| Aug 06, 2009

Back to HomeLegalese - August 6, 2009 Sharing Our Roads

By  Susan Irwin, Executive Director / Lawyer, Rural Legal Services

Sharing - it’s something we’re supposed to understand by the time we finish Kindergarten. Too bad some people seem to forget those lessons when they become drivers.

Like it or not, the highway is not just for cars, trucks, vans and SUVs. The list of permitted users of our roadways seems to expand each year, with electric bicycles and scooters being perhaps the most recent. The list is a large one, ranging from pedestrians and bicyclists (with or without spandex), to school buses, fire trucks, police cars and other emergency vehicles, as well as to less common modes of transport such as farm vehicles, and, my personal favourite, horses. In between, we can all think of many other people who are entitled, and I mean entitled, to use our roads: dog walkers, joggers, road graders, snowplows, ATVs and snowmobiles (in most of this area), ambulances, and those vehicles with the funny green flashing lights that signifies a volunteer firefighter trying desperately to get to a fire or other emergency.

Yes, all those “other” users do have legal responsibilities. Pedestrians, for instance, are supposed to walk facing oncoming traffic (or on a sidewalk, although there are a few in our area), and cyclists are supposed to ride in single file with traffic. Believe it or not, I know of one hitchhiker who was charged with walking on the wrong side of the road (an unusual interpretation of Ontario’s Highway Traffic Act “HTA”). But most of these “other” users are very much aware of the consequences of drivers failing to share the road: too many cyclists have been killed or injured by impatient or careless drivers (five cyclists riding in single file were struck by one driver in Ottawa recently).

The failure of drivers to use common sense or courtesy in sharing our roads has resulted in the inclusion of many special rules under the HTA. Most people are familiar with the requirement to stop when a school bus has its lights flashing. A fewer number seem to know that they are supposed to pull over and let ambulances and other emergency vehicles through, whether they are oncoming or overtaking. More than a handful of drivers get a surprise ticket each year when they fail to slow down, move into the other lane, or generally give a stopped emergency vehicle a wide, safe, slow pass. It seems police officers are a little sensitive about being buzzed, sometimes fatally, by people who just don’t want to slow down even for a few seconds.

And that brings us to our area. Move off the paved roads, and there aren’t very many that even the most optimistic tourist brochure writer could honestly describe as straight and level. One does hate to rant, but I have never figured out why so many people at this time of the year assume that they are the only one on the road and that no-one else, whether in a car or truck, or astride a bicycle or a horse, might be just over the hill or around the blind curve: back country roads are not synonymous with empty roads! It may be that some of our seasonal visitors are lulled into a false sense of security by the absence of heavy traffic. As for the rest of us? Well, perhaps familiarity does breed contempt – we just don’t expect to meet a gaggle of mountain bikers or a touring group of ATVs on “our” road.

But there are “other” users of all our roads, and a lot of them don’t have bumpers or airbags. Drivers have a responsibility to know the special rules under the HTA, like the one that requires you to take every reasonable precaution so as not to frighten horses (see section 167 of the HTA reproduced at the end of this column as an example of a special “sharing” rule). Beyond the potential injuries or death of the accident victims, breaching any one of the special rules can also result in legal consequences ranging from a fine to a suspended licence and even to criminal charges in the appropriate case.

This summer, with so many people making use of our lakes, trails, and roads, drivers might want to be extra aware that they are not alone out there.

Approaching ridden or driven horses, etc. 167. Every person having the control or charge of a motor vehicle or motor assisted bicycle on a highway, when approaching a horse or other animal that is drawing a vehicle or being driven, led or ridden, shall operate, manage and control the motor vehicle or motor assisted bicycle so as to exercise every reasonable precaution to prevent the frightening of the horse or other animal and to ensure the safety and protection of any person driving, leading or riding upon the horse or other animal or being in any vehicle drawn by the horse or other animal. Highway Traffic Act R.S.O. 1990, c. H.8, s. 167.

Legalese is a column of general information and opinion on legal topics by the lawyers of Rural Legal Services, Box 359, Sharbot Lake, ON, K0H2P0, 613-279-3252, or 1-888-777-8916. This column is not intended to provide legal advice. You should contact a lawyer to determine your legal rights and obligations.

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