Know your rights: Toronto lawyer's No. 1 tip for cyclists amid 'increasingly violent' drivers

The Biking Lawyer, as he is known on Twitter, is Dave Shellnut — and he's fighting to keep cyclists in the city safe

He's known as The Biking Lawyer on Twitter, and some would call Toronto lawyer Dave Shellnut a guardian angel for cyclists across the city.

A personal injury lawyer based in downtown Toronto, Shellnutt — like many other commuters in the city — bikes to and from the office. A 2019 poll by Nanos found almost half of those surveyed "reported being utilitarian cyclists," which means they cycle to work, school, shops, or to attend social events.

Bike lanes have become a political lightning rod since then, causing a never-ending tug-of-war to increase the building of protected bike lanes. Even the use of bikeshares has "exploded over the years," and fans of the service are clamouring for it to be more available in more parts of the city.

"The pandemic brought about a cycling revolution, everybody bought a bike — you literally could not buy one during 2021," Shellnutt said. "They were all sold out. So we see more people on the road cycling."

Shellnutt is no stranger to "the mayhem that cyclists face in the city." In an interview with Yahoo Canada, he shared a 2019 experience that made his advocacy for cyclists become very personal.

"I was hit by a driver who failed to indicate a turn while I was cycling in a painted bike lane, and broke my elbow as a result," Shellnutt said.

That led him to shift the focus of his personal injury practice to learning the rights and entitlements accessible to cyclists if they were involved in a collision.

"I've been all in since."

Increasing threat for cyclists

It is becoming increasingly dangerous to be a cyclist in Toronto, according to Shellnut. Increased rates of violence from drivers towards cyclists, outdated infrastructure to keep cyclists safe and lack of driver training on how to interact with cyclists on the Toronto streets all contribute to this, the lawyer said.

According to data released by Ontario Provincial Police (OPP), in 2021, two Torontonians were killed on their bicycles by drivers. In 2022, that number quadrupled to eight.

When asked what the staggering increases in both bicycle injuries and fatalities could be contributed to, Shellnutt said: "People coming out of the pandemic are incredibly stressed. Mental health needs in our communities are not being met. What you see now is people lashing out in crazy ways."

In July, Toronto police investigated when a 36-year-old man was struck by a driver in north Toronto. The horrific scene, captured on dashcam by a nearby driver, showed the cyclist being knocked to the ground and the driver continuing on, dragging the man under his car.

Warning: Graphic video

The cyclist was transported to hospital and suffered minor injured. Police have not announced if charges would be laid.

"What we want the community to know is that if a situation becomes dangerous or aggressive with a driver, de-escalate, get off the road, get their fleet information and report it to authorities," Shellnut said. "We have seen simple situations, simple arguments between road users escalate to the point where people are being run over on purpose. And that simply is just not worth the risk."

What can cyclists do?

Shellnutt said the most critical thing for cyclists in Toronto is to know their rights.

"Over the years, the one thing that I have seen folks not understand the most is that if you're hit by a motor vehicle, even if you are at fault, you're entitled to benefits that will cover lost wages, rehabilitation and other related costs," Shellnutt said.

The personal injury lawyer says he offers free "know your rights" workshops across the city as a means of increasing awareness across the cycling community and keeping riders safe. Shellnutt urges police and city planners to keep cyclists top of mind when making considerations around urban planning.

Shellnutt added: "Municipalities across the province need to do a lot better in providing safe and protected infrastructure for their cycling communities. ... (And) the province needs to change the law to make more stringent penalties for those who injure people behind the wheel. Right now, it's very common to get a slap on the wrist for serious, serious injury."

Personal injury lawyer and cycling advocate Dave Shellnutt
Personal injury lawyer and cycling advocate Dave Shellnutt

Shellnutt urged drivers to remember cyclists are particularly vulnerable.

"Getting to the grocery store on time ... It's not worth running around or cutting off someone in a bike lane," he said.

"The results of doing that could be life-changing for those injured and their families. It certainly isn't worth it just to get to the grocery store on time."

Driver penalties for cyclist-related offences

In the case of an incident involving a motor vehicle and a cyclist, a police investigation will determine what penalty a driver will be handed if warranted.

The penalty for some of the most common causes of vehicle-cyclist collisions is a fine, demerit points, and in very rare cases jail time.

Dooring is commonly defined as the act of opening a vehicle door adjacent to a cycling lane. Ontario legal officials do not consider dooring a moving violation and as such, limited records are kept.

Drivers found guilty of dooring face a fine of $365 and three demerit points on their licence. Those who choose to contest the charge could face a fine of up to $1,000 and three demerit points, as outlined on the City of Toronto website.

According to the Highway Traffic Act, motorists who are found guilty of careless driving not causing bodily harm can be fined a maximum of $2,000 and be slapped with six demerit points.

In the case where bodily harm or death is a factor, the maximum fine raises to $50,000 and two years in jail may be considered, at a judge's discretion.

In the case where a cement truck driver killed cyclist John Offutt in 2020, despite pleading guilty and found to be "inattentive" behind the wheel, driver Keven Cote skipped jail completely and was given a $2,000 fine for careless driving.