirts might provide ancillary safety benefits for pedestrians and cyclists.
"However, a decision was made not to proceed with the study because the department was unable to find any research indicating that a similar technology, specifically side guards, was effective at improving pedestrian safety."
The question of whether side skirts could serve as a safety tool was a key one and added a new twist to the debate about whether Canada should follow Europe and Japan in requiring truckers to install side guards. Guards are heavier than skirts and often a drain on fuel but are specifically designed to protect people.
Last November, the side-guard issue leaped to the forefront with the death of Toronto cyclist Jenna Morrison. Ms. Morrison, who was five months pregnant, was on her way to pick up her son from school when her bike collided with a truck turning right. Falling beneath the gap between the truck's front and rear wheels, Ms. Morrison was crushed to death. Her family and friends believe a side guard could have made the difference between life and death.
They're not alone. Between 2006 and 2010, 18 of the province's 129 cyclist fatalities involved heavy trucks, with half of the victims dragged, pinned or run over after striking a truck's side, an Ontario coroner review revealed in June. Side guards might have prevented some of these deaths, Chief Coroner Andrew McCallum concluded.
The coroner is calling on the federal government to make side guards mandatory, pointing to a National Research Council report, completed for Transport Canada in 2010, that noted cyclist deaths and serious injuries involving the side of trucks dropped substantially in the United Kingdom – deaths by 61 per cent and serious injuries by 13 per cent – after side guards were introduced.
Transport Canada, however, does not believe there is sufficient evidence to suggest the guards would significantly improve safety in Canada. Government documents obtained through access-to-information legislation show the regulator shelved plans for further tests of side guards after receiving a draft of the National Research Council report.
The Canadian Trucking Alliance is opposed to making side guards mandatory. The organization believes other safety measures, such as adding bike lanes and enhancing share-the-road education campaigns, would be more effective than regulating side guards. Another factor at play is the response from the United States, which does not require side guards. The two countries have pledged to harmonize their truck regulations.